Claire Denis

Professor of Film at The European Graduate School / EGS.

Claire Denis

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).

Works

Films

Voilà l’enchaînement
Voilà l’enchaînement. Directed by Claire Denis. Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains, 2014.

Venice 70: Future Reloaded
Venice 70: Future Reloaded. Directed by Claire Denis, et al. Dream Film, IbsicusMedia, Ila Palma, 2013.

Les Salauds – Dreckskerle
Les Salauds – Dreckskerle. Directed by Claire Denis. Alcatraz Film, Wild Bunch, Arte France Cinéma, 2013.

​To The Devil.
To The Devil. Directed by Claire Denis. JIFF Project, Why Not Productions, 2011.

​White Material
White Material. Directed by Claire Denis. Why Not Productions, WIld Bunch, France 3 Cinéma, 2009.

​35 Shots of Rum
35 Shots of Rum. Directed by Claire Denis. Soudaine Compagnie, Pandora Filmproduktion,2008.

Vers Mathilde
Vers Mathilde. Directed by Claire Denis. Celluloid Dreams, 2005.

​The Intruder (L’intrus)
The Intruder (L’intrus). Directed by Claire Denis. Ognon Pictures, Arts France Cinéma, 2005.

Ten Minutes Older: The Cello. Directed by Claire Denis et al. Odyssey Films, Matador Pictures, Road Movies Filmproduktion, 2002.

​Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)
Friday Night (Vendredi Soir). Directed by Claire Denis. Arena Films, Canal +, CNC, 2002.

​Trouble Everyday
Trouble Everyday. Directed by Claire Denis. Arte France Ciném, Arte, Canal +, 2001.

Beau Travail
Beau Travail. Directed by Claire Denis. La Sept-Arte, S. M. Films, Tanais Productions, 1999.

​Nenette and Boni
Nenette and Boni. Directed by Claire Denis. Canal+, CNC, Dacia Films, 1996.

​Boom-Boom
Boom-Boom. Directed by Claire Denis. 1994.

​J’ai pas sommeil
J’ai pas sommeil. Directed by Claire Denis. Arena Films, Orsans, Les Films de Mindif, 1994.

Keep it for Yourself
Keep it for Yourself. Directed by Claire Denis. Allarts, Good Machine, 1991.

​no fear, no die (S’en fout la mort)
no fear, no die (S’en fout la mort). Directed by Claire Denis. Cinéa, NEF Diffusion, 1990.

Man No Run
Man No Run. Directed by Claire Denis. Casa Films, 1989.

​Chocolat
Chocolat. Directed by Claire Denis. Caroline Productions, Cerito Films, Cinémanuel, 1988.

Articles

Sauvons le peuple grec de ses sauveurs!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Sauvons le peuple grec de ses sauveurs!” Liberation. February 22, 2012.

Save the Greeks from their Saviors!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Save the Greeks from their Saviors!” February 22, 2012. Translated by Drew S. Burk and Anastazia Golemi.

Retten wir das griechische Volk vor seinen Rettern!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Retten wir das griechische Volk vor seinen Rettern!” February 21, 2012. Translated by Judith Dellheim.

Salvemos el pueblo griego de sus salvadores!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Salvemos el pueblo griego de sus salvadores!” February 22, 2012. Translated by Mauricio Rugeles Schoonewolff.

Vamos salvar o povo grego dos seus salvadores!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Vamos salvar o povo grego dos seus salvadores!” February 23, 2012. Translation by Alexandra Balona de Sá Oliveira and Sofia Borges.

Salviamo la Grecia dai suoi salvatori: Un appello agli intellettuali europe Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Salviamo la Grecia dai suoi salvatori: Un appello agli intellettuali europe,” laRepubblica.it, February 22, 2012. Translated by Vicky Skoumbi, Dimitris Vergetis, and Michel Surya.

Να Σώσουμε Τον Ελληνικό Λαό Aπό Tους Σωτήρες Του
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Να Σώσουμε Τον Ελληνικό Λαό Aπό Tους Σωτήρες Του.” in tometopo, February 21, 2012.

Rädda det grekiska folket från sina räddare!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Rädda det grekiska folket från sina räddare!” February 24, 2012. Translation into Swedish by Erik Bryngelsson and Elin Fritiofsson.

Verlos de Grieken van hun verlossers!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Verlos de Grieken van hun verlossers!” February 23, 2012. Translated by Dennis Schep.

Zbawmy Greków od ich zbawców!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Zbawmy Greków od ich zbawców!” February 23, 2012. Translated by Krzyś Rowiński.

Spasimo Grčki Narod Od Njegovih Spasitelja!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Spasimo Grčki Narod Od Njegovih Spasitelja!” February 22, 2012. Translated by Vesna Madzoski.

Rešite Grke pred njihovimi rešitelji!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Rešite Grke pred njihovimi rešitelji!” February 24, 2012. Translated by Jožica Grgič.

Yunan Halkını Kurtarıcılarından Kurtaralım!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Yunan Halkını Kurtarıcılarından Kurtaralım!” February 24, 2012. Translated by Ali Bolcakan, Nilüfer Akalın and Can Semercioğlu.

Shpëtojini grekët nga shpëtimtarët e tyre!
Denis, Claire, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Avital Ronell. “Shpëtojini grekët nga shpëtimtarët e tyre!” February 24, 2012. Translated by Arlind Qori.

Special Coree – La sainte victoire de Hong Sang-soo
Denis, Claire. “Special Coree – La sainte victoire de Hong Sang-soo.” Cahiers du cinéma 597 (2005): 37.

Cahier critique – L’intrus – Reperage
Denis, Claire. “Cahier critique – L’intrus – Reperage.” Cahiers du cinéma 601 (2005): 42.

Interviews

How We Met: Stuart A. Staples and Claire Denis
Denis, Claire, and Rhiannon Harries, “How We Met: Stuart A. Staples and Claire Denis.” The Independent, July 19, 2009.

Interview: Claire Denis on 35 Shots of Rum
Denis, Claire and Robert Davis, “Interview: Claire Denis on 35 Shots of Rum.” Daily Plastic, March 10, 2009.

Spectacularly intimate: an interview with Claire Denis
Denis, Claire, and Kevin Lee, “Spectacularly intimate: an interview with Claire Denis.” Mubi.com, April 2009.

An Interview with Claire Denis
Denis, Claire, and Andrew Nyman, “An Interview with Claire Denis.” Reverse Shot 25 (2009).

I’m not interested in making conclusions
Denis, Claire, and Kira Cochrane, “‘I’m not interested in making conclusions.” The Guardian, July 3, 2003.

L’Intrus: An Interview with Claire Denis
Denis, Claire, and Damon Smith. “L’Intrus: An Interview with Claire Denis.” Senses of Cinema (2005).

Intruding Beauty: An Interview with Claire Denis
Denis, Claire. “Intruding Beauty: An Interview with Claire Denis.” Errata, December 9, 2004.

Thank God It’s Friday
Denis, Claire, and G. Allen Johnson. “Thank God It’s Friday.” Film Threat, June 2, 2003.

Interview
Denis, Claire, and Aimé Ancian, “Interview.” Sofa 17 (2002).

Interview
Denis, Claire, and Aimé Ancian, “Interview.” Translated by Inge Pruks. Sense of Sight (2002).

Interview
Denis, Claire, and Neil Smith. “Interview.” BBC, December 24, 2002.

Must-see Director–Claire Denis
Denis, Claire, and Graham Fuller, “Must-see Director–Claire Denis.” Interviewed by Magazine, October 2001.

Interview: Desire and Violence
Denis, Claire. “Interview: Desire and Violence.” Sight and Sound British Film Institute July (2000).

Interview
Denis, Claire, and Jonathan Romney, “Interview.” The Guardian, June 28, 2000.

Alle diese jungen Männer im Film sind meine kleinen Soldaten
Denis, Claire, and Ewa Hess. “Alle diese jungen Männer im Film sind meine kleinen Soldaten.” Sonntags Zeitung, June 11, 2000.

Lectures

Jean-Luc Nancy, Claire Denis

35 Shots of Rum

27.11.2011
Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Nancy

L’Intrus. The Intruder 3/3

09.07.2007
Jean-Luc Nancy, Claire Denis

L’Intrus. The Intruder 2/3

09.07.2007
Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Nancy

L’Intrus. The Intruder 1/3

09.07.2007
Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Nancy

Jean-Luc Godard: Sympathy for the Devil

15.03.2006