French filmmaker Claire Denis has never made the same film twice. Sure, like most great filmmakers there are themes, subtext, and general subject matter that she often returns to, but there’s a playfulness and thoughtfulness to the genres and styles she often seeks to subvert. She has made everything from grand romance and crushing drama to thoughtful looks at the nature of family and blood curdling horror, placing her in the grand tradition of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa who would refuse to let themselves be pigeonholed by any singular type of movie despite having a unique style all their own.
With the local release of her most recent effort Bastards arriving in theatres this week (full review coming on Friday), the TIFF Bell Lightbox offers up the first retrospective of Denis’ sprawling, but often austere filmography in the city in nearly a decade starting on Friday, October 11th titled, Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis. One of the most vital filmmakers still working, Denis’ sometimes confrontational, but always thoughtful and rich work yields the rare example of a filmmaker who hasn’t crafted a film yet that isn’t immediately worth careful consideration and analysis. Often working from somewhat autobiographical tangents or previously established works for inspiration, Denis’ filmmaking acumen and tendency to work with the same cadre of actors time and time again certainly breeds a sense of familiarity with the viewer, but never stagnancy. Like snowflakes, they can accumulate to quite a formidable whole, but none of them are even remotely like in size, tone, scope, structure, or even chemical make-up.
With the retrospective running until Sunday, November 10th and with every film immediately recommendable, here are 5 that beg to be watched on the big screen or offer the biggest scope of Denis’ work for those who have never seen a single frame of it, with suggestions for further watching if you like what you see.
Beau Travail (1999, Saturday, October 12th, 7:00pm) – Perhaps Denis’ most widely celebrated work, this melding of a war drama and tale of deep personal jealousy uses a decidedly operatic structure and approach to its tale of isolation and sexual repression. Casting equally noteable French performer Denis Lavant (himself recently a large part of the Leos Carax retrospective at the Lightbox) and based loosely on both Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd and the Benjamin Britten opera that used the story as its source material, it portrays militaristic posturing as a dangerous form of dance and potential death. Set along the gorgeous coastlines of Djibouti and the arid sections surrounding it, Levant plays Galoup, A French Foreign Legion General and consummate professional who seems threatened by the arrival of a good looking young man (Gregoire Colin) whose bravery and good heart threatens to undermine his authority and command. Travail exemplifies and underlines Denis’ ability to craft an enthralling story without spelling out the motivations of her characters. Even with Levant contributing voiceover to the story, there are still gaps in the audience’s understanding of events that are infinitely more fruitful to ponder and puzzle with. And yet, even on a surface level, it all makes perfect sense on a single glance.
If you like this, see also: 35 Shots of Rum (2008, Saturday, November 9th, 5:00pm), Denis’ most genteel work which pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring in a tale based on the lives of her grandmother and grandfather living in Paris. It’s another great example of how, like Travail, Denis can skew and mould a great adaptation into a deeply personal and emotional new beast. Also, Friday Night (2002, Friday, October 25th, 6:30pm), an equally moving and far more joyful adaptation of a novel (from Emmanuele Bernheim) that strips a sexy romance to its barest essence by eliminating dialogue from most of the film’s most telling moments.
Trouble Every Day (2001, Sunday, November 3rd, 7:00pm) – Her follow-up to the almost universally well received and decidedly less squirm inducing Beau Travail was the initially puzzled over and sometimes outright panned erotic body horror that’s actually one of her strongest works (and if you asked me personally, I would say is her strongest). An American doctor (Vincent Gallo, in his best performance) makes his way to Paris to track down a former colleague who might hold the cure to a torturous disease that makes the afflicted only able to satisfy their sexual urges by voraciously and animalistically draining the blood from a lover. Not quite a retelling of vampirism, but more an equation of sexual promiscuity and dark secrets to a form on self-cannibalism, Trouble Every Day was initially called out by many critics as being cold and distancing, which is perfectly fitting when talking about the film’s aesthetic (which isn’t supposed to be a remotely happy one) and style (which from Denis is always purposefully distanced to give an almost voyeuristic feel). What’s often missed is the profound sadness and melancholy that’s so integral and often missed in horror films. It’s not expressly designed to provoke or promote titillation through abasement, but to make people think about the characters and their unusual situations. Much like this film’s follow-up Friday Night, the most important moments are wordless and told through the actor’s expressions, and much like its predecessor it’s indicative of Denis’ abilities to tell a rich and nuanced story without spelling out motivations. Most importantly, however, it’s the best and most original horror film of the new century and the New French Extremist movement that it finds itself a lynchpin of.
If you like this, see also: I Can’t Sleep (1994, Tuesday, October 22nd, 6:30pm), a character rich and sexually politicized drama about the hunt for a serial killer who has been robbing and murdering the elderly – a true crime film that would make for a great double bill with Spike Lee’s problematic but interesting Summer of Sam. But in terms of style and actual sexualisation of the characters, Nenette et Boni (1996, Sunday, October 27th, 3:30pm) features an almost equally great performance from Gallo, similar use of distancing techniques, a story of characters dealing with their sexual repression, and a great soundtrack courtesy of Tindersticks, who also provide the smoky jams that help make Trouble Every Day just a bit more memorable.
Chocolat (1988, Friday, October 11th, 6:30pm) – It sounds redundant to say, but there might not be a better starting point for Denis newbies than her debut feature, an epic pseudo-autobiography that shares a lot in common with her other efforts to follow (use of flashbacks, distant but fluid cinematography, a focus on the differences between biological and extended family), but it’s also her most striking look at life’s contradictions. Set in 1950s North Cameroon, a place where the lush grassland running parallel to dry, desert patches offers its own mirror image to the French occupation of the area, Denis offers up an unflinching character study about people from different worlds colliding socially and romantically. The racial lines being drawn in her work here are obvious, as young white mother Aimee (Giulia Boschi) struggles with a latent sexual attraction to a black worker on her father’s estate (frequent Denis collaborator Isaach De Bankole). Possibly more intriguing to the sexual and racial politics in play, is the friendship struck between De Bankole’s servant and Denis’ younger surrogate, played by Cecile Ducasse. Chocolat, for all its astute views on uppity privilege on the part of the French and the English, very much feels childlike in a pleasing way, with shots often centered just slightly lower than normal, but still taking in an expansive view of the world around the characters. It’s that very personal touch that makes Chocolat all the more poignant.
If you like this, see also: White Material (2010, Sunday, November 10th, 3:45pm), Denis most recent film prior to Bastards and her only other return to the country where she spent most of her childhood as the daughter of a French colonial administrator. It’s a decidedly darker story set in an unspecified republic in the throes of a bloody civil war, starring Isabelle Huppert as a French woman desperately trying to hang onto her family’s coffee plantation. In many ways, White Material plays out like an eerily prescient post-script to Chocolat, set in an indeterminate future not too far off. It’s certainly not as wistful, but the parallels between the works are striking. Also worth checking out is No Fear, No Die (1990, Sunday, October 13th, 4:30pm), Denis’ immediate follow-up to Chocolat about a pair of displaced West African immigrants living in the Parisian ghetto. Another of Denis’ films that aren’t for those with delicate sensibilities or constitution (in addition to spot on looks at poverty, cockfighting is in integral part of the story), this feels like a perfect continuation of much of the same issues about identity and sexuality, but with an added layer of distance beyond the youthful ennui of her previous film.
U.S. Go Home (1994, Saturday, October 26th, 4:15pm) – Although crafted originally as part of a French television mini-series that enlisted directors to tell stories of their youth, Denis delivers one of her best and possibly least seen efforts, crafting one of the most loving and longing coming of age stories ever packed into just a bit over a single hour. It’s almost a classical set-up for a teen movie farce replete with a killer soundtrack (the rights to which have made the film largely unavailable since the VHS days), making U.S. Go Home possibly Denis most mainstream effort. Two girls (Alice Houri and Jessica Tharaud) make a pact to lose their virginity at a party, but Houri’s older brother (Beau Travail co-star to be Gregoire Colin) tags along as a mandated chaperone to their chagrin, leading them to ditch and take off with a sad-sack U.S. soldier (Vincent Gallo, again). So pointed and almost unnerving in its portrait of teenage angst and hormones, Denis’ work stands favourably alongside dozens of this film’s North American and European counterparts. If you can only see one film (and you’re already somewhat versed in Denis’work), be sure to make it this one as it could very well be your last or only chance to see it ever again.
If you like this, see also: Vers Nancy (2002), a ten minutes short, and the film following it The Intruder (2004, Tuesday, Octiber 29th, 6:30pm), both of which use youth as a focal point for larger philosophical discussions. In the short, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy – whose work would inspire the feature to follow – has a discussion with a young woman on the eve of the millennium. In The Intruder, Denis taps into Nancy’s autobiography about his health problems and heart transplant, in a story of a man pushing youth out of his life, symbolized by the estrangement of leading man Michael Subor to his son, played by returning Gregorie Colin. It’s Denis’ longest, most epic canvas that she’s played with, and probably her most problematic overall, but this story of lost love and youthful regrets coming back to beset the aged offers a unique lens to view U.S. Go Home through.
Jacques Rivette: The Nightwatchman (1990, Sunday, October 13th, 7:15pm) – Also dabbling in the documentary realm, Denis lays her influences barest in this look at her mentor Jacques Rivette and his conversations about his life’s work with Cahiers du Cinema critic Serge Daney. I put this one at the bottom of the list, as it’s probably far too esoteric and academic for most to be able to get through, but it also provides a unique understanding into Denis’ modus operandi. It’s a highly observational look at a filmmaker known for being purposefully vague to allow for work to be interpreted rather than merely experienced and forgotten about. Cinephiles, on the other hand, will have no problem getting into this material even without a passing knowledge of Rivette as a filmmaker. If anything, it’s Denis’ most generous work. It’s an open sharing with the film’s original television audience about something that she happens to find very interesting, and told with often the same youthful vigour she brings to her fictional work.
If you like this, see also: Vers Mathilde (Tuesday, November 5th, 6:30pm), Denis’ other most notable documentary effort, in which she chronicles Mathilde Monnier, one of the best dance choreographers in the world. Adapting her usual shooting style of fiction not only to capturing dance, but also backwards to the use of 8 and 16mm film, this might be the hardest to place films in Denis’ filmography as a whole, but it’s no less loving a look at an artist she has a deep admiration and respect for.
Denis will also be attending the TIFF Bell Lightbox in person on Thursday October 17th at 6:45pm to present a screening of her personally selected Carte Blanch presentations Touki Bouki, a 1973 Senegalese film about two lovers travelling through Dakar, and TIFF 2013 selection A Thousand Suns, featuring a look at Touki Bouki’s star Magaye Niang. She will also provide a Q&A following the 6:30pm screening of her latest film, Bastards, on Friday, October 18th. For more information, please visit tiff.net.