Claire Denis

Claire Denis, Professor of Film at The European Graduate School / EGS.

BIOGRAPHY

Claire Denis (b. 1948) is a Paris-based filmmaker and one of the major artistic voices of contemporary French cinema. After studying economics, Claire Denis enrolled in the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (now École nationale supérieure des métiers de l'image et du son) where she graduated in 1971. At the beginning of her film career, she worked as an assistant director to Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders.


Denis has developed a highly individualistic style, favoring visual and sound elements over dialogue, and her editing technique has been compared to jazz improvisation for its rhythmic quality. She refuses to conform to narratives and structures of classical cinema, nor to psychological realism and scenic continuity, thus often blurring the border between dreams and reality. Her films are often based on non-subjective memories and intertextual references to literature and other films. In terms of subject matter, Denis's films show a deep affection and solidarity with marginalized characters usually absent from mainstream cinema (immigrants, exiles, alienated individuals, sexual transgressives), simultaneously questioning prejudices of the dominant white European culture and its myth of progress. One of the main components of her films is the accompanying music. Her distinctive use of pop songs and musical themes is a result of frequent collaborations with the pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahi and with the British band Tindersticks. Claire Denis is also considered to be one of the representatives of the "New French Extremity," a term coined by James Quandt to designate transgressive films made by French directors at the turn of the twenty-first century.


Born in Paris, Claire Denis spent her childhood and formative years traveling across Africa due to her father's career as a colonial administrator and his interest in teaching his children about the importance of geography. This experience formed the basis for her interest in national identity and the legacy of French colonialism, which was translated into her first film Chocolat (1988), a non-biographical account of post-colonialism. The film begins with a white French woman in her late twenties named France who is returning to Cameroon to visit her childhood home. During a car ride with two strangers, Mungo Park and his son, the film flashes back to her childhood in the colonial outpost. Here, we are introduced to Protée, a local domestic worker patiently serving the needs of France's parents and their ill-mannered guests. The film relies on visual rather than verbal elements to explain interracial tensions and conflicts and to illustrate the intermingling of power relations and desire. The interactions between members of the household are charged with sexual longing, yet the complicity of their relations is revealed to be based on an inferiorization of the local inhabitants. The film ends with Mungo's failed attempt to read the future from France's palm, which is too scarred by burns, and with his refusal to have a drink with her following the pattern of interracial relations established in the flashback. With this ending, Claire Denis seems to suggest that not much has changed in post-colonial Cameroon.


After her debut, Claire Denis made a documentary about the first French tour of the Cameroon band Les Têtes Brulées, entitled Man No Run (1989). She continued to explore post-colonial attitudes in her next feature, S'en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990). This claustrophobic and grainy film tells the story of two men, one from Benin and one from the Caribbean, living on the margins of French society. They become involved in an illegal cock-fighting ring, and the experience depicted is one of cultural displacement and racial conflict. Denis explored these themes further in J'ai Pas Sommeil / I Can't Sleep (1994), portraying the cultural and familial tensions affecting several immigrants in Paris while the city is in the grip of a serial killer.


In one of her most successful films to date, Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996), Denis deepens her dissection of family relations. The film is a coming-of-age drama about a lovelorn brother and his pregnant teenage sister recovering from their mother's suicide. Claire Denis's international breakthrough came with her next film, Beau Travail / Good Work (1999), based loosely on Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor. The story focuses on a group of French legionnaires stationed in Djibouti and observes the rituals of male bonding and codes of repression as displayed in this homosocial, militarized environment. At the center of the film is the extremely antagonistic, and at the same time erotic, relationship between a sergeant, Galoup, and a new recruit, Gilles. The film's sensual focus is clearly fixed upon the male body as well as its movements and gestures, and many critics underlined Claire Denis's talent in replacing Melville's verbosity with a silence that speaks more than words.


In 2001, Claire Denis shocked Cannes audiences with Trouble Every Day, an exploration of the violent poetics of desire, featuring Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle as carriers of a blood-hungry virus released by erotic stimulation. The plot follows a young American couple on honeymoon in Paris, where the husband takes part in a secret experiment by an unorthodox doctor. Although considered to be the film in which Denis came closest to making a horror film, it simultaneously blurred the lines between high and low genres. The scenes of sexual cannibalism examine our society's violence of desire as well as our anxieties about science and its ethics.


With Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002), Denis tells the story of an intimate relationship between two strangers who meet during a public transportation strike. A man and a woman engage in a passionate one-night stand, during which the communication between the two occurs through a mere glance. The result is a sensual, ravishing visual experience told through a series of non-voyeuristic images of their bodies.


L'Intrus / The Intruder (2004) was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Film Festival and represents, according to many, Denis's most mysterious and invigorating work. The film takes inspiration from the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin's paintings, and a memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, from whom she borrowed the title and the motif of a heart transplant. The story follows an enigmatic man in his late sixties as he travels across the South Seas in an attempt to find a son he has never metand a new heart. The result is a poetic, dreamlike experience as this "heartless" man and his new acquaintance, an equally mysterious Russian woman, search for signs of home amidst the borderlands inhabited by aliens and natives, intruders and guests.


According to Claire Denis, the inspiration for her film 35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008) came from her mother's relationship with her Brazilian father, while on a formal level it represents a homage to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The story focuses on a widowed father and his grown-up daughter who is supposed to be starting a life and family of her own. The film seems to be in flux, relying mostly on faces and bodies to depict feelings that are impossible to verbalize. Its focus is on the integrity of a small family unit of two surrounded by a network of outsiders trying to break in. At the crucial moment, the resolution comes with the daughter's decision to act instead of remaining a passive participant in the flow of life.


Returning to Cameroon, Matériel Blanc / White Material (2009), is Denis's film scripted by the novelist Marie NDiaye. It depicts the members of a white family in present-day Cameroon, surrounded by unrest and rebellion, who are trying to save their coffee plantation while seemingly blind to the new power constellation established in the outside world. Denis's most recent film, Les Salauds (2013), a "neo-noir" that, through dense and atmospheric fragments, follows a ship captain's (Vincent Lindon) return to Paris to unravel the tragedy of his brother-in-law's suicide, and take revenge. The film's depth is palpable all the while maintaing its surfaces, and surface tension, in order to find its cracks. Denis has also recently filmed a few film shorts, To the Devil (2011) and Voilà l'enchaînement (2014), and, as one of seventy renowned film directors, contributed a documentary short on the future of cinema to the documentary Venice 70: Future Reloaded (2013).