The punchiest distillation of Claire Denis’s film style might well be in 2002’s Vendredi soir, a sublime romance in its own right and a highlight of Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis, TIFF Cinematheque’s upcoming retrospective of the celebrated French auteur’s work.
As Vendredi soir begins, it’s late Friday night in Paris, and traffic is gridlocked thanks to an auto workers’ strike. The traffic jam casts an odd spell over the downtown core, turning stranded drivers and passengers into lovesick teenagers as they look out their windows and find a city teeming with glowing tail lights, illuminated billboards, and all sorts of potential partners. Though we first meet her as she’s packing up her apartment to move in with her boyfriend, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) has taken the spirit of the night to heart, letting a mysterious pedestrian named Jean (Vincent Lindon) into her car along the way. Midway through their journey, they decide to head to a hotel, but not before Laure stops to make a phone call to a boyfriend we never see. We follow her sightline to the pay phone, which turns out to need a calling card that Laure presumably doesn’t have, then pan over to a condom dispenser to the right, following her gaze down to the price (10 francs) and to the comically blunt instructions below it (“Push all the way in”), then tracking her view all the way down to the dispenser.
Efficient to the utmost, Denis’s films put an awful lot of trust in viewers’ ability to process such beautifully sculpted fragments of visual information—in this case, to surmise in a few seconds that Laure will soon be parted from those ten francs, and not for a phone call. Against a populist strand of storytelling that treats audiences like children in need of constant handholding, hers is a cinema of ellipses and suggestions—sometimes frustratingly so, and often enchantingly. It’s also a cinema that thrives on the tension between poetic abstraction and brass tacks, sensuously exploring the tactility of everything from the condom dispenser’s clunky button to the pale flesh of the two lovers.
By that token, Objects of Desire is a fitting title for TIFF’s first retrospective of Denis’s films in over a decade. Since she was last celebrated by the Cinematheque, the Paris-born, West African–raised filmmaker has shot some of her most acclaimed, most stylistically adventurous work. Denis recently rounded out a quarter-century-long filmography that spans over twenty feature and short films with 2013’s Bastards, which she will be on hand to introduce at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 18th.
You can recognize a Denis film by its elliptical narrative, and also by the presence of her stable of collaborators, from actors like Alex Descas and Michel Subor to cinematographer Agnès Godard and composers Stuart Staples and Dickon Hinchliffe (of the UK band Tindersticks). As wide-ranging as her filmography is, though (it spans genres as diverse as the vampire thriller and the dance film), Denis’s work can also be traced along a few overlapping thematic lines. Starting with 1988’s Chocolat, for example, we find a recurring preoccupation with the French colonial presence in Africa, a subject she returned to more than twenty years later in White Material. Chocolat, Denis’s first picture, fictionalizes her family history as the daughter of a colonial administrator, focusing on the growing attraction between a young, white plantation mistress (Giulia Boschi) in Northern French Cameroon and the family’s much-abused black houseworker Protée (Isaac de Bankolé), as seen through the eyes of Protée’s young, white playmate France, a stand-in for Denis herself. A fiercely accomplished debut, Chocolat overturns our expectations from the first frame: an adult France’s voyeuristic view of a black father and son playing by the beach. The opening scene is framed as a perfect tableau of white privilege—a foreigner’s hollow image of Africa at its purest. Yet the illusion is dashed the moment we learn that the man is an American hoping to get in touch with his roots, and that France is something rather more complicated than a tourist.
That moment of disorientation plays out on a larger scale in Denis’s enigmatic portraits of urbanites’ strained encounters in contemporary France. I Can’t Sleep (1994) settles us into a multicultural apartment complex, tracing the disparate stories of a trio of immigrants on the fringes of Parisian society: Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva), a Lithuanian actress hoping for a place to stay, Théo (Descas), a carpenter who desperately wants to leave for his home in Martinique, and his sullen brother Camille (Richard Courcet), a drag queen with a secret night life that takes him into other people’s apartments. Camille’s unbidden entries into other people’s homes might be seen as a cosmic introduction to Denis’s most elusive and experimental film, L’Intrus (2004), a loose adaptation of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s autobiographical text about undergoing a heart transplant. Jettisoning virtually all pretense to narrative, the film plays out as a sustained dirge for its inscrutable lead (Subor), in fleeting impressions. We follow him in opaque, chronologically scrambled segments as he sets his affairs in order and finds himself haunted by a woman (Golubeva) who is either his organ donor or the angel of death.
While those films derive their power from collisions between strangers, some of Denis’s most moving work deals with people held together by more traditional ties. Critically maligned by some and championed as one of the finest horror films in recent years by others, Trouble Every Day (2001) is a powerful depiction of the sad nocturnal wanderings of two married couples struggling to control a mystery illness. Arthouse bad boy Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle play Shane and Coré, who belong to a rare breed of cannibals who can only reach orgasm when they consume another person, to the great chagrin of their non-cannibal spouses. As lurid as the premise sounds, Denis’s nearly wordless, elliptical storytelling and Godard’s gorgeous cinematography bring out both the desperation and the ecstasy of this odd condition, culminating in a haunting image of Coré looking on her work—a Jackson Pollock-esque painting made out of the blood of her latest victim—with a mixture of pride and shame.
Shane and Coré’s respective marriages are constantly threatened by their pathological desires, but a different sort of bond is frayed in Beau travail, perhaps Denis’s best-regarded film. Another loose adaptation, this time of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Beau travail (1999) is a the story of Galoup (Denis Lavant), a disgraced ex-sergeant in the French Foreign Legion who recounts his enmity toward Sentain (Denis staple Grégoire Colin), an impossibly young, attractive new recruit whom he becomes hellbent on destroying. Galoup’s hatred for Sentain is no less a foreign illness than the cannibal virus in Trouble Every Day, invading the tight-knit organization of the Legion, whose intensely corporeal, team-based training exercises Denis captures in a series of mesmerizing montages that could pass for dance choreography. The finale, which sees Galoup indulging in a solo dance to Corona’s infamous pop single “The Rhythm of the Night,” in what seems like a night club in his mind, ranks among the most poetic in recent world cinema.
Though it’s of a piece with what’s come before, down to the pulsing electronic score by Tindersticks and the narrative hopscotching, Bastards feels like something new for Denis: an uncharacteristically blunt, plot-heavy thriller from a master genre dabbler now easing her way into film noir. Lindon stars as Marco, a wealthy tanker captain in the French Navy who ditches his career and returns to the family he once abandoned in order to exact revenge on a sleazy tycoon (Subor) who is at the centre of a sexual exploitation ring. Despite its incendiary tone and unsubtle title, Bastards may be Denis’s most elegantly constructed film yet—a laser-precise story that reveals itself in tiny increments, saving its most critical piece of information for its haunting, game-changing coda.
Denis’s films aren’t for everyone: some will look on Trouble Every Day and see only an obscure, unnecessarily difficult variation on the vampire story; outside of its context in her filmography, Bastards might likewise appear to be maddeningly cryptic. But those who ditch their narrative hang-ups and let themselves get into the slow, hypnotic rhythm of her style of cinema will find images like Galoup’s last dance and Coré’s monstrous tableau replaying in their minds for days.
In addition to appearing at the screening of Bastards, Denis will also be at the Lightbox on October 17th to present Mati Diop’s short film A Thousand Suns and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 classic Touki-Bouki. For more information on the retrospective, see TIFF’s website.