Denis By Denis: A Retrospective

Somewhere in our collective consciousness is an insurmountable mountain formed of cinematic rubble from forgotten directors – filmmakers that, for whatever reason, didn’t quite make it into the timeless canon of Cinema. For the past three decades, Claire Denis has suffered with the very real possibility that she will end up on top of this pile. Despite being adored by cinephiles and critics on the festival circuit, her films – for whatever reason – have faded fast from the commercial limelight. 2004’s L’Intrus, named the best film of the year (or one of the best) by several popular publications, is now so hard to track down that it took me a whole day to actually find a watchable copy.

It’s a shame because Denis, as anybody who has seen her films will tell you, is a master bar none and a true cinematic genius. It’s lucky for the future of the medium, then, that she made High Life – the A24-distributed, high-concept science fiction film starring a host of indie darlings: current critical favourite Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Juliette Binoche, and André 3000. The attention that’s been paid to the film in the press (LittleWhiteLies even ran a fantastic issue dedicated to the movie), combined with its star power, should hopefully ensure that Denis’ back catalogue is secured for the future.

Denis has become known for crafting sensorial experiences more so than narrative works of film – Lynne Ramsay could easily be described as a contemporary. Elliptical, sensual, and loaded with subconscious meaning, a Denis film defies the rules of moviemaking to arrive at something far more satisfying because of it. Often reflecting on her experiences growing up in colonial French Africa, as well as race relations back home in France and coming-of-age, her films can seem disparate and unrelated at first glance, but come together to form a startlingly bold, original, and controversial tapestry of modern humanity.

In anticipation for High Life, and in 2019 – where it seems more important than ever to champion exciting female directors – we bring you a Claire Denis retrospective. What film of hers should you watch first? Which are her highest achievements? And which are perhaps best left in the dark?

It’s important not to delve straight into Denis’s masterworks without some sort of primer. Her style can be confronting and confusing, and it takes complete submission to her filmmaking to come out the other side unscathed. Elliptical narratives, non-sequiturs, and haptic textures in place of story are acquired tastes, and ones best acquired before embarking on cinematic odysseys such as Beau Travail.

Most lists will tell you to start where Denis herself began – with 1988’s masterful Chocolat. Unless you plan on watching all Denis films, though, that’s probably not such a good idea. The film’s linear narrative, grounded realism, lack of a Tindersticks score, and absence of Agnès Godard as cinematographer mark Chocolat as an atypical, unrepresentative sample from the director’s work – although it is perhaps her most accessible film to date. That’s not to say it’s in any way ‘simple’ or amateurish – to the contrary, it is perhaps the most nuanced, impactful discussion of race in cinema.

As fellow visionary Barry Jenkins has noted, Denis approaches the topic of race relations (through the lens of her own childhood) without any trepidation – without leaning into the 21st century bullshit notion of questioning whether this is ‘her story to tell’ – and as a result ends up with a film whose every frame tells us something new without ever feeling like its trying to force a trite thematic narrative. Without ever ‘discussing race’ openly in Chocolat’s script, Denis manages to meaningfully discuss race in almost every frame.

Chocolat

Still, a better springboard would be 2009’s White Material (pictured in header) – the only Denis film to currently have a Criterion re-release, and a nice flipside to Chocolat – also being set in the Africa of Denis’ youth and exploring the insanity of colonialism, as well as the invisible lines which divide cultures and races.

More provocative and immediate than her debut, White Material is an uncomfortably tense – at times genuinely distressing – portrait of the ultimate collapse of colonialism as Isabelle Huppert’s (always a fantastic choice) Maria, a coffee plantation owner, struggles to pull in one last harvest during the descent of the African country around her into a brutal civil war. It’s also an ideal starting point – containing many of the ideas and themes that Denis has worked on over her career, as well as her key collaborators – Godard, Tindersticks, and sublime actor Isaach de Bankolé. Not only that, but its propulsive, quasi-thriller plot and constant tension should tide first-time viewers over the disjointed jigsaw puzzle of a narrative.

Claire Denis has a trifecta of bona fide masterpieces to her name. Once you’re somewhat familiar with her style, these are the must-sees.

1999’s Beau Travail (pictured) is Denis’ true claim to history – her entry in the director’s hall of fame that stands apart from every other work of filmmaking as a genuine original. A perfect synthesis of cinema and dance – yep, you heard that right – Denis’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is an absolute triumph in all senses. A sensual, practically wordless love triangle of jealousy and deceit between French legionnaires plays out over a background of the stunning, scorching deserts and tropical blue skies of Djibouti.

The hypnotic action takes the form of an exquisitely choreographed modern ballet without ever feeling forced or gimmicky, almost completely obliterating the confines of the cinematic language to deliver something altogether spectacular and new. It also features what has to be the greatest ending to any film – period – with its immortal scene of Denis Lavant ecstatically dancing to Corona’s Rhythm of the Night. One of the most intoxicating, startling masterworks in cinema.

Beau Travail

2002’s Vendredi Soir is Denis via Wong Kar-Wai. Set over a single evening in a night-time Paris dripping with rain-soaked neon, the film follows Laure (Valérie Lemercier), a woman on her way to move in with her boyfriend when she becomes stuck in the traffic jam from hell due to Parisian transport strikes. Following an announcement on the radio asking drivers to carpool, she offers a lift to the mysterious Jean (a superlative Vincent Lindon), which quickly blossoms into an ethereal, erotic evening of late-night diners and secluded hotel rooms.

Pervading it all is a beautiful sense of magical realism and limitless possibility that just feels so joyful and optimistic: a startling contrast to most of Denis’s other films. Aside from Beau Travail, this is also easily Godard’s best work: watching the way city lights refract of car windows and late-night cafes shine through the homogenised darkness of residential streets is a truly wonderful, heart-soaring experience.

Vendredi Soir

By contrast, L’Intrus sees Denis at her most non-linear and dreamlike, a day-time fever trip comparable to David Lynch’s Inland Empire in its complete opacity and narrative incoherence. A work of bona fide cinematic alchemy, I struggle to even put into words the experience of watching L’Intrus – a film which traverses the inner landscapes of its central character more so than those external, despite its litany of exotic destinations. Taking cues on imperialism and belonging from Chocolat and White Material, but also something else: something far more undefinable and primal about the unplaceable sense of non-belonging in the universe, Denis weaves a visual poem of invasion.

L’Intrus

With its oneiric wonderings across the globe – paradoxically, L’Intrus is probably Denis’s most ‘blockbuster’ film despite being her most impenetrable – the film is amost totally unmoored from space-time: are we watching genuine events? Dreams? Hallucinations? Hopes? Surrendering to the heady atmosphere of existential paranoia and regret feels like entering an alternate dimension. Like Inland Empire, you can’t emerge from its gravitational, elemental grasp unscathed, and you probably won’t be able to define how it has left its mark either, but for the intrepid and willing, L’Intrus is an unadulterated vision of cinema as incantation.

If, after her three most triumphant works, more Denis is on the cards, then you might want to turn to her genre efforts. These have proved controversial, cementing the director as an enfant terrible and a master of controversy, whilst also courting the mainstream by virtue of their genre labelling.

2001’s Trouble Every Day (pictured) put Denis on the map as a provocateur and marks a formative work in the New French Extremity movement, but despite the ultraviolence and splattery gore, the film lacks the effervescent sparkle of the director’s other work. Many films have attempted to link sexual desire to violence, but none do so with the same explanatory power as Trouble Every Day. Nevertheless, Denis’s oddball casting of Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle makes complete sense in the context of the film but serves to distance and alienate the audience from the action. The odd, quasi-scientific psychobabble about pandemics and a litany of laboratory imagery, combined with a storyline so disjointed that it requires serious work to parse also will turn away anyone who wants the film to make literal sense as opposed to allegorical.

Still, for those willing to commit, Trouble Every Day is able to achieve a trance-like state wherein the audience receives the film more so than watching it, only fully realising they were viewing a movie when the credits roll. Certain images linger in the mind: the effortless slicing of a butter-like brain, a bloody silhouette staggering down the stairs, the passionate devouring of a corpse. These images and narrative moments make the film sound extreme and wild, but in its delivery what’s most striking about the film is its complete realism. It moves and breathes organically, breaking scores of unspoken rules about cinematic grammar and structure to become a sort of fluid, washing over the audience in waves of increasing intensity. Denis’s thesis lingers too: an unsettlingly understandable marriage of insatiable sexual desire and a lust for cannibalistic destruction, the irrelevance of love to raw sexuality, and the devastating omnipresence of loneliness.

Trouble Every Day

2013’s masterly neo-noir Bastards has also proved controversial. Shot mostly in pitch-dark chiaroscuro, the film is less a thriller than a dread-er, like one of those barely coherent, nasty late-REM dreams you have before feeling a serotonin rush of joy at the realisation that none of this sordid shit actually happened. Featuring one of the most queasily compelling ending shots in recent memory, and succeeding on all fronts at crafting the nihilistic, hopeless atmosphere of only the most effective noirs (Detour jumps to mind), the film follows a sordid plot of rape, murder, and revenge – all within a single family. If watching Trouble Every Day was akin to lying on a beach and letting the waves wash over you, Bastards is like being held beneath the surface of a vast, dark, hopeless lake, choking for breath.

Making absolutely fantastic use of digital (Godard joining the ranks of Lynch and Mann as the only cinematographers able to harness the format’s true potential), the film eschews thematic discussion for a nightmarish, spaced-out atmosphere paired with a plot unmoored from the typical constraints of space-time. As a result, it found a mainstream audience confused with what to expect, and a (albeit mostly ecstatic) critical audience noting a lack of theme, as well as an excessively dark and hopeless vision, as markers of a lesser work. Still, not everything can be sunshine and daisies, so for those in the mood for something a little nasty, Bastards is still a masterly piece of work.

Bastards

2017’s foray into romantic comedy, Let the Sunshine In is, unfortunately, far less successful. Despite being far more mature than the staples of its genre and at least somewhat feminist, the Juliette Binoche-starring tale is perhaps only notable for its stunningly inventive credits sequence, that sees the films titles overlaid onto the film’s most compelling scene. Other than that, this is a startlingly laugh-free piece of work (although it apparently plays much better to a French audience) with a conspicuous lack of auteur markers, and a lacklustre visual palette that renders the film rather forgettable. Still, as far as romantic comedies go, it’s a compelling, intelligently made and distinctly adult look into midlife malaise that’s not totally worth ignoring.

Still here? Still looking for more Denis? Here are our picks of what else to watch if you’ve become a bit of an obsessive.

Denis’s second widely-acclaimed feature, and the first to link her to Godard and Tindersticks, is 1996’s often ignored Nenette and Boni. The coming-of-age film takes the subjective angle of its emotionally lost, sexually frustrated male protagonist Boni, and demonstrates the tempering effect his newly-pregnant sister has on him – a vastly different coming-of-age drama than we’re used to. The film marks Denis stepping away from the relative (if dreamy) realism of her debut towards the more surreal, non-narrative works that would go on to define her output.

With the exception of L’Intrus, however, Nenette and Boni encroaches into the world of dreams and fantasy more so than Denis usually does: without warning, the film will switch between objective reality and subjective imagination. But this is part of the point: Denis is trying to convey the transformation of her adolescent male character from a boy into a man, and the most emotive way to do so is through this immaculate synthesis of real and imagined. The film is also notable for featuring Denis’s most perfect use of colour – balancing vibrant reds and blues throughout the entire run-time to suggest the continual mental war of gendered influences that characterise ‘growing-up’.

Nenette et Boni

Also on the coming-of-age theme is 2008’s much warmer and less distressing 35 Shots of Rum, sometimes quoted as one of her absolute best. A beautiful portrait of the heart-rending power of mundanity, Denis’s tribute to Ozu creates a majestic picture of life and loss, and the liberating agony of having to let loved ones go.

Starring Alex Descas as an aging, single train driver whose daughter (played wonderfully by Mati Diop, whose new film has just made it into Cannes 2019) is at the age where she’s beginning to fly the nest. Although the film takes a relatively linear path through the lives of its characters, Denis takes her time in revealing just how everyone is related, and the emotional tensions that pervade the residents in a particular flat-block in Paris.

It’s a beautiful, warming slice of realism that’s about change in the truest sense: the ways in which things drastically move on before we realise they moved at all, and the realisations of love and respect we have for people and things after its already too late to hold them dear and enjoy their company. Profound and poetic.

35 Shots of Rum

Usually described as a highlight, 1994’s hour-long U.S. Go Home is actually somewhat of a disappointment. Due to its production for television, Denis’ coming of age tale suffers from a lacklustre production, and its pop-soundtrack feels gimmicky through the lens of the knowledge that it was mandated for the broadcast (the series the film forms an element of required directors to fill their stories with the music of that period). Still, its slightly seedy tale of a French teenager trying to lose her virginity to older American soldiers manages to capture the excitement and peer-pressure of growing up, and features a strangely compelling performance from Vincent Gallo as an overt moralist who maybe isn’t quite as pious as he thinks.

U.S. Go Home

Likewise, Denis’s other two features – No Fear, No Die, and J’ai Pas Sommeil are pieces of work which largely fill the void between Chocolat and Nenette et Boni.  Although they have their merits – the odd serial killer-focused plot of Sommeil in particular, they’re works which feel like a new director trying to find her feet (and funding). As a result, they’re only really worth watching from a completist perspective.

And there we have it, a run-down of the major works of one of our most important living directors. I hope I’ve managed to at least intrigue you enough to consider entering a vibrant filmography to see what you find. Denis’s films cross all sorts of boundaries – she’s made thrillers, horrors, noirs, romantic comedies, dramas and romances, and almost everything in between. The recommendations here are based on my personal intuitions of what order I, myself, would have preferred to have viewed Claire Denis’s films – feel free to diverge, I’m sure that’s what the director herself would advise.

High Life is released in UK cinemas May 10th.

Cover Photo: Beau Travail (1999)


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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