If we’re to subscribe to the common belief that there’s more bad than good out there in the world, as far as cinema is concerned, then one could make the argument that many middle-of-the-road motion pictures operate as visually-driven information-delivery systems: a means by which filmmakers can bring exposition, jokes, thrills, and ultimately, a resolution to an audience. Claire Denis is not a filmmaker who subscribes to this reductive artistic philosophy.
The word “poet” gets thrown around to describe filmmakers willy-nilly these days, but few have earned the term by virtue of their rhapsodically unconventional visual style as much as Denis has over the course of her remarkable career. The legendary 74-year old French filmmaker has continued to hone her unmistakable signature aesthetic in recent years, all while continuing to merge her foremost authorial obsessions (sex, desire, statehood, identity, colonialism) with established genre templates. What we’re trying to say is that it doesn’t matter if Denis is making a homoerotic tone poem, a vampire art movie, a lighthearted romance, or an existential rumination set in the farthest reaches of outer space, Claire Denis only knows how to make Claire Denis movies. And while the filmmaker has gone on to influence a host of other terrific female directors (Eliza Hittman and Andrea Arnold come to mind), the fact remains that there is no one else quite like her, and there probably never will be.
Denis has released three of her most fascinating works since last we ran a retrospective about her work: the atmospheric neo-noir “Bastards,” the Juliette Binoche-starring “Let The Sunshine In,” and 2019’s terrifying “High Life,” in which Binoche returns to the Denis fold to play a sex-crazed doctor who exorcises her demons whilst using a frighteningly elaborate futuristic sex toy known as “The Fuck Box.” With A24 having acquired the North American distribution rights to Denis’ next film, a Denis Johnson adaptation called “The Stars at Night” that’s set to star Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley, it feels safe to say that the director isn’t settling down. If anything, Denis has become even more unapologetic about her fixations and fetishes in her old age. Denis remains arguably our greatest living she director of sensualist cinema (put it this way, there would be no “Moonlight” without her), and there’s something exhilarating in knowing that she’s even more restlessly curious about cinema as an art form than she was before, particularly as she reaches an age where many filmmakers think about retiring.
To commemorate the recent restored 4K Criterion Collection release of “Beau Travail,” arguably Denis’ masterpiece, we’ve decided to take an updated look at Denis sensory-laden oeuvre below. – Nicholas Laskin
“U.S. Go Home” (1994) [TV]
Claire Denis’ contribution to the 1994 French TV series “All the Boys and Girls of Their Generation”—which gathered together, as its title suggests, the most promising French filmmakers of the time—is to this writer’s mind very much of a piece with Olivier Assayas’ submission to the omnibus project, “Cold Water.” As the series requests, both films relate their directors’ adolescence to the music of their youth (the ‘60s), and both hit their stride in filming long, near-wordless party sequences set to American classic rock favorites and deep cuts. (There may even be some crossover in their setlists.) But where Assayas’ looks primarily at a fissure between the younger and older generations (an overarching theme for the “Punk-rock Auteur’s” career), Denis’ is a kind of quasi-sequel to her debut, “Chocolat,” engaging with the more complicated social fissure she was confronted with in moving from Africa to the outskirts of Paris— the western influence of residual U.S. troops and the friction their occupancy causes among native Parisians. The American music echoes that friction, and the young French protagonists’ struggle for individual freedoms through sexual expression becomes a dual theme with France’s desire to be self-dependent. At barely an hour, “U.S. Go Home” also plays as a dry-run for Denis’ 1997 film “Nenette and Boni,” which features each of its three principals (Gregoire Colin, Alice Houri, and Vincent Gallo) in very similar roles.
“I Can’t Sleep” (1994)
In the hands of near any other director, “I Can’t Sleep” would’ve been boilerplate mystery-procedural fare. In Claire Denis’ soft hands, it’s a deceptively complex study of sin’s blow-back, its consequences on the sinful and the innocents caught in the crossfire. It’s also a scathing commentary on the poor conditions for immigrants in the ghettos of Paris, developing its mosaic of characters (many played by Denis regulars like Alex Descas and Béatrice Dalle) over a leisurely two hours. Daiga (Katia Golubeva), a tall, wispy Lithuanian beauty, moves in with relatives in Paris. She doesn’t speak much French, and when a radio announcer warns of the “Granny Killer,” she doesn’t understand. But we do. She’s our entry point; we feel just as uprooted as she does in this seedy place, and our understanding of her displacement pays off two-fold when it lends insight into the mind of the killer, an immigrant who shares her frustrations and feelings of alienation. Denis is too smart to create a film rote with cynicism; there are no heroes in “I Can’t Sleep,” but the city fights its own demons, “grannies” take up martial arts to defend themselves, and those with any shred of humanity reach out to others, often in vain. Denis understands that people sin, but knows that they also regret. The title, “I Can’t Sleep,” may suggest that even the gravest offenders lose sleep over their transgressions.
Though born in France, Claire Denis spent much of her childhood in Africa; her father was stationed there as a French Official, and she’s said in interviews that her family moved often so they could come to understand the “geography” of their region. Denis’ debut, “Chocolat,” uses these experiences; it’s the only film Denis herself considers autobiographical. It traces the early life of an adolescent girl, very significantly named France, whose upbringing bears similarity to Denis’ own. A framing device sandwiches the film between two present-day sequences: a prologue and stellar epilogue involving France as an adult visiting Cameroon after years away. In between, we’re thrust into Northern French Cameroon, where seven-year-old France lives with her parents and “houseboy” Protee (Isaach De Bankolé). Denis focuses on the relationship between Protee and France’s mother (Giulia Boschi), as seen through the young girl’s eyes—a relationship complicated by racial and class tensions. France herself observes, but not passively: she learns. Most significant is the knowledge her father imparts to her, describing the horizon as a line that is “there and not there” (a metaphor for the line which separates race and class). Many have praised Denis’ latest, “White Material,” but its shared themes are explored with greater depth and clarity here.