It’s little surprising. French filmmaker Claire Denis is such a talent, and yet, nobody in India seems to know her. I’m talking about those who claim to be cinema aficionado. Therefore, it was sheer surprise to see, not one but two Claire Denis films at this year’s Pune International Film Festival.
I discovered Claire Denis in the internet, I think in the website ‘Reverse Shot’. Since then I have seen four of her films, including the English language body-horror-blood fest ‘Trouble Every Day’.
The problem with Denis is that she is a filmmaker who is almost impossible to contain in a definitive category. Her body of work is so eclectic that it may unnerve an uninitiated viewer. The more problematic is her politics. Being a white woman she deals with colonialism, race and gender, and more importantly, the politics of power. These broad themes are visible in all her works, despite the fact that she never comments on these issues. She shows.
Claire Denis shows, and her vision is piercing. Yet, she refuses to tell a story. She is more interested in the people in a particular moment then their definitive growth. She loves her characters, but refuses to give them the closure that movies usually do. Yet, this love is infectious. That’s where the power of a Claire Denis film lies; her characters draw you in. As a viewer, you live with them, you dance with them.
‘Beau Travail’ (1999) ends with such a dance. Denis Lavant, the Captain Ahab prototype (the film is ostensibly a retelling of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’) goes to an empty dance floor, with mirrors lining the walls. He smokes a cigarette. Throughout the film we have seen as an uptight man; his veins move, he doesn’t. Now, on the dance floor, his body begins to move, first slowly, and then passionately, as he dances with himself, opening up to himself. The scene has such extraordinary power you can actually sense what the Lavant character must be thinking at that very moment.
This year’s Piff is showing Denis’ recent two films — ‘35 Shots of Rum’ (2008) and ‘White Material’ (2009), and both are different as chalk and cheese, but made with the same Denis touch.
'35 rhums' also involves a dance, and revelations, and that one scene, in a Jamaican bar in a Paris suburb in a rainy evening, elevates the film into an extraordinary work of art. The film tells the story of a not-so-typical father-daughter relationship, who finally realise that it’s time they must break away. They don’t discuss the issues, they understand. Both the father and daughter get new rice cookers one evening. So the daughter packs the one she had brought and uses the one her father purchases. It’s a simple, almost banal scene and how Denis employs it, it tells you volumes that no dialogues would ever be able to.
‘White Material’ is more complicated. At the centre of it is a white woman, played with fragile strength by very talented Isabel Huppert, in an unnamed African country in the middle of civil war. She manages a coffee plantation and this has been her life. Now, the war has thrown lives out of gear. As her employees flee, she stands her ground to a series of consequences she would have no control over.
The film is not a study of colonialism or neo-colonialism. It is also not a commentary of the state of modern African. It’s both, and none. Above all, it’s a story of the resilience of human nature.
Claire Denis filmography//
Chocolat / Chocolate (1988)
S'en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990)
J'ai pas sommeil / I Can't Sleep (1994)
Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996)
Beau travail / Good Work (1999)
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002)
L'intrus / The Intruder (2004)
35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
White Material (2009)
More about Claire Denis Here.