Presence: The Films of Claire Denis

A woman walks naked through the streets, wearing only high heels, blood on her legs. Somewhere, perhaps nearby, police load a body in a bag into an ambulance. Or perhaps it isn’t near. Or at the same time. Instantly haunting, such is the narrative guesswork of French auteur Claire Denis’s latest film Bastards (Les Salauds). Moody and kaleidoscopic in its sense of time and place, Denis has created a very contemporary and disjointed noir. It’s just one of the films TIFF is presenting in its retrospective Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis. Follow the jump to find out where Denis got her start (hint: all over), and what makes her take on cinema compelling.

Denis is one of the most interesting French directors of the past twenty years. Her films are self-possessed, engaging strangers. They take time to reveal themselves, but they’re always fascinating. Sometimes violent, sometimes poetic, there’s an immediacy to her work which is very distinctive. Even quietly domestic scenes capture a discomfiting authenticity. Whether it’s the struggles of two black men running a cock-fighting ring (No Fear No Die) or the complicated relationship between an aging father and his daughter as she considers leaving to live with her lover (35 Shots of Rum), you feel uniquely present watching these lives unfold. She’s inspired by directors like the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, and also American studio heavyweights including John Ford and Howard Hawks. Her style is subtle, drawing you in, letting you figure out the connections between people and what’s really going on.

Though born in Paris, Denis grew up in Africa, the daughter of a colonial administrator. She moved with her father’s postings, living in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon. She returned to France for film school and soon found a foothold assisting some of the more notable directors of the seventies and eighties, including Dusan Makavejev (Sweet Movie, one of the craziest movies ever made), Jacques Rivette (Out 1), Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law). These myriad influences blend together seamlessly in her work: a fascination with outsiders, colonialism and the interaction of Africans and Europeans, elliptical and fractured narratives, and the dark romance of desire. Her debut feature Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp/Juliette Binoche sweet-tooth rom-com) earned her immediate acclaim, and was invited to screen at Cannes in 1988. Semi-autobiographical, the film follows a young girl observing a forbidden love triangle in her colonial African house. It evocatively captures the place, the twists of attraction between a dignified house boy and the lonely diplomat’s wife, and the pervasive racism that propels them in unexpected directions.

Since then she’s made a dozen features as well as documentaries, shorts and segments for compilations. TIFF is showing a bunch of them, including Beau Travail (her celebrated take on Melville’s Billy Budd transposed to the contemporary French Foreign Legion in Africa), I Can’t Sleep (a triptych of characters engaged in music and dance, where one may be a serial killer wanted for murdering the elderly), and The Intruder (L’Intrus) about a retired mercenary who embarks on a globe-trotting journey to obtain an illicit heart transplant and reunite with his long lost son.

If those brief descriptions sound odd, that’s because Denis’s films don’t lend themselves to easy summary. Her latest, Bastards, is inspired by a William Faulkner story (Sanctuary) and touches on the venal corruption of the powerful in disturbing ways. Ship’s captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) returns to Paris when his brother-in-law is found dead. His sister blames her husband’s death, and the destruction of their shoe business, on a shady financier (Michel Subor). Her daughter has experienced her own harrowing trauma, and is being kept in a hospital under psychiatric observation. Marco needs to get to the bottom of all this, and moves into the vacant apartment above the financier’s mistress (Chiara Mastroianni). Of course, they strike up an illicit affair. (Watching the film, it took me a good while to sort out these people, and the deliberate similarity of the women didn’t help – in those first minutes I thought I was seeing 101 French Brunettes). The film follows Marco’s investigations as they lead to horrific revelations, forcing him to pursue some kind of revenge.

Like most good noirs, none of this can end well, but it makes for a pretty fascinating flick. Denis works with many of her regular collaborators, and the spooky score from the band The Tindersticks enhances the movie’s eerie atmosphere throughout. Though it takes awhile to piece the different threads together, the viewer doesn’t fall into a nightmare rabbit-hole à la David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (itself a brilliant, though much different, contemporary noir). Whatever byways Denis follows to tell her stories, they’re always very real. People struggle against the vast, faceless strictures of racism, class and greed, but we see these things in how they interact with one another, their confusion and attraction, how they love, and how they clash. That’s one of the strongest themes running through her work: everyone wants something different. That can be a gift, or it can be a curse. Denis’s gift is when you’re watching, if you give it time, you feel what they feel.


Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, October 11, and runs to November 10, 2013. Claire Denis will be in attendance for two events:

  • a Carte Blanche screening on Thursday, October 17 at 6:45pm where she will present two works of interest to her (Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973), a Senegalese film following the exhilarating odyssey of two alienated lovers through Dakar; and Mati Diop’s homage to her legendary filmmaker uncle, A Thousand Suns (Mille Soleils) (2013), a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Magaye Niang, star of Touki Bouki).
  • on Friday, October 18 at 6:30pm Claire Denis will be on-hand for an introduction and Q&A after for Bastards.

Head over to TIFF for schedule and ticket information for the Objects of Desire retrospective and Bastards.

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