Claire Denis: Cinema, Strangers and Sensation

A retrospective of French filmmaker Claire Denis’ work reveals a cinema of intimacy, tenderness and violent desire

Feature by Jenny Munro | 24 Jun 2010

Twenty-two years after the release of her first film, Chocolat (1988), French filmmaker Claire Denis is now regarded as one of the world’s finest living directors. Her slow-burning, intimate oeuvre has often escaped public attention, but, thanks to a retrospective at Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh's Filmhouse, audiences will finally be able to witness the progress of this extraordinary director’s career.

Denis was raised in Africa, and her films often return to the continent of her childhood. Chocolat, Beau Travail (2000), Trouble Every Day (2001) and her latest feature, White Material (2009) all refer to African locations and characters’ desire, or reluctance, to stay or return there. Denis works through her own conception of identity, of Frenchness and Africanness, and the struggle to identify with both, or neither.

Writer Martine Beugnet refers to Denis’ films as a “cinema of the senses,” and indeed her films move beyond the visual, into tactile, sensory territory, where the viewer is asked to identify with characters’ physical sensations. In Vendredi Soir (2002), as two strangers spend one night together, we can smell the cigarette smoke on a man’s fingers, and feel the tentative erotic tension between two unfamiliar bodies as they touch. Denis herself has said “desire is violence,” and the gentlest touches are often contrasted with violent acts. In Trouble Every Day, a young man’s body is torn apart by the teeth and fingers of Béatrice Dalle, an actress who, after Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue (1986), became the image of unbridled desire in French cinema. Comparisons might be drawn with Catherine Breillat’s starkly intimate explorations of bodies in coitus, or, recently, the body-horror of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), but Denis’ is an oeuvre wherein unsettling sensations are balanced with exquisite tenderness. Her continued focus on male bodies might suggest a direct reversal of the age-old objectification of women onscreen, but the situation is more complex. Denis regards the male body with an inquisitive gaze: these bodies are strange and elusive, and the sensations they experience are more important than their physical beauty.

Nottingham band Tindersticks have provided many of Denis’ films’ soundtracks, their dusky scores perfectly complementing her wandering visuals. Denis’ appropriation of pop songs is always surprising: perhaps Corona’s 1993 dance classic Rhythm of the Night never moved anyone to tears until the defeated legionnaire Galoup danced to it in Beau Travail; The Commodores’ Nightshift beautifully soundtracks a tentative kiss in 35 Shots of Rum.

Her latest film, White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unspecified African nation which she refuses to leave, despite the threat of civil war. Her adolescent son suddenly finds himself a stranger, threatened in the land of his birth. The film’s menacing tension approaches acts of horrific violence, where the human body’s vulnerability is explored, with even the chopping of hair becoming a terrifying act.

White Material cements Denis’ reputation as a filmmaker whose treatment of the cinematic experience goes far beyond the visual: we, the viewers, are always strangers in her universe, a landscape of frightening and pleasurable sensations, which linger even after our memories of the images fade.

Intense Intimacy: The Cinema of Claire Denis is at The Filmhouse, Edinburgh 3 - 25 July and the Glasgow Film Theatre 6 - 27 July. White Material is released on 3 July.