Claire Denis (21/4/48) is a celebrated French filmmaker and teacher. Born in France, she spent her childhood in French Africa, before returning to France at 14 to finish her education. She graduated from the French film school IDHEC in 1971. After assisting filmmakers such as Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, she directed her first film in 1988.
Claire Denis is a highly stylistic, formalist filmmaker. Translation: you will either love or hate her films – there is little middle ground.
Those who dislike her work see her as an example of the worst excesses of ‘art cinema’ – a rejection of standard storytelling, pretentious and boring. Her films can show long sequences of images that have no narrative purpose, there is minimal exposition – characters are not really introduced, we simply figure them out as we go and her use of violence (although rare) can be disturbing. Her films sometimes lack beginnings and endings.
Those who love her work (and there are many) describe her as a fearless filmmaker who is fascinated by human life and human relationships. Her films are not a standard 3-act story, because the films closely track real people and real life (neither of which are structured into 3 acts).
All of her films, in addition to the humans, feature two strong characters: the music and the location. Denis collaborates regularly with British indie pop group the Tindersticks to provide original music for her films. The music, far from being a background component, maintains a strong presence throughout the film, sometimes as a complement or even a contrast to a landscape (for instance in White Material) and sometimes as a connection point between characters, causing them to dance, sing or simply notice each other. Location is a central element of Denis’ films, with many sequences exploring how the characters interact with – or are molded by – the environment in which they live, be it an African farm or a Parisian suburb.
I would even go as far as to say that the camera becomes a character (albeit silent) in many of her films. The shots are almost exclusively at eye-level and are often framed as if the camera is a bystander or part of the group of characters. This can create awkward shots that feel like real eye-lines – partially blocked by other actors, or looking over someone’s shoulder. This gives a strongly documentary feel to many parts of her films, adding to the sense of realism.
Her lack of exposition forces you to watch her films actively, rather than passively. As a viewer you are constantly questioning…’who is that?’, ‘why are they here?, ‘why did they just do that?’. The answers are revealed slowly, requiring significant attention to catch the word or facial expression that answers your question.
Denis uses many of the same actors throughout her films, and says that she often writes a role with a specific actor in mind. This had mixed results for me – I thought that some of the actors were wonderful and loved seeing them in different roles, while other actors grated against me. I felt that Denis saw some quality or beauty in them that I could not.
Watching this body of work was harder than I thought it would be. It took far longer than planned and several films required multiple viewings to finish. For a viewer whose typical fare includes thrillers, action, zombies and vampires, these small, slow films were real work. At the end, however, I am happy that I put in the time and concentration. I have experienced new films and a new style of filmmaking and I think I have a whole new appreciation for directors who commit to making small, highly-stylistic films that have something to say.
White Material (2009)
35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Beau travail / Good Work (1999)
Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996)
J’ai pas sommeil / I Can’t Sleep (1994)
Still to watch:
L’intrus / The Intruder (2004)
Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002)
S’en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990)
Chocolat / Chocolate (1988)