Someone somewhere wrote that Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, an intoxicating, homosocial interpolation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, was the final indisputable masterpiece of the 20th century. She’s spent all of the 21st century thus far as one of the most respected directors in the film fest circuit.
Denis approaches narrative less as a function of plot and more like a natural response to the biorhythms of her characters, which can sometimes result in dazzlingly lived-in environments all but unparalleled in current cinema (Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) but can also lead to some of the most maddeningly cryptic dissociations (The Intruder, I Can’t Sleep).
Born in Paris but raised largely on the move in various French-colonized sections of Africa, Denis has an innate understanding for diaspora, both physical and psychological. It manifests itself in works as direct as Chocolat and as boldly metaphoric as Trouble Every Day, Denis’s terrifying, bloody sojourn into the field of horror.
Throughout the next few weeks, the Walker Art Center is presenting a retrospective of nearly all of her films (only 1990′s No Fear, No Die and 2002′s Friday Night are missing from the lineup, among her feature-length works), leading up to a Regis Dialogue with the director herself and film critic Kent Jones. (The dialogue is at 8 p.m. on Nov. 17. Tickets cost $20.)
Denis has mentioned in interviews that she doesn’t regard her oeuvre as having a “trajectory” or overriding theme, at least not one that would appease auteurists keen on compartmentalizing her works into one mold. Tellingly, the Walker has titled her retrospective “Unpredictable Universe.”
Below are capsule reviews of the program by fellow movie blogger Jonathon Sharp and myself.
I Can’t Sleep (J’ai pas sommeil)
(110 min; 1994)
Playing: Oct. 30; 7:30 p.m. $9
I could write a sonnet about that photogenic gap between actress Beatrice Dalle’s two front teeth, but she’s just one of the many narrative couplets floating throughout Denis’s too ambitious by half, cross-cutting 1994 effort I Can’t Sleep. With a number of allusions to the difficult plight of immigrants in France, Denis wraps the true-life crime story of notorious Parisian “Granny Killer” Thierry Paulin into a diffuse tone poem that sometimes suggests a bipolar Altman testing the waters with some Quaaludes. The murderous actions of the film’s Paulin stand-in, gay transvestite Camille (Richard Courcet), flirt tantalizingly with the daily dilemmas of Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva), a Lithuanian would-be actress whose difficulties with the language barrier consistently put her in the line of exploitation, in much the same way the elderly nature of Camille’s victims make them easy marks. Denis enriches this somewhat tenuous connection with an entire extended family of social outcasts and the latent notion that no one who is exiled can truly be said to be alone in a society boasting such normalized alienation. – Eric Henderson
Trouble Every Day
(101 min; 2001)
Playing: Oct. 31 — Halloween! — 7:30 p.m. $9
Nothing titillates tony cinephiles with a healthy taste for blood quite like super-serious auteurs tackling the lowly horror genre, or “artsploitation,” if you will. Sometimes the experiments work, other times they die on the operating table, and often they only satisfy one of the two crowds — either the art geeks or the horror freaks. Denis’s silken 2001 Trouble Every Day — a modern-day tale of sex and vampirism that Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez pointed out suggests a metaphor for the ongoing AIDS crisis — is one of the few that exceeds on both levels, thanks in large part due to the reliably lush cinematography of Agnes Godard, the feral performances of Beatrice Dalle, Vincent Gallo and Alex Descas (all Denis regulars), and some of the most regally brutal scenes of bloody carnage to ever grace any world class art-house favorite’s filmography. For some reason, Denis’s longueurs and narrative ellipses seem uniquely suited to this sort of material, so much so that you temporarily lament that she didn’t take the career detour for all it’s worth. – EH
Claire Denis, La Vagabonde
(50 min; 1996)
Playing: Nov. 1; 7:30 p.m. FREE!
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums)
(100 min; 2008)
Playing: Nov. 2; 7:30 p.m. $9
Consciously modeled after Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (a film the Japanese titan himself “remade,” in a sense and to slightly more melancholic effect, for his final film An Autumn Afternoon), Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum is another showcase for not only the director’s pitch-perfect ability to read the pulse of human interactions (a skill that reaches its apex — perhaps Denis’s apex thus far — during a timeless sequence in a café as the film’s characters escape from the rain), but also for cinematographer Agnes Godard’s rich, evocative images. In Rum, adults find it difficult to adjust to anything that upsets their sense of stasis, a paradox Denis empathizes with even as logic implies the experience of age should be continually preparing people to adapt. While Ozu’s Late Spring honed in on the love a father and daughter can feel for each other while wistfully aware that love can’t alone sustain either’s lives, Rum expands the frame to include a quartet of characters, all of whom are very much together in their unforeseen aloneness. – EH
The Intruder (L’intrus)
(140 min; 2004)
Playing: Nov. 3; 7:30 p.m. $9
The Intruder is tricky. In way, everything in it is an intruder of sorts. Even the viewer doesn’t escape feeling like one as he happens upon a series of events somewhat difficult to weave into a coherent this-happened-then-this-happened story. Denis examines obvious intruders, like trespassers and criminals. There are also more metaphorical ones, like babies or transplanted hearts. In general, film’s pretty poem-flow suggests that a man (Michel Subor)– who has the heart transplant — is trying to sew things up between him and his estranged son (Grégoire Colin). But there isn’t too much emphasis placed on that, or, at least, you understanding that. In a way, the movie feels like it’s trying to visually be what a post-modern short story is on paper: a cut-up mix of images and actions meant to make language or images new again. And to certain degree, it succeeds. Like everything Denis makes happen on screen, The Intruder is beautiful, calculated, fresh, filled with scenes that stick in your memory like a foot in the snow. It’s by no means a crowd-pleaser, but it’s fun to find out if you love it or just can’t stand asking yourself for the seventeenth time What’s going on? – Jonathon Sharp
(106 min; 2009)
Playing: Nov. 7; 7:30 p.m. $9
Denis’s most recent film finds her returning to the African terrain upon which she was raised, an area where, as one character puts it, “extreme blondness brings bad luck.” White Material stars Isabelle “Fearless” Huppert as Maria, the matriarch of a coffee plantation who, despite copious evidence of an increasingly unstable political situation that puts her, her family and her workers at risk, insists on remaining in danger’s way in order to harvest this season’s crop of beans. When the employees abandon her, she sets out to find anyone willing to help. The themes of colonialism and an unequal global marketplace which have peppered Denis’s works from the beginning are here moved right into the foreground, and her political viewpoint on the subject is hardly left abstruse. The result is one of her most direct films (if still not exactly conventional, per se), but also an unusually muscular one whose social efficacy may be enough to draw in those more comfortable with her more sedate rhythms. – EH
(105 min; 1988)
Playing: Nov. 14; 7:30 p.m. $9
Let’s be clear: Johnny Depp isn’t in this Chocolat. This Chocolat is Denis’ directorial debut and it follows a young Frenchwoman (named France) as she travels about Africa, reminiscing on her childhood in Cameroon. One imagines much of Denis’ one childhood appears before the lens. At the heart of France’s memories is a friend: a house servant named Protée (Isaak de Bankol). Despite his stoicism and severe handsomeness, Protée is about the most gentlemanly and caring person in France’s life. But the friendship is bittersweet: for the colonial family unit is built on an architecture of racism. It’s never quite abusive or OMG! ugly, but it’s there, in every gesture and command, like cigarette stains on teeth. Denis captures this unease masterfully. For her first film, Chocolat is pretty damn mature, almost too much so. The story – using that term loosely – takes a back seat to the exploration and depiction of household interactions. In a way, the viewer’s experience is not too different from France’s return to Africa: you’re in a cab watching the land-and-cityscapes rush by, drawing conclusions about the window-muted inhabitants. The images are gorgeous but sometimes they lull you to sleep. – JS
(90 min; 1999)
Playing: Nov. 16; 7:30 p.m. $9
Nénette et Boni
(103 min; 1996)
Playing: Nov. 18; 2 p.m. $9
Family dysfunction, a white rabbit, a BB gun and a baby: those items help tell the story Nénette and Boni, a darkly funny and lyrical film that explores the desires and dreams of two down-and-out siblings. They are boy and girl, Boni and Nénette, respectively. Boni is a pizza chef living in his dead mothers’ home dreaming of one thing: sleeping with the baker’s wife. Unfortunately for him, it’s hard to sleep with someone married to Vincent Gallo, or someone played by him. Nénette, on the other hand, is a sullen, cat-like-quiet girl who’s pregnant and fleeing her father, a man whom Boni greets through the iron sights of his rifle. Nénette ends up living with Boni while he can stomach her around, and Denis shows the odd state of their existence – that of children trying to be adults. This inbetweener status makes for some wonderful images, my favorite being one of Boni peeing (back to the camera) while holding a tiny white rabbit. The picture is a cocktail mixing the gross and the cute, highlighting the bizarre and inherent innocence of some desires whether they be sex or a want of a family, companions, love. The way Denis weaves these desires — and the tensions they bring — is smoothly unpredictable. Good, good stuff. – JS