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CineMasters: Claire Denis


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Beau Travail, screening on 35mm, Saturday 30 Sep (15.40) & Tuesday 3 Oct (18.05)

Please note this article contains minor spoilers

The rhythmic dance of a military training exercise; a seductive close-up of a woman’s bare back; a father hugging his daughter for the last time; an African child soldier lying asleep in an unmade bed, his machete at his side.

These are just a few of the disconnected images which make up French director Claire Denis’s dreamlike, elliptical and deeply empathic films. And while each of them stem from different works, they all point to a unique quality in Denis which makes her one of the finest directors of her generation.

Her probing camera is at once innocent and completely invasive, dealing with intimate moments while questioning if she should even be allowed to portray them.  

This may sound overly intellectual (and her non-linear way of telling a story forces your mind to work overtime to follow her plotting), but these are films with a raw emotional core. Like great poetry, you feel the motivations of her characters long before you understand them.

French-born but raised in West Africa for most of her childhood, Denis never quite felt at home in either country, but developed an understanding of both cultures that runs throughout her work.

Leaving a degree in finance to attend film school in Paris, she then ended up working as an assistant director for great directors like Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, people who made austere works which were also deeply personal to their creators.

Thematically, this has led her to draw on her own experiences and explore the power structures which still dominate postcolonial France. No matter where her films are set, the societal imbalances of race, gender and class lie at the root of everything she creates.

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Beau Travail (Dir. C. Denis, 1999) is a perfect example of this. Adapted from Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, the story follows a group of French Legionnaires at the end of France’s colonial rule as they perform menial tasks, undertake strict military training regimes and attend the local nightclub trying to pick up women.

This is a story of repression, the effects of a strict military background in action. Sergeant Galoup, whose emotional restraint and priggish nature make him the “perfect Legionnaire”, is emblematic of this, and takes his character to its logical conclusion when he abuses a black member of his cohort and sends another into the desert as punishment for dereliction of duty

As enigmatic as all Denis’s protagonists, Galoup’s motivations for taking such extreme measures are never made entirely clear, although a sliver of a voiceover gives the viewer some clue. “I will have power over you,” he says while writing in his journal. As the French Foreign Legion itself becomes surplus to requirement, so the perfect Legionnaire has to maintain control over the only African soldier in his midst. 

Denis’s protagonists are invariably undergoing an identity crisis during her films, and nowhere is this more explicit than in her most recent African film White Material (Dir. C. Denis, 2009), in which white plantation owner Maria (Isabelle Huppert) stubbornly remains in an unnamed African country as a violent civil war breaks out around her.

Speaking during the release of White Material, Denis told the Guardian, “I wanted to show in this film how being white in Africa gives you a special status, almost a kind of magical aura. It protects you from misery and starvation.

“But although it can protect you, it is dangerous too.

“[…] She cannot return to France because she thinks that it will weaken her. But she learns that she doesn't belong in Africa as much as she thinks. For many white people in Africa this is the reality."[1]

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Much like Galloup, Maria is a character who seems blithely unaware of her privilege and power in Africa, and even less aware of it slipping away from her.

The black experience in the film is one of hardship and terror as civil war drives the population to desperate measures. But for Maria, the only drama she’ll acknowledge is that her harvest of coffee beans might be wasted if her staff flees the plantation.

Her desire to keep her staff working shows her scant regard for their safety, and is emblematic of colonialism’s subconscious hold on the white mentality. “A white person could be dangerous,” says Denis. “Could be — could lead us to a secret desire to brutalize that [black] person.”[2]

But while her African films (of which Chocolat (Dir. C. Denis, 1988), Beau Travail and White Material are seen as a loose trilogy) form a major part of her work, the black experience of immigrants in modern-day France concerns her just as much.

35 Shots of Rum (Dir. C. Denis, 2008) focuses on the struggles of first generation immigrant Lionel, a train driver who has quite literally lived his life on the same tracks since his wife died, and his university student daughter as their tender relationship becomes increasingly tense. Both father and daughter have potential suitors, but seem to replace the need for a partner with the familial bond they’ve created for themselves.

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Scenes of being trapped are juxtaposed with scenes of freedom at every turn as the pair realise their hermetically sealed way of living can’t last forever. Denis uses the simple framework of a relationship cast adrift to explore the reasons we feel trapped in our lives, placing blame at the doors of capitalism, family bonds and jobs which define us.

At its heart this is still a film about power, money and exploitation, but 35 Shots shows how Denis can tackle similar themes with a warmth and resonance that’s almost uplifting by its conclusion.

Playing almost like an anti-35 Shots, Bastards (Dir. C. Denis, 2013) takes the theme of power into the realms of sexuality, creating a noir-inflected exploitation film which removes almost all of its explicit sexual and violent imagery.

Using a typically non-linear narrative with elliptical cutting, Denis forces us to imagine the horrific details she’s missed from this story of a sex worker assaulted in an orgy gone wrong.

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This is the starkest examination of what Rosalind Galt calls the “imbrication of financial control and sexual exploitation.”[1] Unlike most characters in a Denis picture, men in this film don’t have to suffer an identity crisis to realise the extent of their hold over women. Instead, rich white males are the ‘bastards’ of the title, aware of the power they hold and doing nothing to curb their behaviour.

It’s an anger-filled statement which lies in stark contrast to her African films, in which the perpetrators of injustice are held in a nuanced, if not sympathetic, light. But Denis is expert at confounding even her keenest followers, genre-hopping from thriller to horror to exploitation noir while still easily maintaining her idiosyncratic style.

The four films detailed above will be screened during this month’s Cinemasters season, and are the perfect entry point to this nuanced, emotionally charged filmmaker.

Kevin Fullerton
Freelance Writer

September 2017

[1] Claire Denis, 04/07/2010, ‘Claire Denis: 'For me, film-making is a journey into the impossible'’, interviewed by Andrew Hussey for the Guardian.

[2] Claire Denis, 17/11/2010, ‘Claire Denis, “White Materials”, interviewed by Zachary Wigon for Filmmaker Magazine. 

[3] Rosalind Galit, 13/10/2015, ‘Claire Denis’ss Capitalist Bastards’ in Studies in French Cinema Volume 15, 2015 - Issue 3: Money: now you see it now you don't

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