“The cinema should be human and be part of people’s lives; it should focus on ordinary existences in sometimes extraordinary situations and places. That is what really motivates me.” – Claire Denis
One of the most celebrated female French auteurs in cinema, Claire Denis has been praised for her distinguished oeuvre. Although she often says that her films are unbalanced with “a limp, or one arm shorter than the other, or a big nose”, she is a master at portraying deep emotional and psychological conflicts while nestling them in a shroud of intimacy, sensuality and borderline erotica.
Silence and quietude is one important trope in her films as she often resorts to close-ups within a deafening silence to imply the message. A lot of Denis’ filmography deals with the crisis of identity faced by the coloniser and the colonised. In one of her most celebrated films, Chocolate, Denis tried to put forward “a sort of statement of my own childhood, recognizing I experienced something from the end of the colonial era and the beginning of independence as I was a child that really made me aware of things I never forget- a sort of childhood that made me different when I was a student in France”.
Born in Paris on April 21, 1946, Denis was raised in colonial Francophone Africa which shaped her socio-political sensibility. A civil servant, her father was vocal about the required independence of Africa from being a French colony, the influence of which trickled into her films, shaping her opinions as a filmmaker. An avid reader, she was soon sent to France after being diagnosed with polio. In France, she felt like a misfit and an outcast — a common recurrence in many of her films. After admitting how studying economics was “completely suicidal”, Denis gave in to the creative stirrings and concentrated on her filmmaking career. Debuting in 1988 with Chocolat, she garnered critical acclaim. With the momentum behind her, Denis followed her debut project with many other films which all had distinct messages to relay, elevating her to the level of an auteur. Her most acclaimed work to date is Beau Travail.
Known for her painfully slow and poetic usage of images in cinema, Claire Denis is a much-adored filmmaker among art-house aficionados. On her 75th birthday today, we decided to take a look at some of the best films that help explain the greatness of this legendary auteur.
“I am not at all interested in theories about cinema. I am only interested in images and people and sound. I am really a very simple person.”
Claire Denis’ 10 best movies:
10. Trouble Every Day (2001)
Dr Shane Brown and his wife June go to Paris for their honeymoon. Shane also tries to investigate the mysterious low-profile maintained by Dr Keo Semeneau who keeps his wife Coré locked in the house. Coré is obsessed with engaging in sexual activities with men before brutally killing them; her husband helps cover her actions by disposing of the bodies. Through this twisted and bloody affair, they achieve marital bliss. When Shane encounters Coré, his marital life is disrupted and changed forever.
Claire Denis treads dangerous waters with this shocking horror erotica that might leave the viewers bewildered and shocked enough to never want to return to the film again. It is nearly like a real snuff film where the harrowing screams and nightmarish infliction of pain might make one’s stomach churn and squirm. The bloodiest tale of romance where the couple’s intimacy is amplified by the gushing of blood and ripping of tongues and Coré’s carnal desire for flesh. It is truly a terrifying film and with her entry into the horror genre, Denis cleverly bends the tropes to fit in with her idea of what is truly and horrifyingly hypnotic and reeks of human abhorrence and depravity.
“His wife is sick. Yes, very sick.”
9. No Fear, No Die (1999)
Poetic and unsettlingly quiet, the film deals with jarring montages of strong and disturbing imagery. Denis’ outlook towards hypermasculine subjects like cockfighting has a sense of quietude and discomfort to it. As the cocks embark on a minuscule carnage, the ones inside the minds of the men are unfathomable. As the cocks are equipped with increasingly dangerous instruments that can mortally wound the other fighter in the ring, the depravity of the human condition is emphasized along with the pervasive pessimism.
Dah and Jocelyn team up to earn quick cash by engaging in illegal cockfighting. Jocelyn grows increasingly attached to one particular cock that he names No Fear, No Die; the latter’s loss affects him psychologically. Their friend Pierre owns the fighting space and tries to force the duo to spice up the fights by adding dangerous blades and other such items to the rooster’s legs. He taunts Jocelyn hoping to enrage him enough to make him do his bidding. Jocelyn has a fatal attraction towards Pierre’s wife which eventually leads him to a sorry end.
“Every human being, whatever his race, nationality, religion, or politics, is capable of anything and everything.”
8. Friday Night (2002)
Before she moves in with her boyfriend, Laure navigates through the busy Parisian traffic during a transit strike, when she meets a stranger named Jean whom she offers a ride. After cancelling on her friends to grab pizza with this handsome man, she ends up conforming to the ‘sex with a stranger’ fantasy and spends the night with him in a hotel. This sends her into throes of existential crisis where she contemplates her actions just the night before she has to move in with her lover as well as the consequences of her actions.
This excruciatingly slow film appeals to our sensualities as we navigate through the feelings of a woman who enjoys her last bits of freedom while being stuck inside her car alone during heavy traffic due to a transit strike. Her closeted fantasies as well as the loss of loyalty is emphasised in the film where the dramatic turn of events come to a gradual conclusion. With beautiful shots of Paris rooftops and the skyline peppering the film, it is a kind of a surreal dream; one where two strangers meet and have the time of their lives for a night. The film focuses not on the characters and their whirlwind one-night stand but the objects surrounding them which adds a sense of melancholy and sensuality to the cinematic atmosphere.
“If you see any cold and weary people hitching a ride, take them part of the way with you in the car.”
7. I Can’t Sleep (1994)
As a serial killer, who lusts for the blood of elderly women living alone, terrorises the citizens of Paris, a love story unfolds. As Theo, a man who is constantly bickering with his wife who wants to remain in Paris encounters a Lithuanian immigrant named Daiga, sparks fly. However, the serial killer is on the loose and the police are trying to find him. It is soon discovered that Theo’s estranged brother Camille, a gay cabaret dancer, as well as his lover, who lives in the hotel where Daiga works as a maid, are committing these crimes together. Soon, Daiga stumbles upon evidence that helps her figure out the true identity of the killer.
For action film lovers, this movie serves as a demystification and debunking of the classic noir tropes. The lack of criminal activities towards the beginning of the film might leave one befuddled, questioning the genre. However, the director is extremely clever in portraying a love story amidst impending pessimism, doom and erosion fuelled by the uprooted characters who try to find their place amidst growing capitalism. With alluring imagery and colours hinting at the gay subculture in Paris, Denis also humanises the murderer by establishing a communal interaction. It is a story of immigrants fighting for survival when one of them happens to bloody his hands where Denis makes us “question ourselves what it is to be the brother, or the mother, or the neighbour of a monster”.
6. White Material (2009)
In Denis’ highly agonising film set during intense turmoil and racial conflict that breaks out into civil war, young child rebels in a Francophone African state are seen plundering and looting, wreaking havoc. Despite her husband Andre’s pleas to leave, Maria, a white French woman, is determined to save the coffee plantation and the crop. After recruiting some replacement workers to work on her plantation, her son Manuel becomes the victim of this mayhem and sustains trauma which makes him aid the rebel’s in their orgy to find food and other forms of medication.
Maria’s steadfast nature and immense love for the land and the crop bears tragic consequences. Amidst the madness that ensues from the loot and plunder, she fails to recognise her status as an outsider and wants to feel a sense of belonging. Denis, very masterfully, traps the colours and images of the land, justifying Maria’s immense love for it. From the very start, the confusion created by the director will very quickly force the viewer to pick favourites isabella Huppert as Maria Vial is ferocious and a worthy cinematic study who lives up to Denis’ portrayal of an agonised fighter whose indomitable spirit and love for the land makes her a mystery yet to be decoded.
“Coffee is just coffee and not worth dying for.”
5. Nénette and Boni (1996)
Like every other Claire Denis film, Nénette and Boni frustrate the viewers. They are always left wanting more. With close-ups and minute details, Denis evades answering questions that rage through the viewer’s mind. Arbitrary and with more dialogue than usual, the film is sensual and has a metaphysical tinge to it. Denis’ clever artwork with the film by using quintessential arthouse imagery while focusing on the coming-of-age narrative that sees two children, torn apart by their parent’s divorce who finally find peace in reconnecting over their love for an unborn child.
Boni lives at his dead mother’s house and begins selling pizzas while having violent erotic fantasies about the baker’s wife. He is not on good terms with his father who had divorced his mother. His daily routine is upended when his younger sister Nénette, who is also pregnant, moves in with him. Despite initial hiccups and much resentment regarding having to take care of her, Boni gradually warms up to his sister and falls in love with the idea of being an uncle. However, when his sister relays the information regarding her desire to put the child up for adoption, he is shocked and enraged and refuses to allow the abandonment of the child.
“I, Boni Pavone, pizza chef, wallowing in incredibly obscene fantasies about a woman built like a brick shithouse, I do solemnly swear to fuck her brains out and to love every last minute of it and to brag about it everywhere before dropping her.”
4. Chocolat (1988)
France is a young woman who returns to the uneasy vastness of the silent West Africa and is immediately consumed by memories of childhood where she spent her days in Cameroon. Her memories circulate around a houseboy named Protee, noble and beautiful, whose sexual tension with her mother was also palpable. their relationship and the beautiful, intricate details of it is juxtaposed to the prejudices of a racist society. The title of the film is derived from the ’50s slang which meant being black and cheated and indicated to the European fetishisation of skin colour.
In a somewhat semi-autobiographical narrative, Denis’ debut film sees a poetic dealing of the theme of colonialism that shall resonate with the viewers. The mysterious isolation that results from the coloniser’s sensibility is well described here. Enigmatic and enchanting, the film paints a portrait of the racism that pervaded the society in the ’50s and the ’60s while being a concoction of heavyweight elements including viewing colonialism and the crisis of identity via the female gaze.
“When you look at the hills, beyond the houses and beyond the trees, where the earth touches the sky, that’s the horizon. Tomorrow, in the daytime, I’ll show you something. The closer you get to that line, the farther it moves. If you walk towards it, it moves away. It flees from you. I must also explain this to you. You see the line. You see it, but it doesn’t exist.”
3. 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Lionel is a widower and an RER train driver in Paris who shares a special bond with his daughter Josephine whom he has singlehandedly raised. The father-daughter duo is deeply devoted to each other; despite being aware of his neighbour, Gabrielle, being interested in him as well as the handsome Noe who likes Josephin. The two try and maintain a strict friendship with them, fearing a rupture in their relationship by the arrival of a third party. However, when Lionel attends a retirement party for his colleague, he begins questioning his decisions and tries to figure out things differently.
Reeking of emotional eloquence, Denis’ film delves deep and delicate into interpersonal relationships where a widowed father finds joy and solace in his daughter and vice versa. The art of letting go is brought to prominence here as is the condition of immigrants in France. As Lionel encounters the catastrophic event in his colleague’s life where the loss of the job strops him of his identity and purpose, he realises that being a father renders him that. However, when he finally realises that letting go of his daughter might help her find happiness, he reluctantly yet lovingly does so, allowing the loneliness to envelop him. As he downs 35 shots of rum in the moving ending scene, one wonders if he really is happy.
“When we revolt, it’s not for a particular culture. You revolt simply because, for various reasons, we can’t breathe.”
2. The Intruder (2004)
Emotionally distant and a mercenary, 70-year-old Louis Trebor lives a solitary life with his dogs in an isolated French-Swiss forest. His mounting heart problems require a transplant and he abandons his life of quietude to seek a black market Korean heart transplant. His other motive is to look for his long lost Tahitian son and connect with him. However, the question regarding his son finally accepting him prevails till the very end.
The film has a very shocking ending, to say the least. Denis composes a cinematic poem that abounds in dream sequences. The protagonist is contemptible and heartless. However, Denis robs the viewers of the ability to judge him or his actions. The viewers are left at a loss of words as they try to contemplate who the intruder is and whether it is just a feverish dream they are living. The overall feeling of isolation, loneliness and the void left by the lack of human connection is amplified by the director’s careful exploration of the man’s deteriorating psyche.
“Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart.”
1. Beau Travail (1999)
Loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd where Denis replaces the British Royal Navy with the French Foreign Legion, the film is not Travail’s critique of the military regime. She does not employ the female gaze to take a look at the military men; instead, she merely observes the shirtless men carrying on with their daily routine. There is a rhythmic doldrum to their activities as they carry on with the mundane and seek for an evening release at the local disco. This is, however, disrupted by the internal conflict of a man who is not being able to sway along with the rhythm of the routine due to the repressed emotions inside him.
In his memoirs, Chef Galoup recounts the tale of his time in Djibouti when he met the charismatic Commander Bruno Forestier. Galoup is in awe of Bruno and often wishes that he were like him. When Galoup’s section is joined by the charming Giles Sentain, Galoup bears instant resentment as well as repressed homoerotic desires towards Sentain; the resentment exceeds his limits and he swears to completely ruin Sentain. As Denis confirmed, someone from the cast had been a part of the Legion and trained the rest of the cast to do the real exercises. The poetic element lies in how this daily routine became an artistic escape as although “we never said we were going to choreograph the film… afterwards, when we started shooting, using Britten’s music, those exercises became like a dance.”
“Maybe freedom begins with remorse. Maybe freedom begins with remorse. I heard that somewhere.”