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How Claire Denis inspired Barry Jenkins: "Her films are like nothing else"

Barry Jenkins, the director of modern masterpieces such as Moonlight, has always acknowledged that he owes a lot to the cinematic masterpieces he has grown up admiring and the legendary filmmakers who have elevated his own work. Among them, he has named Hong Kong pioneer Wong Kar-wai as the director who inspired him to make films after he got the chance to watch Chungking Express in college.

The unique aesthetic principles of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema completely blew him away and a lit a fuse in him which made him want to tell stories through images. It also introduced him to the allure of global cinema, urging him to watch more foreign films in order to expand his vocabulary of cinema. By doing the latter, Jenkins discovered some of his other influences who helped him on his aesthetic journey.

One of those influences is none other than French filmmaker Claire Denis, the creative genius behind masterpieces such as Beau Travail. In an interview, Jenkins said: “Claire Denis [has] a very singular way of presenting cinema. When I think about Claire and when I talk about Clair’s work, it’s about the metaphors”.

For Jenkins, these metaphors are at the centre of Denis’ cinematic universe: “She builds very concrete metaphors and a very concrete imagery that somehow rises to this very heightened, elevated kind of place,” he added. “She would hate someone saying that about her, I’ve met her a few times, but I think it’s true. I think she just has a very unique way of translating the human experience into images”.

Jenkins also noted that his style differed from Denis’ vision but even that difference has taught him how to view the world from a fresh perspective: “I often say your influences don’t necessarily determine your aesthetic, and so I don’t think I make films the way Claire makes films but I do think she has a lot of faith in the human face – its ability to translate and transmute emotions and experiences”.

While talking about her ability to capture the human condition through facial expressions, Jenkins said: “I think the emotions she generates in her actors, and somehow between the camera and the performer – the amount of metaphor that she can create out of silence and just gestures and expressions is something that only she can do. Her films are like nothing else.”

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