When talking about Claire Denis, it’s easy to celebrate her status as one of the most prominent and successful female filmmakers on the world stage, in an industry that is notoriously tough on women. Yet when I think of Denis, I don’t immediately consider her in terms of her place in the industry or in relation to other artists. She is quite simply a singular director, making films inspired by her own personal history that have found a way to resonate with audiences everywhere. The characters in her films are often out of place with their surroundings and, likewise, the films themselves almost feel out of time, existing in their own lyrical dimension. In conjunction with her latest release, the polarizing Bastards, TIFF Bell Lightbox presents Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis, a month-long retrospective of her entire body of work.
Perhaps in a somewhat unlikely fashion, I came to Claire Denis through Vincent Gallo, one of several members of Denis’s informal acting company. I’m a big fan of the hilariously egomaniacal actor/performance artist and writer-director of Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny and in my quest to see everything he had ever appeared in (I can get obsessive at times) I arrived at a film called Trouble Every Day. I was familiar with Claire Denis, even though I hadn’t seen her films, and also with the movie, which I had wanted to see since its release, as it supposedly featured shocking cannibal violence mixed with dangerous eroticism, a cocktail of shock that seemed right up my alley. While the promised taboos did appear and unsettle me, I was more taken with the atmosphere of the movie, the dreamlike yet strangely sterile version of Paris that Denis presents to us. Gallo plays a doctor who comes to Paris with his newly married wife under the guise of a honeymoon, but he immediately looks for his old coworker (Alex Descas), who may have a serum for a disease that had turned his wife (Béatrice Dalle) into some sort of ravenous sexual cannibal; a disease that Gallo himself may now be suffering from. Trouble Every Day is a tale of desire taken to violent extremes, a horror movie more interested in enlightening us than scaring us. It was a bold introduction to Denis’s work, although one that landed right in the middle of her filmography.
Denis spent a large chunk of her childhood in Africa, as her father worked as a civil servant for the French Foreign Legion, and these experiences have informed much of her other work. Her debut film, Chocolat, is a semi-autobiographical story about the Dalens, a French family living on a colonial outpost in Cameroon, tended to by black servants and housemaids. The young daughter Aimée has a strong bond with their houseboy, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé), perhaps even stronger than the one she has with her parents. With her father away on business, Protée becomes the protector of the mother and child, but it gradually becomes apparent that he wants more. Yet when the father returns, he is dismissed back to his normal duties and while he seethes, he cannot do anything about it. On the surface, things seem idyll but the racist tensions boiling under the surface gradually start to emerge. The beauty of the location creates a sense of serenity that masks the conflict coming from the forbidden desires of the characters. Chocolat was warmly embraced by audiences upon its release and immediately launched Denis’s career.
Ten years later, Beau Travail was just as much of a success, winning several prizes and garnering magnificent acclaim on the festival circuit. Returning to Africa, Denis adapts Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” as a parable of homoerotic destruction. Denis Lavant, the madman of Leos Carax’s films, plays Galoup, a Foreign Legion officer stationed in Djibouti. He enjoys the job and commanding the men in his company. But when a handsome young recruit whom Galoup’s superior starts to admire sparks jealousy, he becomes determined to destroy the soldier at all costs. The word “elliptical” is often thrown around in discussions of Denis, and it applies here the most. The film is non-linear, cutting between the central narrative, Galoup’s reminiscences once he’s back in Paris, and stylized dream-like sequences of choreography in the desert or in a dance club. Beau Travail plays out like a handful of memories jumbled together that gradually illuminate a stunning portrait of bottled up lust and anger.
Even though her career is still very much ongoing, White Material, Denis’s last feature before Bastards feels like a bookend to Chocolat. Where the Dalens’s property was beautiful amidst a picturesque landscape, the Vial family’s coffee plantation in White Material is rundown and dirty, situated in an unnamed African country that is growing wilder and more dangerous in the midst of a civil war. And where the tension was just brewing in Chocolat, it breaks out here in shocking and violent ways. When they are told to leave by French military forces because they can no longer be protected, each member of the family reacts differently. Maria (Isabelle Huppert) desperately tries to continue running the plantation, despite the fact that everything is crumbling and all their workers have left. Her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert) wants them all to leave, fearing death is the only result if they stay behind. Their son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) begins to lose his sanity, eventually joining up with the invading rebel forces. And André’s sickly father (Michel Subor) couldn’t care at all, wandering around the property in a haze of content. Visually, the film is strikingly beautiful, with a scorched yellow look that mirrors the intensity of the situation. As always, Huppert is fearless as the anchor in the film, all coiled rage and determination on the inside that lashes out unexpectedly. And with less screen time, Lambert is surprisingly poignant speaking in his native French; a far cry from his embarrassing genre turns in American films.
There are so many more great titles in this series that you really owe it to yourself to check some of them out. And since Denis’s work is so subjective, what you see in it might be completely different than what someone else does.
Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis runs from October 11, 2013 to November 10, 2013 and Bastards opens as a new release on October 11, all at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Additionally, Claire Denis will appear in person for an introduction and Q&A at the Bastards screening on Friday, October 18 at 6:30 pm, as well as on Thursday, October 17 to introduce a screening of her Carte Blanche selections, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki and Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns. Check the TIFF website for details.
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