In perhaps the most striking scene of Claire Denis’ debut Chocolat, we see Proteé – the “houseboy” of a French civil servant in the colonialized Cameroon of the late 50’s – working on a generator in a small hut. After a while, he notices that someone is observing him. It’s France, the infant daughter of the civil servant. There is a somewhat hard emotion palpable in the air. France asks Proteé if one of the parts of the machine is hot. Without stirring an emotion, the man presses his hand on a tube. France tries to do the same but cries out as she realizes the tube is in fact incredibly hot, and leaves her hand burned. Proteé’s hand is burned to a much more severe degree, but he doesn’t flinch. He just looks at her. There is nothing more to say. He leaves into the night and never comes back.
This scene is a crucial component to understanding Claire Denis’ cinema, which has separated itself from the majority of European auteur cinema and moves on its very own heady and uncompromising path.
Denis was born in Paris but spent a significant part of her early childhood in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Djibouti, where her father was working as a colonial civil servant. Even though she moved back to France at the age of 14, it seems that she could never quite shake the experience, realization and recognition of being an invader in another country, regardless of the intention of that position. Chocolat is semi-autobiographical and ends with France leaving the country that she revisits as an adult to retrace her past. There is nothing she can do.
The theme of colonialism and postcolonialism has been the center of her work since then and she clearly processes and extends her own experience, particularly in the films Chocolat and White Material. While the former portrays a post-colonialist recognition only in its ending, White Material is engrossed in this theme in the most literal way from start to finish. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Denis’ work is how she has extended that theme beyond a literal plane and melded it into every single one of her works. Denis is interested in the post-colonialism of the mind – a concept that sounds abstract at first, but which makes total sense when you apply it to her films. It all boils down to the simple baseline that every one of her works is imbued with: the damage is already done.
The nature and implication of that irreversible damage shifts throughout her filmography, whether it be the growth of a child that cannot be undone in the beautiful 35 Shots of Rhum, or the eroded psyche of a soldier in Beau Travail, or the “kiss of the vampire”, an allegory for sexual assault, which literally rips flesh from the body of the recipient in Trouble Every Day, Denis’ always seeks out the situations which are inherently bound to a loss of innocence that has already happened before the narrative even starts. That’s why her films often seem cryptic – she challenges the viewer in only implying the event that has such a profound effect on her characters. In her stories, she is much more interested in showing how they deal with this challenge, and how it affects them.
Body and Space:
She achieves these stories with a lens that is wholly unique. Through her continuous will to experiment by giving her cinematographers a freedom that they rarely have in their profession, her visual language remains singular to this day. Especially in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard (who shot most of her films) she developed a way of telling her stories that is fascinated with the body and how he interacts with his surroundings. Since her narrative aim is to confront her characters’ inner states with their situation, and considering her active avoidance of the pale and superficial storytelling of expositional dialogue, we see these emotional interiors reflected in the surroundings, the faces, the muscles, the flesh, the skin.
In her most well-known film Beau Travail the talk of the body reaches its apex. Galoup, a foreign legion officer who is past his best days seems to be filled with regret, frustration and rage as he observes the soldier Sentain, who is younger, prettier and gets along with everyone. The jealousy of a less distressing past plants a seed in Galoup. He develops a toxicity that drives both of them to extremes. The film ends with a shot that feels like an exploding vent of supressed, desperate emotion. Galoup is on the dancefloor of a club, alone. The further the song progresses, the further he loses himself to the dance. The credits appear, but they get disrupted one more time. Galoup loses himself until his body becomes something that is seemingly freed from all restrictions. He swirls around so wildly that his past disappears. He is lost in the moment until it’s over and he disappears forever to the right side of the frame. This is an expression of the will to escape from oneself and ones past. The way Denis and Godard set this scene up, to make it palpable for our minds without a word of dialogue – we understand this person now completely.
The voice within:
In her late works in particular, another element that Denis continually developed is always present. Her narratives always speak from a fragmented, subjective perspective, but they don’t merely use flashbacks that show us a character’s memory. Instead, her stories are a reflection that include the character’s emotions. The Intruder becomes a tapestry of consciousness, as its main character’s emotional interior is wrapped around everything we see. This is a form of storytelling that always carries an ambivalence contrary to her earlier work, which displays a much more grounded and straight-forward fashion of memory.
Denis also has ventured into the non-fiction form in her filmography. In her early documentary Jacques Rivette, Le Veilleur, she captures interviews in which Rivette opens up about his filmmaking motivations. The Nouvelle Vague, who Rivette was a major part of, is universally conceived as a reaction to the decease of originality in the previous cinematic form. This melds once again with her post-colonialist theme and in that context, she is interested in searching for where exactly Rivette developed his very own form, and his very own voice for a cinematic afterlife.
In the same way as Rivette, Denis has found her very own voice through her own perception of the world in consequence to her past and her surroundings. All great filmmakers distinguish themselves in their voice by the way they tell their stories. But there are very few of them, who have been so consistent and so specific in applying it to their storytelling and there is arguably no other person who has so many interesting things to say with it.
1988 – Chocolat
1994 – US Go Home
1999 – Beau Travail
2001 – Trouble Every Day
2004 – The Intruder
2008 – 35 Shots of Rum
2009 – White Material
2013 – Bastards
2017 – Let the Sunshine In
2018 – High Life