Whether she’s examining the ramifications of colonialism, familial tensions, or the poetics of sensuality and desire, Claire Denis has consistently released defiant, fearless, and controversial films since 1988. The French auteur has been hailed as one of cinema’s great modern talents, and her illustrious career consists of over a dozen feature films, a handful of shorts, and three documentaries. Her latest — and first English language — film High Life (starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche) received near unanimous praise at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. High Life is on a path to generate more commercial and critical attention than any of her other films, though she has been stunning critics and arthouse audiences for 30 years.
While Denis was born in Paris in 1946, she was raised in colonial West Africa. (Her father was a civil servant.) She moved back to France in her early teens, though she continues to explore the colonial world in some of her greatest works like Beau Travail, White Material, and Chocolat. In these films, Denis doesn’t make overt political statements or sentimentalize Africa. She acutely knows the area and presents it refreshingly and matter-of-factly. Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight and avid admirer of Denis’ work, aptly notes: “I get the sense that she truly just doesn’t give a shit, that it doesn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to handle this material. It’s not a foreign world to her, in a way it might appear to be when you look at her and see a white Frenchwoman.”
While colonialism is a common theme across Denis’ work, the filmmaker never limits herself to a singular genre or idea. She has made a drama about illegal cockfighting (S’en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die), an erotic vampire thriller (Trouble Every Day), a coming-of-age film about two siblings (Nenette et Boni), a romantic comedy (Un beau soleil intérieur / Let the Sunshine In), and an abstract retelling of a loner’s heart transplant and relationship with his son (L’intrus / The Intruder). Displacement, race, marginalized figures, a denial of victimhood, constraining institutionalized systems, solitude, and Otherness are among the thematic elements tying these films together. Formally, most of Denis’ films feature minimal dialogue and a limited cast of characters in favor for hypnotic rhythms and the ethereal, unforgettable images captured by her longtime collaborator, director of photography Agnès Godard.
While Denis doesn’t have the most extensive body of work, many of her films haven’t been readily accessible to most American audiences (due to their limited releases). Approaching her work can also be altogether intimidating — her rejection of conventional storytelling methods doesn’t go down easily at first. Nonetheless, Denis’ unique and engulfing work consists of some of modern cinema’s most devastating characters, enriching stories, and wonderfully enigmatic images. An effective way to start experiencing the richness of her films is to simply watch the following six films, which include some of the most accessible and beloved centerpieces of her career.
The Scoop: France (Mireille Perrier and Cécile Ducasse), a young French woman, returns to West Africa and reflects on her childhood in 1950s Cameroon. During these final days of post-WWII colonial rule, France spends many of her lonely, languid days with her sole companion, her family’s houseboy, Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). Amidst a colonial society, relationships among the family are complicated, especially the erotic, unspoken tension informing the connection between Protée and Aimée (Giulia Boschi), France’s mother.
Chocolat, Denis’ elegant semi-autobiographical debut, features one of her most common themes: race as an unsaid but glaring element suffusing the complex tensions between the colonized and the colonizer. To process her attraction for Protée, Aimée uses her position of power to constantly subject him to her female gaze. However, as the great Roger Ebert noted, Protée upholds a silent, powerful dignity, which grants him a virtuous “moral authority” over Aimée. The power imbalance permeating Aimée and Protée’s relationship, rooted in the restrictive presence of colonialism, prevents them from fulfilling their lust for each other. As such, they never verbally communicate their desire. Instead, long, lingering looks and gestures — a touch of a leg, a look into a mirror — signify the unremarked, impossible eroticism creeping into their relationship.
The vast silence of the Saharan landscapes — with its serene mountains, golden grass, and sparse buildings — further invokes how desire structures itself in the visual, rather than the verbal. The silence of the space also reflects Protée’s complex, inarticulated struggles as a liminal figure emasculated by his domestic responsibilities, trapped in a colonialist social structure, and deprived of any sort of privacy.
In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Protée enjoys a shower outside. He scrubs himself clean and soon spots Aimée and France returning from a walk. As the women enter their spacious house in the background of the shot, an anguished Protée leans back, tilts his head, sobs, and forcefully elbows the wall behind him. Protée, who must shower in a public space, is constantly on display for his oppressors. After he sees Aimée and France, his milieu and status an impassive colonized man interrupts a rare moment of solitude. In this wordless one minute scene, De Bankolé’s compelling performance conveys the inhibition of a Protée’s freedom and privacy amidst a colonial space. It’s a quiet, delicate moment, one emblematic of Denis’ strengths in capturing the elusive depth of human emotion.
Friday Night (Vendredi Soir) (2002)
The Scoop: While stuck in a traffic jam, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) impulsively invites a stranger, Jean (Vincent Lindon), in her car. The pair proceeds to spend the entire night together.
As one of Denis’ most straightforward, sensual, and warmest films, Friday Night shares some thematic similarities with one of her most recent films, Let the Sunshine In (starring Juliette Binoche): both films center on the sexual adventures of Parisian women. Moreover, Denis commonly explores sensuality in her work, but Friday Night’s beguiling, glorious ode to eroticism and sex renders it an utterly unique entry in her filmography. As usual with Denis, Friday Night contains little dialogue. Laure and Jean occasionally engaged in laconic, polite conversation, but Denis focuses on the characters’ bodies — their gestures, movements, and impassioned gazes — to transcend the constraints of the verbal lexicon. Using impressionistic images, discreet editing, and the bodily movements of her actors, Denis relies on the potentials of film as a visual medium to communicate the pair’s desire for each other. As a result, we feel engaged in the strangers’ tender and fleeting affair, whether they have sex at a seedy hotel, eat dinner at a bland pizzeria, or take a drive in Laure’s ordinary Peugeot.
Laure initiates the night with Jean out of an unrestrained attraction to him, and at no point do they seem to emotionally connect with each other. Laure seeks nothing more than an enjoyable one night stand; the pair’s encounter is a firm, pure celebration of casual sex. The sex scenes consist of several close-ups — fingers tracing naked skin, entangled legs, chests pushed against each other — which feel abstract yet deeply intimate. As a swooning, romantic romp, Friday Night is not only one of Denis’ finest films, but one of the smartest films about sex altogether.
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) (2008)
The Scoop: 35 Shots of Rum centers on the affectionate relationship Black widower Lionel (Alex Descas) and his university-aged daughter Joséphine “Jo” (Mati Diop), who live a tranquil, affectionate life together in the suburbs surrounding Paris. Lionel and Jo have developed close-knit relationships with other residents in their building, namely Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) — one of Lionel’s old flames — and Noé (Grégoire Colin) who harbors romantic feelings for Jo. Tensions arise when Lionel realizes he will eventually live alone.
Inspired by Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, 35 Shots of Rum centers on the paralyzing fear of losing the special, comfortable, and mundane relationships and experiences of our lives. As Lionel contemplates life without the matured Jo, their relationship steadily arrives at an uneasy crossroads. It’s a universal story, though Denis never treats it as an overblown spectacle with explosive arguments and emotional outbursts. She understands how shifting familial relationships often comprises of painful baby steps toward a jaded and untimely acceptance of change. As such, she takes an anthropological, observational approach to Lionel and Jo’s story; she triumphs moments of subdued realizations, unspoken tensions, scenes of atypical and charming domesticity, and almost entirely wordless sequences.
The extended, revered “Night Shift” scene is one of these wordless sequences. When a car breakdown thwarts Lionel, Jo, Gabrielle, and Noé’s attempt to attend a concert on a rainy night, they take refuge in a Jamaican cafe. The group takes turns dancing with each other to the Commodores’ “Night Shift.” Noé dances seductively with the hesitant Jo, while Lionel casts looks of disapproval; later, Lionel dances with one of the employees of the cafe, while Gabrielle watches with a sorrowful yearning. With reserved expressions and telling gazes, the scene delivers the emotional turmoil, chaos, and internal conflicts of Lionel, Jo, Gabrielle, and Noé with revelatory clarity. We empathize with each character as they confront the tension underlining their relationships. The “Night Shift” scene is the highlight of one of Denis’ most heartfelt films, one representative of her gift in using delicate images, choreography, music, and gestures to succinctly portray the grief and upheaval apparent in domesticity.
White Material (2009)
The Scoop: Entitled white woman Maria Vials (the stunning Isabelle Huppert) runs a crumbling coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. Amidst an erupting civil war, French soldiers encourage Maria and her family to evacuate the land. Refusing to leave, Maria continues to fight for her plantation, her dignity, her family, and her life.
White Material features a fearless performance from powerhouse Isabelle Huppert, who perfectly embodies Maria’s crazed, pitiful desperation. Dressed in a dainty, pale pink sundress, the petite Maria wanders the land like a child completely oblivious to the perilous and omnipresent violence around her. She has devoted all her time to the plantation and refuses to leave it all behind; she furthermore rebuffs the possibility of the war threatening her and her family — ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert) and indolent teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). When rebels hold her at gunpoint, she seems more annoyed than frightened — she tells the gunmen to let her go, as she knows them and their families. Later, the mayor (William Nadylam) verbalizes how she and Manuel are no longer welcome in the country: “This is his [Manuel’s] country. He was born here. But it doesn’t like him.” As a member of the former ruling class, Maria is in denial over her lack of power and unbelieving of her newfound status of disposable, banal “white material.”
Aside from the Boxer (the mesmerizing Isaach De Bankolé in another winning role), most of the rebel army comprises of child and teenage soldiers. Bruised from the legacy of colonialism and its unavoidable collapse into mayhem, the soldiers challenge anyone who poses a threat to their authority. Whether they guzzle down heaps of medicine stolen from pharmacists or quietly sit with spears in hand in the Vials’ home, Denis depicts the child soldiers with a palpable yet enigmatic delicacy. She places us firmly in the epicenter of the nightmarish maelstrom, where everything teeters on the edge of abject chaos and desolation. As one of Denis’ most riveting and terrifying evocations of French colonialism, White Material illustrates the pitfalls of human ambition, desperation, and susceptibility to delusion.
Nenette et Boni (1996)
The Scoop: Teenage siblings Nenette (Alice Houri) and Boni (one of Denis’ regulars, Grégoire Colin) were raised apart after their parents’ messy divorce. Boni works for as pizza baker and becomes enraged when an indifferent, seven months pregnant Nenette decides to stay with him. The estranged siblings eventually form a bond, and Boni finds himself thrilled over Nenette’s pregnancy.
Along with US Go Home, Nenette et Boni displays Denis’ talent in portraying teenage life. Boni and Nenette are not especially likable or compelling, but there are an emotive vulnerability and aimlessness informing their characters. We become introduced to Nenette while she drifts alone in a swimming pool. It is a transient, harmonic action symbolic of her wish to stay unbothered in her own solitude and free from her forthcoming responsibilities of motherhood. Meanwhile, obscene — and nearly sociopathic — fantasies about a baker and his wife utterly preoccupy Boni’s thoughts. As the two misfits interact, an enigmatic and muddy narrative reveals how their scummy father and lackluster economic conditions have encouraged an evident displacement and overarching dissatisfaction with their marginalized lives. While not as remarkable as Denis’ other films, the touching Nenette et Boni aptly tells a tender story latent with dark humor, empathy, and one of the most memorable uses of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in cinema.
Beau Travail (1999)
The Scoop: Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” Beau Travail centers on individual troops, masculinity, and repressed sexuality amid a battalion of Foreign Legionnaires in Djibouti, a former French colony. Protagonist Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) narrates the story of his isolation from the legionnaires, his power struggle with his superior Bruno (Michel Subor), and his irrational anger over the arrival of the good-natured, charismatic newcomer Sentain (Grégoire Colin).
Often praised as Denis’ finest film, Beau Travail is a lyrical, audacious work stressing the importance of intimacy and emotional honesty within one’s self. Beau Travail evokes a staple narrative among war films — soldiers surrender their individuality to the group, and a close-knit relationship among the young men ensues. The homoerotic bond among the legionnaires points to their potent camaraderie. We might condemn Galoup’s perpetual resentment toward the young men — especially Sentain — but we cannot help but pity him. Galoup can’t express his suppressed attraction for Sentain, nor can he cease his alienation from the soldiers. In other words, Galoup feels emasculated, threatened, and out of control, which fuels his hostility toward Sentain.
The immersive training sequences reveal the homoerotic bond between the group. Godard’s camera emphasizes the men’s sculpted, tremendous physiques as they engage in grueling exercise regimes, which seem like appropriate preparation for some twisted form of ballet than for actual combat. The men’s bodies collide with each other; they move at the same exact pace in sweeping, precise, and mesmerizing long takes.
As our very own Meg Shields claimed, Beau Travail has one of the best final shots in all of cinema. The closing, exhilarating, and befuddling dance sequence, a lonesome Galoup flails to late 80s club classic “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona. The scene follows an intense sequence heavily implying Galoup’s suicide, thereby rendering the dance is a representation of his newfound freedom. (Denis claimed she placed the sequence at the end because “I wanted to give the sense that Galoup could escape himself.”) Trying to delineate Galoup’s liberation, however, is where things get murky. Did Galoup kill himself — is this just a dream sequence? Has he finally surmounted his manic obsession with Sentain? Or is he fantasizing, and perhaps living, an out queer life? Either way, it’s cathartic to watch a man, previously so tortured by his own repression and inner turmoil, release his inhibitions.
The enigmatic ending evokes Beau Travail’s enduring appeal and freshness — even at the film’s close, Denis invites us to extract our own meanings from the film. Beau Travail’s loose, daring narrative is ambiguous enough to warrant a number of interpretations. Regardless of how you come to interpret Beau Travail, it’s difficult to deny the film’s raw power, indecipherable beauty, and dynamic tension.
After you finish these six films — congratulations, there’s a ton of Denis’ exciting, more experimental work out there. Check out L’Intrus (The Intruder), US Go Home, Trouble Every Day, and J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep). Happy viewing!