At a time when conversations about gender disparity in directing have dominated film discourse, Denis remains defiant, a refusenik uninterested in participating in the conversation. 'I couldn't care less about the [Harvey] Weinstein affair - it hasn't changed anything for women,' she has said, dismissing the #MeToo discussion as 'bourgeois'. (2) You can forgive her for regarding the conversation as reductive and uninteresting ('Is it more difficult for women to make films? Sure. But we know this' (3) ), given she's spent three decades being asked these questions.
Denis was born in Paris in 1946. When she was two months old, her parents packed up and moved to Cameroon, where her father would later be employed by the French government. Her childhood was spent moving around Africa: Somalia. Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Senegal. She recalls that her father 'was very interested in African culture', 'spoke many African languages' and 'was always in favor of African independence'. (4) After a bout of polio as a teenager, Denis returned to France, feeling alien back in her own homeland. She left home at seventeen, moved to London, married an older man at nineteen. Separating soon after, she returned to Paris, went to film school and began her filmmaking life as an apprentice. (5)
She worked for years as assistant director in France, often for Robert Enrico, but soon her wanderlust informed her collaborations: she worked with Costa-Gavras in Israel (1983's Manna if.), Wim Wenders in the United States (1984's Pan's, Texas) and West Germany (1987's Wings of Desire), and Jim Jarmusch in America's Deep South (1986's Down by Law). Denis' first directorial effort, Chocolat (1988), returned her to Cameroon, and, since then, her films have travelled to different places, both literal and figurative. No Fear, No Die (1990) is set around underground cockfighting rings in the markets of Paris' downtrodden outer suburbs; / Can't Sleep (1994), amid apartment towers filled with immigrants and dangers; Nenette and Boni (1996), among the hustlers and dock workers of Marseilles; and Friday Night (2002), on nocturnal Parisian streets thrown into chaos by a transport strike. Elsewhere, U.S. Go Home (1994) travels back to the 1960s, in which a young girl grows up near an American military base in France; Beau Travail (1999) depicts a troop of legionnaires training and killing time in Djibouti; and The Intruder (2004) journeys from France to the Swiss Alps, Japan, South Korea and Tahiti, its obtuse reverie on the wanderings of a dying man depicting the inability to escape from one's (and one's nation's) past. More recently, White Material (2009) returns the director to Africa, where a white family is faced with a violent political uprising; and High Life (2018), Denis' latest film, journeys out into space, in her English-language feature debut starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche and Outkast's Andre Benjamin.
Whatever 'women's cinema' is supposed to be, few would identify Denis as making it. 'I'm interested in the slice of humanity that surrounds a monster,' she says in the documentary Claire Denis: The Vagabond (Sebastien Lifshitz, 1996). / Can't Sleep is about a serial killer who targets elderly women, Bastards (2013) is an unflattering portrait of a man intoxicated with the desire for vengeance, and the cannibal-themed bloodbath Trouble Every Day (2001) is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Her films are poetic, but percolate with rage, and often explode into violence. 'Anger is part of my relation to the world,' she says. 'I'm filled with anger, I'm filled with regret, I'm filled with great memories, also poetic memories.' (6) She doesn't want to make movies to forward social issues, to educate or comfort viewers: 'I'm not so sure films should be made to soothe people's pain,' she says. 'I don't want to be a social worker. I want to share something that is a vision, or a feeling.' (7) And Moonlight (2016) director Barry Jenkins, an ardent Denis admirer, identifies this defiance as her defining quality: 'I get the sense that she truly just doesn't give a shit.' (8)
Denis says that she's out to make films that feel, simply, 'human' - in all the contradictions thereof - and is sanguine about her chosen artform. 'Cinema is a battle with people you don't want to meet, with constraints you don't want to have,' she once observed, brilliantly. (9) This 'battle' analogy recurs in her interviews: When I make a film I have to be like a military commander, in charge of every strategy and tactic, but I never really know where we are going." (10) Her platoon is a recurring family of collaborators, from co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, cinematographer Agnes Godard, production designer Arnaud de Moleron and musician Stuart A Staples (along with his band, Tindersticks), through to the various actors - like Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor, Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle - with whom she has worked on several occasions.
Denis certainly leads them into the unknown. Beginning with Nenette and Boni - whose editor, Yann Dedet, pushed her to make the film 'more abstract' (11) - her films haven't been told with familiar linearity. 'I hate when things are explained to me twice, three times, four times,' Denis spits. 'Films were at one time not like that. Films were elusive, elliptic, the material of cinema is to put two elements together'. (12) The tone and form of her movies leave them open for interpretation, with that very quality undoubtedly contributing to their critical praise. It's no surprise that Denis, ever the refusenik, doesn't really want to talk about that, either. 'I am not at all interested in theories about cinema. I am only interested in images and people and sound,' she says. (13) That applies also to analysis of her own work: 'If there are theories about me, I'd rather not know,' she's declared. 'String theory, worm holes, the expanding universe, the Big Bang versus the Big Bounce those are the kind of theories that make you feel like living and understanding the mystery of the world. Film theory is just a pain in the ass.' (14)
For her debut feature, Denis initially 'wanted to do a kind of chronicle about the final years before independenc[e] in Cameroon', (15) a place where she'd spent much of her youth. Instead, she ended up drawing more on her childhood, Chocolat presenting the memories of a Frenchwoman literally named France (Mireille Perrier as adult / Cecile Ducasse as child). In her youth, Denis both felt at home in Africa and found it all too foreign ('It was very embarrassing,' she recounts, 'not because I was white, but because I was not black' (16)), and was keenly aware of the separation between French colonials and African locals.
'I also knew French children commonly became friends with the black house-servants,' Denis said, '[and] heard that some of the wives of French colonial administrators had had sexual relations with their African male servants.' (17) That is, indeed, the narrative of Chocolat: France's favourite servant, Protee (De Bankole), and her mother, Aimee (Giulia Boschi), maintain a relationship that's formal, but with an obvious undercurrent of attraction. When a wandering foreigner, Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), in a battle of macho posturing, speaks aloud this obvious attraction, it impels a chain reaction of events. First, Aimee makes an advance, and Protee rejects her. The film, in turn, 'rejects images of the colonized black African as an always passive subject who bends to the white European's whims', Denis says. 'I wanted to show that the choice lay in the black man's calloused hands instead of in the woman's finely manicured sexual fantasies.' (18)
This rejection leads Aimee to demand Protee be fired: the moment - as a childhood memory of France's - effectively one of lost innocence. It's here when the difference between the young girl and her beloved servant is made all too apparent. In the wake of such, France's father (Francois Cluzet) hopes to edify his daughter, and in turn, deep into the final reel, speaks a poignant metaphor for divisions of race and class. 'When you look at the hills, beyond the houses and beyond the trees, where the earth touches the sky, that's the horizon,' he says. 'You see the line. You see it, but it doesn't exist.'
No Fear, No Die
'I'm black, and my buddy's the same colour. He's West Indian, I'm from Benin,' says Dah (De Bankole), matter-of-factly, in No Fear, No Die's opening narration. He and Jocelyn (Descas) train roosters for an underground cockfighting ring, on behalf of businessman Pierre Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy) in the basement of his restaurant. Pierre - who bankrolls the whole operation, and gets about in a gleaming Mercedes - grew up in Martinique; a child of colonialism, he still embodies its evils. He looks out on the freeways and factories of Paris' industrial fringes as if they're fields of sugar cane, rhapsodises about the beauty of Jocelyn's mother (whom, he later reveals, he once fucked) and speaks of Frangois (Francois Oloa Biloa), his restaurant's chef, as if he owns him. 'You West Indians are assholes,' he spits at Jocelyn, at one point. 'Only good to sweep up shit. You deserve to get screwed over by whites.'
The symbolism hangs heavy throughout No Fear, No Die, which takes its title from the name of Pierre's prized rooster. Cockfighting flourished in the colonial Caribbean, after being exported by the Spanish, in part because slaves were forbidden from fighting, lest injuries keep them from working the fields ('So,' Denis says, 'the cock fight was also a symbol of their own violence' (19) ). Here, the parallels between the black men and the birds they train - the montages of cocks on ropes, running in circles and sparring with a wicker hand-broom are worthy of Rocky (John G Avildsen, 1976) - are evident. 'Men, cocks - same thing,' Dah offers, in voiceover. Later, when curious barmaid Toni (Solveig Dommartin) sneaks into the basement to check out the men and the cocks, Jocelyn demands that she leave; women 'dictate male behaviour', and the cocks gets jumpy or flabby' if hens are around.
When Jocelyn grows too obsessed with the training - and hits the bottle hard - the line between him and his charge blurs in his own mind. When he leaps in to save a cock mid fight, he puts his pride before what he's paid to do. In a melee, he ends up getting stabbed ('Cockfighting,' Denis offers, 'is a life-and-death game, so it very quickly took on a symbolic character' (20) ), and it feels like the culmination of his growing self-destructiveness. 'Why not,' the director asks, 'portray a very pessimistic black man whose dignity is destroyed and who prefers to die rather than continue living?' (21)
In Djibouti, near the desolate salt flats of Lake Assal, a troop of French legionnaires awaits their next mission. Baking under the unrelenting sun, they keep up their training, undertaking a regimen that is at once gruelling and poetic, their carefully rehearsed group movements looking, for all the world, like dancing. They wrestle around an open fire (again, this resembles a dance), grapple, and participate in training exercises that involve slapping into one another in quasi-embraces. But, without a mission, they have no sense of direction, and, in the absence of a war to fight, they turn on one another. The leader of the troop - our narrator, Galoup (Denis Lavant) - clashes with cocky young soldier Sentain (Colin), growing jealous that the latter is winning the affections of the other soldiers, especially the Commander (Subor), who's obviously a father-figure to Galoup.
This drama is told in fragments, so much unsaid and happening in the ellipses between scenes. What story there is largely comes spoken by Galoup as he narrates from a journal - memories of a time when he was at the peak of his masculine prowess. Denis was inspired, in this, by Herman Melville's final novel, Billy Budd, and, in turn, by Benjamin Britten's 1951 opera of the same name. A movement therefrom, 'Down All Hands! And See That They Go', plays as Galoup and Sentain square off, circling each other in front of the gathered soldiers as if gladiators in the Colosseum. In front of the desolate Djiboutian landscape, the whole thing feels elemental: the pageantry and ceremony of the Foreign Legion at odds with, and then torn asunder by, the harsh conditions.
Beau Travail is impossibly homoerotic, a portrait of ritualised group bonding and militarised masculinity featuring a multitude of buff dudes rarely wearing shirts. It's most famous for its final scene, in which Galoup, no longer in the Foreign Legion, is seen in a nightclub. When Corona's Eurodance pop hit The Rhythm of the Night' comes on, he breaks out into a frenetic, energetic, emotional dance - an explosion of exuberance that forms a bizarre contrast to the prior ninety minutes. Denis called it, in the film's screenplay, 'the dance between life and death', (22) suggesting that she sees this finale not as being at odds with the otherwise-primal movie, but of the very same spirit.
Trouble Every Day
When Denis' sixth feature premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2001, there were breathless, possibly apocryphal reports of audience faintings and angry walkouts. 'It's weird to measure a film by how much scandal it makes or how much violence it contains,' Denis would later remark. (23) Trouble Every Day - which was identified as part of a wave of provocative films dubbed the New French Extremity (24) - was her attempt to make a horror movie, but she ignored the genre's conventions, and made something that was simultaneously weird, clunky, obnoxious and swooningly romantic. 'For me Trouble Every Day is a love story, not a gore film,' she says. (25)
It's not clear whom, though, this 'love story' involves. The film finds a young American couple, Shane (Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey), on honeymoon in Paris. When he kisses her arm, it inspires visions of her body bathed in blood - Shane preferring to masturbate to sadistic, bloody fantasies than to consummate their matrimonial union. It's a sickness he shares with the animalistic Core (Dalle), whom we first see, in a horror-movie cold open, dispatching a luckless trucker and feasting on his flesh. Perhaps Shane's love is keeping June pure, so that he will not destroy her with his depraved desires? Or perhaps the 'love story' relates to him and Core, who are drawn to each other, to the same cannibalistic bloodlust, to the destruction of others and self?
The definitive image of Trouble Every Day finds Core, in a blood-soaked slip, standing in front of a wall so splattered with the blood of her victims that it looks like an abstract-expressionist painting. We tried to find this kind of dark black blood for our film. There's a kiss, then a bite, though it's not cannibalism but the world of ethnography,' Denis recounted after its release. We sought an adventure at the frontier of the poetry of horror.' (26) While there's beauty in that poetry, Trouble Every Day is usually regarded as a flop. (27) That's due to an expository, genuinely silly high-tech-science subplot - which ropes in Denis standby Descas to play former neuroscientist Leo - that unconvincingly, disastrously takes the narrative's cannibalism away from the realm of the mythical and towards the realm of evil research. It's also due, surely, to the waning cachet of Gallo, whose masturbatory presence herein is now a reminder of his own Cannes disaster, The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003).
35 Shots of Rum
After Trouble Every Day's blood splatters and The Intruder's narrative evasiveness, Denis surprised audiences by delivering her calmest, quietest, most considered film: 35 Shots of Rum (2008). She was inspired to make a simple, sweet father-and-daughter drama by Yasujiro Ozu's classic Late Spring (1949), by the relationship between her own mother and grandfather, and by the intersection thereof. Denis' maternal grandmother had died when her mother was an infant, and her grandfather had committed to raising his child on his own, spurning romantic partners to focus on their relationship. 'In a way, they lived the life of a couple for 20 years,' Denis offers, (28 ) elsewhere describing them as having been 'madly in love'. (29) Around the turn of the century, the filmmaker took her mother to a retrospective screening of Late Spring, and, seeing how the dramatic parallels between art and life affected her, pledged to make something like it. 'Maybe,' she said to her, 'I will try to make a film like that for you.' (30)
In turn, 35 Shots of Rum quietly observes the intimacy between Josephine (future filmmaker Mati Diop, then only twenty-five) and her father, Lionel (Descas). He works as a train driver, a job in which the rhythmic sound and vision of the rolling railway tracks ('It's so hypnotic,' Denis says, 'it encourages anyone to introspect' (31) ) suit his contemplative mood. Josephine is both a dutiful student and a dutiful daughter, tending to her father and domestic responsibilities in their apartment. Kindly Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who lives in the same building, is a spurned motherfigure, a former lover of Lionel's kept at a distance by both father and daughter. And another neighbour, Noe (Colin), living in an apartment left behind by his recently deceased parents, exists as both brother-figure and possible love interest for Josephine.
The relationships are never detailed or categorised, and much of the dynamics that exist between them is illustrated on the dance floor, when this ad hoc 'family' ends up at a bar after hours. With very little dialogue, and endless close-ups on contemplative faces, the film is an observational portrait of the ties that bind, the things people cannot say, and the collisions between the stasis of routine and the inevitability of change - between old people dwelling in the past and young people pushing towards the future. 'I like being with you; I wish it could be this way forever,' Josephine laments, when father and daughter are camping out, on the way home from a road trip to Germany to see the grave of her long-departed mother. The greatest change looms right in front of them: after decades devoted to each other, Josephine is set to go her own way. Near the film's end, we see her in a white dress, wearing an old necklace of her mother's. We intuit she's getting married, probably to Noe; but Denis, as ever, leaves things openended, with a future lingering beyond the moment at which she chooses to end the film.
Denis returned to Africa in 2009 with the astonishing, bracing White Material. It stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a woman running a family coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation. But a local uprising is afoot: an iconic soldier called 'The Boxer' (De Bankole) is fomenting a rebellion, and troops of child soldiers materialise out of the woods like avenging spirits (Tor me they are just children lost in a forest, like in a fairytale,' Denis offers (32) ). With a civil war imminent, local authorities, friends and the French embassy advise that Maria and her (motley) extended family leave the country. Only, she doesn't want to - feeling a sense of belonging to the land she works or, perhaps, a sense of stubbornness as a white woman in a black land. 'She is someone who is so afraid, not of others, but of falling short of what she's expecting from herself. She is so afraid that she becomes practically insensible to danger,' Denis says. 'She is a lot like me in the way that she is brave because she refuses to face reality.' (33)
White Material is, obviously, a film about colonialism. The members of Maria's family - a father (Subor) who feels connected to the land; an ex-husband (Christophe Lambert) who cynically wheels and deals with local businessmen and authorities; a depressed son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who just wants to watch the world burn, and becomes in thrall to the chaotic uprising - all feel like refractions of the complicated place occupied by the modern-day descendants of colonists, who may have lived whole lives in Africa but can never really call it home. The Vial family have long lived in a position of power and privilege, only for an armed rebellion to call it into conflict; White Material essentially asks if their privilege, their whiteness, protects them from strife in a civil war, or makes them more of a target. 'I wanted to show,' Denis explains, 'how being white in Africa gives you a special status, almost a kind of magical aura. It protects you from misery and starvation. But although it can protect you, it is dangerous too.' (34) Or, as a local made-man puts it, simply, to Maria; 'Extreme blondeness brings bad luck. It cries out to be pillaged.'
Denis had long dreamed of bringing an interstellar epic to screens - first with Gallo as its leading man, then Philip Seymour Hoffman - telling the tale of a crew of criminals sent on a certain-death deep-space mission towards a black hole, in search of an alternative energy source. It finally arrived in 2018, with Pattinson headlining. But her first ever big-budget, English language feature was unmistakably confrontational, classic Denis - something made all too apparent with the second-act introduction of a room inside the spaceship named the 'Fuck Box'. By the picture's climax, High Life is revealed to be wholly Freudian, using the final frontier of space as a setting for a tale symbolically exploring that ultimate taboo, incest.
We're journeying beyond the stars in a squat, square-shaped vessel that, befitting a home for convicts, is less a work of Kubrickian wonder than a prison (the ship was designed by Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson). Its crew, played by Pattinson, Benjamin, Mia Goth and Lars Eidinger, among others, aren't just on a research mission, but being 'used as guinea pigs for more-or-less scientific experiments on reproduction, pregnancy, birth'. (35) There's no familiar, militarised hierarchy; the only one who's 'above' the crew is the mad-scientist reproductive doctor, Dibs (Binoche), dubbed by monastic Monte (Pattinson) - who refuses to hand over his samples for science - a 'shaman of sperm'.
High Life opens in medias res, with Monte and a baby (Scarlett Lindsey) the sole occupants of their vessel. In their spaceship garden (of Eden), he's teaching her about taboos: about not eating or drinking your own bodily waste, for example. This sequence introduces the thematic preoccupation of the entire movie, which - as it moves both backwards and forwards in time - is all about taboos: criminality, morality, playing god, scientific intrusion into life cycles, sexual assault, rape, animal cruelty. When the baby has grown up into menstrual teenager Willow (Jessie Ross), she's no longer allowed to share her father's bed, another taboo. At climax, as their phallic spaceship is set to penetrate a black hole, Denis frames the father and daughter side by side - perhaps the last two humans left alive as they are about to take a plunge into the unknown. 'I wanted both of them at the end standing as if before the marriage altar,' Denis says. 'We are approaching the forbidden planet, the absolute taboo [...] Incest is the quest for the ultimate in sex, because it is forbidden.' Despite this transgressive subtext, Denis sees something universal in High Life: 'It is a film about despair and human tenderness. About love, despite everything.' (36)
Experimental riffs on genre
With Bastards, Denis wanted to make a film about vengeance, taking influence from Akira Kurosawa's noir movies Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963). (37) 'I was full of anger [...] maybe [at] the society I'm living in or what films keep selling,' she explained. (38) The director echoed those recollections in another interview: 'I was like a person who wanted to scream at that time. I wanted to say something that was like a scream.' (39) Bastards finds Marco (Vincent Lindon), a wandering sailor, returning to France following the suicide of his brother-in-law and the sexual assault of his under-age niece, Justine (Lola Creton). Attempting to bring about vigilante justice, he sinks into the familiar mire of the noir plot arc, eventually meeting his own demise. Making an action-thriller about violent retribution was new for Denis, yet in keeping with something she's often done in her career: putting a personal, experimental spin on often-macho genres.
Trouble Every Day was, famously, her attempt at making a horror movie, though it turned into something no-one would mistake for one. Similarly, while I Can't Sleep arrived amid the serial-killer movie boom of the 1990s, her cinematic riff on a salacious real-life subject - the black, queer killer Thierry Paulin, who targeted old women (40) - is, instead, more a survey of a community of immigrants in high-rise housing than a portrait of a serial killer. And High Life, Denis' long-brewing passion project, journeys into space. Denis is adamant to point out that it's not a science fiction film - 'The existence of black holes, the energy in a black hole ... I've done the reading, and I'm not inventing aliens or creating a new space colony or anything" (41) - but, if we're to position it alongside other scientifically verified space sagas like Lnterstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) or The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), its far more hopeless, existential concerns, in contrast with such crowd-pleasers, become even more apparent.
High Life followed on from Let the Sunshine Ln (2017), in which Denis tackled that most 'female' of genres: the romantic comedy. Of course, that earlier film is no formulaic genre-flick, but rather an oddity that, inspired by critic and philosopher Roland Barthes, is told in thirty-four disconnected fragments, with two of France's most famous actors, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Gerard Depardieu, only showing up five minutes before the end. Charting the relationship travails of a divorced fifty something painter (Binoche), it's less a rom-com, more a wry chronicle of the awkwardness and agony of modern romance, and of the futility of trying to find love in the face of existential loneliness. 'It's a comedy,' Denis remarks, 'but there's also tragedy.' (42)
French colonialism, African diaspora
Denis' maternal grandfather was Brazilian. Her father was born and raised in Bangkok, and would lead their family across various African countries in the filmmaker's childhood. T always had this feeling that we were in the "wide world",' Denis has said. (43) Her films, in turn, have reflected this world, exploring landscapes and ideas far beyond those of the petite bourgeoisie that oft fill French cinema. Chocolat, Beau Travail and White Material are all set in Africa, and about foreigners in the African landscape. Her films shot in France, on the other hand, are often set among immigrants, lower-class neighbourhoods and micro-communities, as in No Fear, No Die, I Can't Sleep (in which Descas plays a handyman who must fight with white customers to get paid, and who dreams of returning to Martinique) and 35 Shots of Rum. Across films of radically different genres and stories, Denis' most recurring theme might be a study of the psyche of the expat, chronicling the human consequences of a globalised identity. 'If my films have a common link, maybe it's being a foreigner,' she recognises. 'It's common for people who are born abroad - they don't know so well where they belong.' (44)
Chocolat, her first feature, drew heavily on her childhood experiences in Cameroon, less out of nostalgia than from a 'desire to express a certain guilt I felt as a child raised in a colonial world'. (45) Denis is adamant there's 'no connection at all' (46) between Chocolat and White Material, a film shot in Cameroon two decades later; but the latter, too, is a chronicle of what it means to be white in a black country, and the repercussions of colonialism. The theories of West Indian postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon influenced both White Material and No Fear, No Die; his 1952 text Black Skin, White Masks informs the tragedy at the end of the latter film, in which Jocelyn dies and his best friend, Dah, tends to his slain body, whispering sweet visions of his Caribbean motherland, full of coconuts 'heavy with milk' and maternal love. According to Denis, his death symbolises Fanon's notion of 'a special type of neurosis - colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future'. (47)
Systemic inequality is discussed aloud in 35 Shots of Rum, when Josephine is in a class speaking of how international debt is used to subjugate the global South and entrench economic disparity. 'Debts are relative,' a classmate counters. 'Why not demand restitution for the slave trade? Debt, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] - it's always us, it's always the same. Blacks get flushed down the drain.' Another classmate quotes Fanon directly: When we revolt,' he intones, 'it's because we can no longer breathe.' Aside from this moment of explicit subtext, the cultural identities in 35 Shots of Rum - it's set among a community of Caribbean expats, and its younger protagonist is a biracial child of a black man and a white woman - are never discussed, Denis opting to make a domestic drama whose universality and humanity transcend race. 'In my films, black people are never objects,' Denis stated, early in her career. 'They are subjects who actively choose what they want.' (48)
Music, movement, dancing
In the little-seen documentary Toward Mathilde (2005), Denis filmed contemporary-dance choreographer Mathilde Monnier and her troupe as they rehearse for a new show. It clarified something Denis fans already knew: she loves filming dance. Many of her most famous, and beloved, scenes are of people dancing, such as Alain (Colin) dancing alone in his bedroom to Chuck Berry in U.S. Go Home, or Galoup's 'dance between life and death' at the end of Beau Travail - a film in which the military training of the legionnaires is its own choreography. Denis can use the dance floor to communicate complex dynamics: in / Can't Sleep, brothers Camille (Richard Courcet) and Theo (Descas) alternate in dancing with their mother at a family birthday party, still competing for her attention and affection as grown men; while in 35 Shots of Rum, a shifting dance between the four members of the ad hoc family unit communicates both their history and the changes to come.
That latter dance sequence is set to the Commodores' 1985 slow jam 'Nightshirt', one of the more notable uses of a pop song - much like Bob Marley's 'Buffalo Soldier' in No Fear, No Die or Corona's 'The Rhythm of the Night' in Beau Travail - in Denis' films. While she employed varied music early in her career, that changed entirely in the mid 1990s when the director first heard the English band Tindersticks. 'Immediately I knew they were speaking to me,' she claims. (49) When writing a film, Denis hears music in her head ('[If] I can't hear the music,' she explains, 'it means I'm not ready, that I'm not yet there' (50)), and - with the exception of Beau Travail and Friday Night, the latter of which is scored by band member Dickon Hinchliffe - since Nenette and Boni, it's been the job of Tindersticks and/or Staples to create that music on every Denis fiction feature.
The compositions for Trouble Every Day were released as a Tindersticks album, which boasts a beautiful, memorable title song, played at the film's opening. The score's sumptuous strings contrast with the narrative's violence and horror, especially in a slyly ironic scene in which the depraved cackles of Core and her victim's screams are met with music that swells sweetly, so warm and rich and romantic. 'Stuart is an English man with a lot more humour than I have, but he has a rapport with the body, with flesh, with desire which is very close to mine,' Denis describes. (51) The songs and scores the filmmaker uses are a way, she thinks, of connecting with the flesh. 'Music is a medium that puts body and space in relation. Music authorises the body to exist in space,' she says. 'That's perhaps why the body appears central to my films - because for me, the expression of a character is described by the way he or she moves, exists.' Or, as she has most succinctly put it: 'You can almost read more from a body movement than from speech.' (52)
Bodies, bodily fluids, sensuality, sexuality
Even though Denis has admitted the body is 'central' in her work - both situated in environments and viewed in close-up - she has, recently, sought to clarify how she frames bodies. 'I once read that I like to film bodies. No! But, if you choose someone, that person has a body. They have feet, hands, hair, breasts, ass all of that is part of what is important,' she said, at a screening of Let the Sunshine In. (53) 'When you are casting an actor you immediately feel the presence that the body expresses,' she's explained previously; (54) the 'natural' impulse for her is to survey bodies, and thus humanity - 'to look at people,' she says, 'not as puppets, but with skin and blood and emotion'. (55)
Sometimes, that skin is symbolic: be it the son's vulnerable whiteness in White Material, or Protee's forbidden blackness in Chocolat. In the latter, there are moments in which both he and Luc, macho rivals for female attention, stand naked under an outdoor shower, the shame of the servant contrasting with the shamelessness of the Westerner. In The Intruder, Louis (Subor) wears a 'zipper' scar from a heart surgery on his chest, a symbol of both his ailing health and his failures as a father. In I Can't Sleep, we see Camille slide his lithe body into fishnets and girdles, the camera observing his queerness with visual matter-of-factness.
Beau Travail is a cinematic study of male bodies (The body is itself [the legionnaires'] uniform,' Denis says, 'like a sculpture, it's their identity' (56) ), and the body of Colin, one of its stars, is often carefully observed in his recurring collaborations with Denis. In Nenette and Boni - in which the pregnant belly of Nenette (Alice Houri) is often surveyed - Denis' camera both gazes on the buff form of brother Boni (Colin) and echoes his own male gaze as it roves up and down the body of the baker's wife (Bruni Tedeschi), for whom he harbours an obsessive, highly sexualised crush, the film seamlessly slipping from reality to fantasy. Through the film's conflation of her baked goods and his pounded pizza dough with passion, Denis links desire to food, evoking the carnality of consumption - something taken to its extreme in Trouble Every Day.
The bodies in Denis' films are often throttling with desire, be it sexual, for something unspoken, or even for more aberrant, murderous yearnings, as in Bastards, I Can't Sleep and Trouble Every Day. In the last of these, Denis paints her film in blood, while in High Life, she fills her film with bodily fluids: blood spilt in moments of violence and retribution; a cupped palmful of sperm carried by Binoche's sample-collecting doctor; Boyse (Goth), the mother of the spaceship's infant (and thus future humankind), leaking breastmilk all over herself. 'Sexuality is about fluids,' Denis says. 'As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it's all about fluids: blood, sperm [...] High Life speaks only of desire and of fluids.' (57)
BY ANTHONY CAREW
Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.
(1) Claire Denis, quoted in Donald Clarke, 'Claire Denis: "We Are Normal People. Even Though We Are French'", The Irish Times, 14 April 2018, <https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/claire-denis-we-are-normal-people-even-though-we-are-french-l.3457322>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(2) Claire Denis, quoted in Jonathan Romney, 'Claire Denis: "I Couldn't Care Less About the Weinstein Affair"', The Observer, 22 April 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/20l8/apr/22/claire-denis-let-sunshine-in-binoche-weinstein-bourgeois-metoo>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(3) Claire Denis, quoted in Hermione Eyre, 'Claire Denis on Filmmaking and Feminism', Prospect, 21 June 2010, <https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/loving-the-lost-and-monstrous>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(4) Claire Denis, quoted in Mark A Reid, 'Claire Denis Interview: Colonial Observations', Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 67-72, available at <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC4ofolder/ClaireDenisInt.html>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(5) Alice Gregory, 'The Fearless Cinema of Claire Denis', The New Yorker, 21 May 2018, <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20l8/05/28/the-fearless-cinema-of-claire-denis>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(6) Claire Denis, quoted in Kiva Reardon, "Anger Is Part of My Relation to the World": An Interview with Claire Denis', cleo, vol. 1, issue 3, Fall 2013, available at <http://cleojournal.com/2013/11/28/anger-is-part-of-my-relation-to-the-world-an-interview-with-claire-denis/>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(7) Claire Denis, quoted in Larry Fitzmaurice, 'Claire Denis on Male Aggression and Making a Horror Rom-com', Vulture, 27 April 2018, <https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/claire-denis-on-male-aggression-and-making-a-horror-rom-com.html>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(8) Barry Jenkins, quoted in Alice Gregory, op. cit.
(9) Claire Denis, quoted in Aime Ancian, 'Claire Denis: An Interview', trans. Inge Pruks, Senses of Cinema, issue 23, December 2002, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/spotlight-claire-denis/denis_interview/>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(10) Claire Denis, quoted in Andrew Hussey, 'Claire Denis: "For Me, Film-making Is a Journey into the Impossible'", The Observer, 4 July 2010, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/20l0/jul/04/claire-denis-white-material-interview>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(11) Claire Denis, quoted in Ira Sachs, Awakenings', Filmmaker, Fall 1997, <https://filmmakermagazine.com/archives/issues/falll997/awakenings.php>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(12) Claire Denis, quoted in Chris O'Falt, 'Claire Denis: Inside a Master's Creative Process', Indie Wire, 5 April 2019, <https://www.indiewire.com/2019/04/high-life-claire-denis-master-director-creative-process-120205626o/>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(13) Denis, quoted in Hussey, op. cit.
(14) Denis, quoted in Romney, 'Claire Denis: "I Couldn't Care Less About the Weinstein Affair"', op. cit.
(15) Denis, quoted in Sachs, op. cit.
(16) Denis, quoted in Alice Gregory, op. cit.
(17) Denis, quoted in Reid, op. cit.
(19) Claire Denis, quoted in Jonathan Romney, 'Claire Denis Interviewed by Jonathan Romney', The Guardian, 28 June 2000, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/interview/interviewpages/o,6737,338784,00.html>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(20) Claire Denis, quoted in Elena Lazic, 'No Fear, No Die: An Interview with Claire Denis', BFI, 4 June 2019, <https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/no-fear-no-die-interview-claire-denis>, accessed 23 September 2019.
(21) Denis, quoted in Reid, op. cit.
(22) Claire Denis, quoted in Darren Hughes, 'Dancing Reveals So Much: An Interview with Claire Denis', Senses of Cinema, issue 50, April 2009, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/claire-denis-interview/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(23) Claire Denis, quoted in Neil Smith, 'Claire Denis: Trouble Every Day', BBC, 24 December 2002, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/nlms/2002/l2/24/claire_denis_trouble_every_day_interview.shtml>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(24) See James Quandt, '12 Years Later, the New French Extremity Is Still Pissing People Off', The Review, 4 November 2016, <https://www.tiff.net/the-review/l2-years-later-the-new-french-extremity-is-still-pissing-people-off>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(25) Claire Denis, quoted in Hannah Gregory, 'I Look at People: Claire Denis Interviewed', The Quietus, 27 July 2011, <https://thequietus.com/articles/06658-claire-denis-interview>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(26) Claire Denis, quoted in Gerald Peary, 'Claire Denis', Gerald Peary author website, May 2002, <http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/def/denis.html>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(27) See, for example, Melissa Anderson, 'Taking a Second Look at Trouble Every Day, a Claire Denis Flop', The Village Voice, 9 October 2013, <https://www.villagevoice.com/2013/10/09/taking-a-second-look-at-trouble-every-day-a-claire-denis-flop/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(28) Claire Denis, quoted in Sophie Moran, '35 Shots of Rum: Interview with Claire Denis', Electric Sheep, 3 July 2009, <http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/2009/07/03/35-shots-of-rum-interview-with-claire-denis/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(29) Claire Denis, quoted in Kira Cochrane, '"I'm Not Interested in Making Conclusions'", The Guardian, 3 July 2009, <https://www.theguardian.com/6lm/2009/jul/03/claire-denis-french-director-interview>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(30) Claire Denis, quoted in Robert Davis, 'Interview: Claire Denis on 35 Shots of Rum', Daily Plastic, 10 March 2009, <http://www.dailyplastic.com/2009/03/interview-claire-denis-on-35-shots-of-rum/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(32) Denis, quoted in Eyre, op. cit.
(33) Denis, quoted in Lazic, op. cit.
(34) Denis, quoted in Hussey, op. cit.
(35) Claire Denis, quoted in Wild Bunch, High Life press kit, 2018, p. 3.
(37) Adam Nayman, 'For Director Claire Denis, Nothing Is As Extreme as Family', The Globe and Mail, 10 October 2013, <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/for-director-claire-denis-nothing-is-as-extreme-as-family/articlel4749l66/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(38) Denis, quoted in Reardon, op. cit.
(39) Claire Denis, quoted in Paul Dallas, 'Claire Denis, Under the Skin', Interview, 23 October 2013, <https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/claire-denis-bastards>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(40) Saige Walton, 'Gestures of Intimacy: Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep', Senses of Cinema, issue 63, June 2012, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/gestures-of-intimacy-claire-denis-i-cant-sleep/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(41) Claire Denis, quoted in AA Dowd, "We Were Afraid of the Void": Claire Denis on Working with Robert Pattinson and Navigating High Life's Deep Space', The A.V. Club, 17 April 2019, <https://film.avclub.com/we-were-afraid-of-the-void-claire-denis-on-working-w-l834092997>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(42) Denis, quoted in Fitzmaurice, op. cit.
(43) Denis, quoted in Lazic, op. cit.
(44) Denis, quoted in Romney, 'Claire Denis interviewed by Jonathan Romney', op. cit.
(45) Claire Denis, cited in Samantha Dinning, 'Denis, Claire', Senses of Cinema, issue 50, April 2009, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/claire-denis/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(46) Denis, quoted in Hussey, op. cit.
(47) Denis, quoted in Reid, op. cit.
(49) Denis, quoted in Dallas, op. cit.
(51) Denis, quoted in Ancian, op. cit.
(52) Denis, quoted in Hannah Gregory, op. cit.
(53) Claire Denis, quoted in Patrick Preziosi, "Why Don't You Ever Take Me in Your Arms": Claire Denis' Cinema of Intimacy', Cinea, 16 November 2018, <https://cinea.be/why-dont-you-ever-take-me-in-your-arms-claire-denis-cinema-of-intimacy/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(54) Denis, quoted in Hannah Gregory, op. cit.
(55) Denis, quoted in Reardon, op. cit.
(56) Denis, quoted in Hannah Gregory, op. cit.
(57) Denis, quoted in Wild Bunch, op. cit.
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