Claire Denis' latest is a needlessly tangled neo-noir with moments of great visual beauty
Films by Claire Denis offer certain pleasures as standard. Ravishing visuals, courtesy of her regular DoP, Agnès Godard. Stirring sounds from her musical collaborators, Tindersticks. Subtle performances from actors who tend to be awfully good looking. All of those elements are in place in this, her 11th feature, and mark it out as worth seeing; Denis, in any case, is one filmmaker worth being a completist for. But as existing completists know, her oeuvre tends to fluctuate in terms of emotional effectiveness – for every couple of breathtakingly acute and moving works, there’s one that hits wider of the mark.
After the double triumph of White Material and 35 Shots of Rum, this is that lesser work: a murky neo-noir that tangles its plot unnecessarily in the telling, and ends up feeling at once distant and overwrought. Vincent Lindon is a sailor who comes ashore to unravel his family’s messy involvement with a corrupt and sexually depraved businessman (Michel Subor), only to complicate things further by embarking on an affair with the man’s partner (Chiara Mastroianni). Or is that gambit part of his plan from the start?
That’s one of many matters over which we are invited to puzzle; but a lot of enigmatic, moodily lit encounters don’t create the sense of connection to characters that this plot demands, and the pointlessly chopped-up order of events further blocks engagement, making the viewer work too hard to keep track of a story that doesn’t end up offering all that much.
Denis’ ensemble cast takes its collective endeavour admirably seriously, and there are moments of great visual beauty, but the intensity that the story shoots for is lacking, and the ultimate effect confusing and somewhat empty. It’s also disappointing – if faithful to the noir genre – for Denis to let her female characters languish in such afflicted passivity.
Limited release from Fri 14 Feb.