Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Claire Denis Films

A spotlight on Claire Denis featuring the following 5 films:

Nénette et Boni (1996)
Beau Travail (1999)
Friday Night (2002)
L’Intrus (2004)
White Material (2009)

L’Intrus -- A global journey

First, there was the sound.

Then, there was the image.

Without the sound, the image meant nothing. Without the image, the sound would have not have had such an effect.

A simple image with a simple discordant sound in the background.

Another image, with the same sound.

L’Intrus features many images with variations of the same opening background score by Stuart Staples’ (Tindersticks) solo score. Staples' score is set either against stationary images or against fast moving objects such as the dogs in the snow. The music produces a mesmerizing effect in all cases and adds a layer of mystery around each image while accelerating the pace of the film. When his score comes on, it takes center stage allowing one to listen to it perfectly while observing the images. Normally, in most films one only gets to listen to a few seconds of a background score before the music gets muted when the actors start talking. But in L'Intrus, Claire Denis ensures the music is given enough of a presence. In a sense, Staples' score forms a bridge between the various images and is a key component in carrying the story.

The combination of these images with Staples' score produced a haunting lasting impact on me when I first saw L’Intrus more than a year ago. I always felt that it was a film that demanded a second viewing so that I could move beyond the hypnotic seductive impact of the images and dig a bit deeper into the story. Thankfully, the second viewing proved immensely rewarding and easily confirmed L’Intrus as my favourite Claire Denis film and in this category I include White Material, Beau Travail and I Can’t Sleep.

The story of L’Intrus can be easily summarized as a tale of the missing heart. Louis (Michel Subor) requires a heart transplant to save his life but nothing is the same after he gets his new heart.

He goes on a long journey to gather a part of his past because that would help fill his new heart with love and satisfaction.

In reality, he needs to find his long lost son because his current son (played by Grégoire Colin) is hardly capable of any love. Neither does Louis’ sultry seductive neighbour offer any love although she haunts his fantasies.
Louis names his neighbour (Béatrice Dalle) “queen of the northern hemisphere” and she truly is a queen, who can not only tame men but wild beasts as well.
As tempting as she is, the queen can never mend Louis’ heart. So he is forced to undertake a journey to a more warmer paradise where his past lies.

L’Intrus is a journey across the planet as envisioned by Claire Denis. The film locations consist of snowy landscapes, perfect beaches, rainy ships, a peaceful countryside with some hills, a crowded city and a tense border crossing. The film is inspired by a Jean-Luc Nancy book L’Intrus about a heart transplant that creates a sense of an invasion of the body but in reality, it is the film that invades the mind of its viewer, implants images and sounds that will continue to play long after the film fades to black.

Beau Travail -- working in the sun, dancing under the strobe lights

A kiss. Cue music, Tarkan’s "Şımarık".

The patrons grove to the music. The club is the only escape for French soldiers stuck in an endless cycle of chores which seems to freeze time for them.

The camera observes their activities in the hot sun, be it digging

or just having a duel.

Opera music heightens the impact of the duel and provides a nice balance to the pulsating dance music found in the clubs.

There are three men who the camera chooses to focus more on and in a sense these three men represent different rungs of power. There is the young, confident Gilles (Grégoire Colin),
then there is a conflicted Galoup (Denis Lavant) who is battling his inner demons, including suppressing his desires while Commander Bruno (Michel Subor) gives out orders.

The film consists of discrete images that can be pieced together as one wants. The ending is a clear example of that. One can interpret a sad ending or just enjoy observing Lavant’s character finally letting loose and dancing his heart out to Corona’s Rhythm of the Night.

Like L’Intrus, Beau Travail is another film that demands a second viewing.

Open air cinema to a closed room

The best cinematic experience of my life took place in Sept 2009 when I was fortunate enough to witness White Material debut at the Venice Film Festival. In my case, I caught the open air screening of the film in campo San Polo. The experience was incredible as the empty dark space around the white screen added infinite depth to the film while the blowing wind enhanced the experience and allowed me to soak and breathe in the African surroundings depicted in the film. The only negative aspect was that the French film only had Italian subtitles meaning I missed out some of the specific aspects of the plot. Still, the film was not difficult to follow because of the wonderful visual language.

Almost two years to the date of my Venice screening, I finally saw the English subtitled version of the film and that has only increased my admiration for the film. However, it felt a bit stifling to see the film on a smaller TV screen in a closed setting. In this regard, I would have had the same feeling if I had seen the film in a movie theater because White Material has to be seen in an open air setting to maximize the effect of the natural lighting used in the film. Using natural light was a decision born of circumstances and not a production decision. As per Claire Denis, the lighting equipment did not arrive in Africa on time and would have been delayed for weeks. So she decided the crew should go ahead and shoot as much without any natural lights although Isabelle Huppert was not immediately informed of this. White Material was the first collaboration between Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape. In her previous films, Denis worked with Agnès Godard but Godard was not available so Denis decided to go ahead with Yves Cape because she liked his work in Bruno Dumont’s films. The choice proved to be an inspired one as Yves managed to capture the heat and harshness of the landscape perfectly in each frame. An equally inspired decision came in another sequence shot inside a darkened room entirely with flashlights. That scene manages to capture some of the tension and myth around the character of the Boxer nicely. The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) is immensely intriguing and appears to be a mixture of several past African leaders. Another aspect that stands out is the fact that White Material appears to be the first film I have seen a character portrayed by Huppert to be venerable and weak. Normally, she portrays characters completely in control but in White Material her character Maria is at the mercy of events and is forced to seek help.

Cameroon standing in for West Africa

The above wide angle shot from White Material watches Maria run away from the screen and as she runs away, she appears to diminish in size until it looks like a little girl is running. In that exact moment, the shot manages to draw a bridge to Denis’ debut film Chocolat, a film that like White Material was also shot in Cameroon and starred Isaach De Bankolé as well. The young childhood memories of a girl in Chocolat are set against the backdrop of the final days of French colonialism while White Material is set in contemporary Africa against the backdrop of a civil war which is threatening to disintegrate the country. Both films manage to cover a few decades not only of Cameroon’s timeline but also of a few West African countries by extension. The flashback sequences of Chocolat are set in WWII when French colonialism was about to end so the film shows a critical period of transition, when power was finally about to be transferred back to African hands. Chocolat starts off in 1988 Cameroon while White Material is also set in a modern West African country (Cameroon is not named though the film was shot there) and depicts a nation on the verge of collapse. Both films show Africa in a period of transition and even though there are chaotic events which are threatening to overtake everything, Denis integrates enough silent moments in both films which convey a sense of dignity.

Intimate moments and fantasies

L’Intrus, Beau Travail and White Material are shot outside of France and cover a wide array of topics ranging from memories, desire, international crime (illegal heart transplant in L’Intrus), racism, power, political scheming, colonialism and war. On the other hand, Friday Night and Nénette et Boni are smaller scale films shot in Paris and Marseille respectively and feature more intimate moments as the camera narrows onto just a few characters. Friday Night is the only film out of the five confined to a narrow amount of space as the camera is mostly set either inside a car or in a hotel room observing two bodies. Nénette et Boni draws the camera up close when needed but it also pulls back to observe the characters in their moment of misery or joy. At first it was a bit underwhelming to approach Friday Night and Nénette et Boni after seeing the other three visually rich global films but those feelings subsided when I got involved observing the characters closely.

Friday Night features mainly two characters who engage in a one-night stand after a traffic jam in Paris brings them together. The female character is portrayed as someone who is trapped in the film either physically in the car or in a mental cage but she is able to find liberation because of her chance encounter.

Nénette et Boni is a tender story about two siblings who spent most of their lives apart because of their parents divorce. However, when Nénette (Alice Houri) is pregnant, she seeks out her brother Boni (Grégoire Colin) for support. At first, Boni is a bit distant but eventually he warms up to Nénette and looks after her in a loving manner. Denis wonderfully blends Boni’s fantasies about the baker’s wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) beautifully within the film’s fabric thereby adding a bit more sensual flavour to the film. A big surprize is seeing Vincent Gallo play the role of the baker.

Similar Names & New Associations

Grégoire Colin is only absent from White Material but is a visible presence in four of the other films. He is the Boni in Nénette et Boni and is a force to reckon with in Beau Travail but only manages a few moments of screen time in L’Intrus and Friday Night. On the other hand, Michel Subor is present in White Material, Beau Travail and L’Intrus.

Agnès Godard was the cinematographer in all but White Material while Nelly Quettier was the editor in three of the films excluding White Material and Nénette et Boni.

Tindersticks, either as a group or via its individual members Stuart A. Staples or Dickon Hinchliffe, are a continuous association in all but Beau Travail. Stuart A. Staples provided the mesmerizing solo score for White Material and L’Intrus while Tindersticks handled the score for Nénette et Boni and Dickon Hinchliffe worked on Friday Night. The collected music box-set by Tindersticks for Denis’ films features these four films and also includes 35 Shots of Rum.

Claire Denis returned to Cameroon to shoot White Material almost two decades after she shot her debut feature Chocolat there but it seems that White Material features many new associations for her, especially by working with Yves Cape as the cinematographer for the first time and finally working with Isabelle Huppert. It seems almost incredible to think that Huppert and Denis, two French women who are clearly among the best in the world in their respective fields, took this long to work with each other but thankfully the association happened.


If I had to subjectively rate the five films out of 10, this is how they would stack up:

L’Intrus (2004): 10
White Material (2009): 9
Beau Travail (1999): 9
Nénette et Boni (1996): 8
Friday Night (2002): 7


Sam Juliano said...

"The best cinematic experience of my life took place in Sept 2009 when I was fortunate enough to witness White Material debut at the Venice Film Festival."

That's a monumental statement Sachin, but then again this is a monumental post, perhaps your all-time masterpiece, and I offer you my congratulations. I would only venture to add 35 SHOTS OF RUM top this lot, but I fully understand these were the ones you watched. Your intricate connection of image to words (and in the case of L'INTRUS) with music. WHITE MATERIAL has grown on me, It's a chilling and harrowing film, and very much a continuation of Denis' incredible streak of resonant works with the upper etchelon of world cinema mastery. It follows up on the colonial African settings that served CHOCOLAT and BEAU TRAVAIL so effectively, but what with it's extensive use of flashbaks, liptice narrative and fractured chronology it's a far more abstract work. Denis, much like Michael Haneke, specializes in the unamed country theme, always preferring to accentuate the universality of her themes. I did find some interesting thematic kinship between this film and TIME OF THE WOLF. Tindersticks music greatly adds to the unease. And again the great Isabelle Huppert adds a memorable chapter to her storied career.

Anyway, your discussion of all the films here is superlative, and I'm sure you'll highly regard 35 SHOTS OF RUM.

Sachin said...

Thanks for this excellent comment Sam. Actually I have seen 35 Shots of Rum and quite loved it. It made my best end of the year list 2 years ago. In fact, I was originally going to call this post "5 shots of Claire Denis" :)

White Material also grew on me quite a bit. I need to see Time of the Wolf. I can't believe I missed seeing that.

Thanks again Sam