MOVIE LOVE: Claire Denis

Discussed:
Beau Travail, Nenette et Boni, L’Intrus, 35 Rhums, White Material, Chocolat

Recommended:
All of them; but the fearful newcomer might begin with Beau Travail and 35 Rhums


I don’t just watch but inhabit a Claire Denis movie, which can be dodgy business: suddenly I’m embroiled in male-bonding, and anti-bonding, with the French Foreign Legion in Beau Travail; hiding out from Russian assassins in the snowy woods in L’Intrus (The Intruder); or entering a maternity ward with a rifle carefully concealed amid roses in Nenette et Boni. Denis knows well that most lives are filled with threats of varying degrees of seriousness,  but despite this existential unease, we must still propel ourselves into the noisome, fractious, colour-filled world to eat, and feed the dog, and have sex occasionally. She has an extraordinary gift for drawing us into the sensual particularities of daily life while immersing us in its often complex and even dangerous narratives. I don’t think any filmmaker today marries the cryptic to the ordinary, the physical to the metaphysical, so fluidly as Denis. In every movie she manages to push us outward and draw us in, simultaneously.       

Denis’ films both explore and frustrate our desire for the answer to that most basic and relentless question: what is going to happen? But life itself stymies us on this point every day, and why should we demand that movies add up our lives for us? Ease up a bit when you watch a Denis film; relax your lust for solution and logical culmination. In most of her work—including 35 Rhums, White Material, and Chocolat—it takes time to figure out who’s connected to who, and why, and even then it will still only be fragmentary information. So it goes, as Vonnegut used to say. This should be a familiar conundrum for anyone with a basic understanding of human goings-on. The full picture is almost always beyond our reach, and this, of course, constitutes the suspense of the everyday: it’s our quotidian anxiety. 

And in the midst of this daily question of what is going to happen we are saturated, whether we realize it or not, by vividness. Denis is besotted by primary colours. Blues, greens, and reds are so present as to be characters in her films, and their pervasive sharpness keeps us sharp, too.  But she’s attuned to all variety of imagery: you may not know what the volatile young Boni is up to in Nenette et Boni, but you’ll be able to smell that dough he kneads; you won’t be able to fathom what the shady man in those snowy woods intends, but you’ll never forget the crevices and moles on his face, because Denis’ (or rather cinematographer Agnes Godard’s) camera brings us so close we are as good as stroking his cheek. And you may not know what exactly provokes Galoup’s menace in Beau Travail,  but you’ll remember the haunting Britten soundtrack (and of course the disco backbeat of that famous, and fantastically strange, closing scene).

Denis knows how much we’re in helpless thrall to the sensual. The uncertainty of our daily melodramas—what will I do with myself today? What will become of me today?—occurs not in isolation but within a chaotic yet often beautiful stir of colour, smell, and sound. Like Renoir before her, Denis has an insatiable eye; while heeding the demand of story, she understands how the inescapable discord of life itself interrupts our efforts to shape that story. Her films are inscrutable yet inviting, menacing yet familiar, alien yet sympathetic. All of them contain multitudes. For me, she’s our most vibrant filmmaker.

Wendy Phillips
Editor in Chief