Claire Denis retrospective includes White Material, Beau Travail and Chocolat
- Tony McKibbin
- 8 July 2010
A commonly talked-up theoretical position these days is the idea of the ‘tactile eye,’ a sort of cinematic gaze that doesn’t establish the story and screen space; it more obviously follows the close-up thoughts and feelings of the characters. From Fish Tank to Somersault, from Morvern Callar to Blissfully Yours, this is a cinema where you don’t locate the shot but sense the character. Few filmmakers do it more masterfully than Claire Denis. In Beau Travail (1999), and Vendredi Soir (2002), in The Intruder (2004) and 35 Shots of Rum (2009) Denis illustrates why she is a great director of fragmented feeling, and at the same time captures the importance of chemistry in all its manifestations. Martine Beugnet has talked of a cinema of sensation in her book 'Claire Denis'. This is a cinema one intuits rather than readily understands, and Denis’ work is full of behaviour that remains elusive. “When I make a film I have to be like a military commander, in charge of every strategy and tactic”, she said in an Observer piece on her new film White Material, “but I never really know where I’m going.”
Watching 35 Shots of Rum there is a fascinating ambiguity between father Lionel and daughter Josephine, as though Denis didn’t want us to ascertain the legal relationship, but muse over the intimacies involved when the mother is absent and the daughter is caught in duel roles. As Josephine kisses Lionel when he comes home from work, as she puts his shoes away, Denis insists on the ambivalent emotions that can come from shifting the focus of cinematic grammar. There is so much filmic intimacy in her style that we might assume certain intimacies in the content. When Denis films a tactile moment between Lionel and Josephine while the former lies in bed, some might wonder what the relationship happens to be.
In Beau travail, a film about legionnaires in Djbouti, she works in different time shifts as she offers an oblique take on jealousy. Denis Lavant’s sergeant can’t quite seem to comprehend the ways of the new recruit Sentain, nor why the other soldiers seem so fascinated by this newcomer. Occasionally we see the soldiers out on the town, but the scenes are so spliced up, so mysteriously presented, that we may wonder how many nights are being recollected as cause and effect interests Denis less than the oblique revelation of behaviour and thinking.
In her first film, Chocolat (88), set in colonial French West Africa, Denis hints at feelings between the handsome houseboy Protée and the colonialist’s wife, Aimée, but she explores them through various other characters also. Aimée expresses her admiration, perhaps love, for Protée when he turfs another out of the house, a man who would seem also attracted to Aimée, and who alludes to her attraction to Protée a scene or two earlier. When Aimée says to her husband near the end of the film that he is always taken in, in one of the few conventional shot/counter shots in the film, she might be in no better a position than he would be to explain what she means, but she wouldn’t have the inexplicable look on her face that her husband offers. She at least understands that feelings between people are convolutedly interconnected.
In Vendredi soir a couple of strangers meet during a traffic jam and share a night together. There is little conversation, yet the couple communicate through looks and glances, a complicity of meaning that needn’t be explained or examined. For Denis psychology is perhaps too readily an explanation of feeling rather than its exploration, and her greatness rests in creating pockets of emotion that can’t quite be registered except in film form. “I am not an intellectual”, she claimed a bit disingenuously in The Observer piece, but her priorities are clearly “in images, people and sound.” A scene like the one in the bar in 35 Shots of Rum where the characters dance to The Commodores’ Nightshift seems thoroughly predictable in description, but accumulates meaning by the range of looks and glances the characters offer, the song playing as they dance, and the editing that creates small ellipses in the sequence as ambiguity is created not because Denis likes to make things hard on the audience (“I hate that”) but wants to be true to the ambiguities of character. The father in the scene is attracted to the owner of the bar, feels tenderness towards his daughter, and knows that another woman present, a neighbour from their apartment, is probably in love with him. How to capture that psychologically is less important than creating space for suggestive nuance.
One reason why the term tactile is useful in exploring the films and yet doesn’t quite fit with Denis’ work is that hers is a cinema more of the look than the touch: her films are never more distinctive than in the obliqueness of the gaze. It is why the sort of shot/counter shot in Chocolat seems an exception rather than the rule: it is too direct an exchange in both verbal and ocular form. Whether it is the bar scene in 35 Shots of Rum, a scene on the boat in Beau travail, the characters dining in Vendredi soir, or Michel Subor and Beatrice Dalle exchanging glances in The Intruder, Denis’ work acknowledges the importance of the gaze. Yet often the look settles on somebody with the tenderness of a soft caress. The actual touch in Denis’ films is frequently forceful more than simply tactile, from the sweaty wrestling in Beau travail, to the serial killing in I Can’t Sleep (1994), the cannibalism of Trouble Every Day (2001), to the murderous rampages in White Material (2009). It’s not looks that can kill but the touch, forcefully applied, evident in Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle’s characters in Trouble Every Day, where sexual urge becomes culinary need as they take chunks out of their victims. Certainly there are great haptic moments in Denis’ films, between Josephine and Lionel in 35 Shots of Rum, between the taxi driver and his son at the beginning of Chocolat, and between the strangers in Vendredi soir, but that is not where her importance especially lies.
Denis’ is chiefly a chemical world, a place where people don’t have motivations but often indefinable desires, and the look is often more useful than touch to retain that indeterminacy. This might take the form of the wife in Chocolat who can’t quite understand her yearning for the black figure of Protée, the undefined envy the sergeant has for Sentain, or the disease in the blood that drives Dalle and Gallo’s characters to kill in Trouble Every Day. It is also why Denis is interested in usurpers, interlopers and strangers, in people who create strong reactions in others that can’t be nailed down to ready motivational definitions. These strangers register chemical shifts in the characters: in Aimée in Chocolat when the charismatic and arrogant stranger arrives and seems to make her aware of feelings towards houseboy Protée, the sergeant as he can’t work out how he should feel and what he should do in Beau travail when Sentain arrives, and in White Material, where the rebel leader hiding out at the plantation seems to signify a collapse of the country and the dashing of the central character’s hopes for the continuation of her coffee farm.
This is a foreign body cinema in all its manifestations, and can take the form of racial tension in Chocolat, a vague sense of competitiveness in Beau travail, emotional unease in 35 Shots of Rum, and even bodily discomfort in The Intruder: the film was based on an essay by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who wrote about his own heart transplant. In the film it is Michel Subor’s character who is given a new heart, but is the lease of life it gives him strictly his or is his body taken over by another? The intruder might be the title of only one film, but as a theme it is present in many of them.
Interestingly Denis might be fascinated by the stranger, but her working team plays on familiarity. Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas, Beatrice Dalle, Vincent Gallo, Michel Subor and Grégoire Colin have all appeared more than once in her work, and often on several occasions. Many of her films are co-written by Jean-Pol Fargue, photographed by Agnés Godard and scored by members of the band Tindersticks. Godard it would seem brings to Denis’s films their immediacy; Tindersticks their aloofness. The diegetic music in Denis’s films might be immediate (as in Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum) but the non-diegetic music over it is melancholic and removed, hinting at an emotion out-with the characters’ reach but vital to some essence within. Whether it is the music that opens Vendredi soir, Trouble Every Day or 35 Shots of Rum, Denis wants us almost to dream the film, not merely watch it. The first few minutes of 35 Shots of Rum concentrate not on character but the RER trains in the north of Paris, while the opening of Vendredi soir offers the famous rooftops of Paris. Denis may be famous for her tactile gaze, but she can do longing long shots as meaningfully as anyone.
Are we saying she does do establishing shots after all? We think not; because the shots yearn more than they establish. They create a space of inquiry instead of ready assumption: they don’t establish space; they enquire into it, and often from the feelings of the characters observing the space they happen to be in or passing through. In Chocolat, Beau travail, and White Material, Denis tracks past landscapes, passing spaces that hint at passing feelings. In Chocolat the film’s early tracking shots in the present that show the Cameroon landscape are similar to those near the end of the film set in the past, giving a sense of time dissolving as the central character returns from her memories of her childhood to the present.
It is also why we’re wary of saying her films are especially tactile. They’re too concerned with memory for that: Chocolat, Beau travail, White Material and the Intruder are all fascinated by layers of time, as if touch passes through the fragment of recollection. Even Denis’ great moments in the present, like the bar scene in 35 Shots of Rum, the one night stand in Vendredi soir, carry with them a sort of nostalgia during the event: they appear to contain the melancholy of a future memory. This might finally have to do with Denis’ notion of point of view, a manner in which the event dissolves into the perspectives upon it. When working on a script, she says, “the main thing is always to work out the points of view.” “We are always seeing something through someone else’s eyes,” she says in a Film Comment piece on Beau travail. When one combines multiple perspectives, the vagaries of memory, the refusal of the readily motivational, what is left is a film full of gaps, a sort of abyss of feeling and sensation that the viewer falls through. Denis can create in the viewer what one notices in the work of that British/Rhodesian writer she so admires, saying, in an interview called “Dancing Reveals So Much” in Senses of Cinema, that where “Nadine Gordimer is dictatorial and has no heart…the only person [in whose work] I can feel so much is Doris Lessing.” There is an apt passage in Lessing’s The Golden Notebook where she says, “the novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves…” Are there many filmmakers who capture this problematic in film form better than Claire Denis?