Thursday, February 11, 2010

Modern Maestros: Claire Denis

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. This week I'm thrilled to highlight one of my personal favorites. Claire Denis' films can still be difficult to find. I've been putting off featuring her as a Modern Maestro until her most recent film made its way here to the Midwest. Finally it has and did not disappoint.

Maestro:Claire Denis
Known For: Poetically filmed ponderances on the human condition, connections, and the relationship between France and Africa.
Influences: Alain Resnais, F.W. Murnau, Jacques Rivette, Yasujiro Ozu, Wim Wenders, really it seems like she's learned from the whole of cinematic history.
Masterpieces:Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum
Disasters: none
Better than you remember: Trouble Every Day was a bit too negatively received by critics and The Intruder befuddedly received by the public (the few that saw it). Both are better than you'd be lead to believe.
Box Office: Her first film Chocolat (not to be confused with the Lass Hallstrom confection of the same name) is her highest grossing. But her recent films are steadily growing in box office take.
Favorite Actor: Gregoire Colin

One of the signs of a great grownup movie is that it doesn't force feed you. Many modern (and hell classic too) movies explain major plot points multiple times for fear you might miss them. Claire Denis movies trust you to understand out what's going on. Thus Denis' films have occasionally been accused of being obtuse and when given free reign, as in her 2005 film The Intruder, they can be pretty impenetrable. But enjoying such a film isn't impossible, especially if you go in with the understanding that you may not understand much. At least you can appreciate all of the comprehensible elements. And in a Claire Denis film, there's a lot to appreciate. Denis films come from the same school of indie thought as Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders. They're impossibly cool films. Yet they don't sacrifice artistry for trendiness thanks to factors like creatively used music, tranquil pacing (helped out by regular cinematographer Agnes Godard's brilliant work), profound visual metaphor (as when a subway driver accustomed to watching the world pass by safely outside his window briefly sees himself wandering down the tracks on a shaky horse) and charismatic actors who understand how eyes can say so much more than speech. Of course, these elements also contribute to the occasional dismissal of Denis' films as those where "nothing happens." But there is much happening, and as in real life the drama isn't in a sudden emotional outburst but in a constant between-the-lines conflict.

Michel Subor in The Intruder. It's in the eyes

And the conflict that interests Denis the most is that when our desires meet our judgment. This is why the immigrant (often African) experience appeals to her. It's a topic that encompasses people's desire to be free, heard, equal, or sexual meeting up against the wall of social or cultural prejudices and limitations. Though there are other ample sources of this conflict, and since this is French film we're discussing, they are often found intertwined with sexual taboo, whether it be the homoerotic undertones of Military man Denis Lavant in Beau Travail, the innocent one night affair in Friday Night or the cannibalistic cravings of Vincent Gallo in Trouble Every Day. Denis knows we all experience these conflicts of desire versus judgment (even if they're not all of the sexual kind), and she paints pictures using characters who are fully lived in, even if not overtly explained.

Her latest movie, 35 Shots of Rum is inhabited with characters who do little and say little but have dimensions that are infinite. And she tells their story visually. The film begins with cross-cut shots of a father and daughter, in their separate spaces, staring out in need into the world. And so with no one having said a word we learn that when they are apart they are melancholy, when together they are comfortable (though we eventually come to see that this comfort is the real source of conflict). And so it goes in a Claire Denis film, scene after scene. We're trusted to understand by ourselves, not because we must guess, but because we're given the language of cinema to read. A language Denis speaks better than most.

Considering how that most recent film has been receiving fantastic reviews and I'd like to think that Claire Denis films are finding a larger and larger audience each day. But it's difficult sometimes to tell if someone's exposure is growing on an international stage or merely on my own living room television. Those who've seen Denis' films (though please don't unless you're in the mood to engage) can't deny her place as one of the finest directors working today. Denis' next film (already on the festival circuit) White Material takes her back to Africa, the site of Denis' first film Chocolat and her childhood. Early word is that it's another masterpiece, suggesting that Denis is riding the highest crest of her career. It's good news for her, and even better news for us.



I have definitely been remiss in seeing her recent work but I'm crazy about Beau Travail. Trouble Every Day disturbed me and not necessarily in the way I like to be disturbed. But I still remember it more vividly than other movies.

Robert said...

35 Shots of Rum is really one of the best films I've seen in years.

Ryan Andrew Balas said...

35 Shot of Rum was incredible.
The scene where the line of people are walking on the beach holding the lanterns, is reason enough to see the film. And the dancing scene in the bar spoke volumes about the depth of the relationships. It's really an amazing film and i'm so glad my friend insisted we see it.

Tim said...

I'm horribly deficient in her work, but The Intruder is a film that I absolutely can't shake, impenetrable or not. The way it's put together makes so much intuitive emotional sense, even if it's impossible to figure it out as narrative. Easily one of the best of the decade.

Stephanie SeRine Photography said...

Claire Denis films definitely go back to the art of filmmaking. She isn't in it for the money.

Unknown said...

I saw "White Material" at the New York Film festival and it was quite an experience. It's all over the place, but in a good way...and Isabelle Huppert was brilliance as the lead.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I just did not get 35 Shots of Rum. I don't mean, I didn't get the plot or whatever. I mean the appeal, the visual poetry everybody's talking about - beyond that cafe scene. For me it was just a fabulous cafe scene with a rather prosaic movie tacked on to it.

I will one day watch it again, certainly - maybe it clicks the second time around. I feel similarly out of the loop about all the hosanna's surrounding Summer Hours - particularly since I'm totally the target audience for these films: moody, elegiac French tone poems built by first-rate auteurs around untraditional, quietly, affectionately crumbling families. One of them even has Juliette Binoche. I'm not sure how everybody else found something here to fall in love with and I didn't. I feel somehow deprived.

Anyway, back to Denis - the only other film of hers I've seen is Beau travail - on late-night TV with blurry reception, when I was 15 years old, having missed the opening 20 or so minutes. So I don't count that as having seen the film. One weekend I'm going to sit down and watch all of her films in chronological order. Let's see if something clicks then.

dfwforeignbuff said...

I ordered Beau travail from netflix and really enjoyed it. It is an unusual dreamy film. I read a lot of the reviews and its incredible how many reviewers panned this movie with big time negative reviews. After seeing that film I knew Claire Dennis has to be a special type of film maker and plan to see more soon. Netflix has most of her film available.