Where to begin with Claire Denis

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the rapturous cinema of Claire Denis

Amy Simmons
Updated:

White Material (2009)

White Material (2009)

Why this might not seem so easy

Bold, sensual and frequently controversial, the cinema of celebrated French auteur Claire Denis is one of defiant individualism. She’s fascinated by marginalised, rootless figures, drawing attention to the pleasures and problems of belonging, otherness and the consequences that inevitably arise from intolerance.

Vendredi soir (2002)

Vendredi soir (2002)

Whether she’s exploring the impact of colonialism (Chocolat; Beau Travail; White Material), the poetics of desire (Trouble Every Day; Vendredi soir) or the complications of vengeance (Bastards), Denis is drawn to the raw intimacy of her characters and the sensual world that surrounds and often threatens to engulf them.

Her elliptical style takes some getting used to. She’s known for eschewing dialogue in favour of crafting textures and abstract rhythms. But for those willing to forgo conventional storytelling, there’s a beautiful and devastating quality to her films that can be liberating to behold.

A romantic comedy following the busy love-life of Juliette Binoche’s divorcée artist, Denis’s newest feature, Let the Sunshine In, might seem like a departure from her previous work. Yet her signature style and sensual delicacy are all present and correct. It represents the next stage in an intriguing career that has continuously defied expectations.

The best place to start – Chocolat

Chocolat (1988)

Chocolat (1988)

Not to be confused with the sickly-sweet Johnny Depp-Juliette Binoche vehicle of the same name, Denis’s beautifully shot feature debut remains the best place to snap off your first chunk. Chocolat (1988) is rooted in the director’s own childhood as a French colonial in west Africa, where her father was stationed. Its focus is the relationship between eight-year-old France (Cécile Ducasse) and the family’s Cameroonian ‘houseboy’ Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), as well as the charged sexual tension between Protée and France’s mother Aimee (Giulia Boschi).

Reliant on intimate moments and gestures rather than dialogue, Chocolat gently introduces a sense of the director’s languidly hypnotic tone and her provocative fusing of racial and sexual politics.

What to watch next

It was a few years before Denis had her second critical success with Nénette et Boni (1996), an emotionally rich and immersive coming-of-age film about an estranged brother and sister (Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri) who form a close bond after spending years apart.

Beau Travail (1999)

Beau Travail (1999)

Still, none of Denis’s earlier work had prepared audiences for the brooding austerity of Beau Travail (1999). Loosely based on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, it’s about a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, Galoup (Denis Lavant), who develops a jealous obsession with a young recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Considered one of the greatest films of 1990s, and renowned for its balletic sequences of male bodies performing hypnotic choreographed drills in the blistering African desert, Beau Travail evokes a palpable sense of dread, desire and confusion that lingers long afterward.

With this grounding in what Denis’s all about, you should try 2002’s Vendredi soir, a minimalist study that celebrates the carnal pleasures of a chance encounter that’s probably her most experimental film to date. With outstanding cinematography from the director’s long-time collaborator, Agnès Godard, the visuals explore the tactility of everything from the skin of the two lovers (played by Vincent Lindon and Valérie Lemercier) to the smoke curling from a cigarette.

35 Shots of Rum (2008)

35 Shots of Rum (2008)

Returning to a more linear form of storytelling, Denis’s 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum is an homage to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, notably his 1949 classic Late Spring. It tells the story of Lionel (Alex Descas), a long-widowed African immigrant, and his devoted daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), whose close relationship is disrupted by the romantic attentions of a neighbour. Tender, lyrical and impressionistic, 35 Shots of Rum offers up a complex and intoxicating portrayal of human relationships that subtly reflects on themes of ageing, loneliness and letting go.

That was followed by White Material in 2009, which ranks among the director’s most personal and provocative works. This one focuses on French plantation owner Maria (Isabelle Huppert), who finds herself caught up amid a revolution in an unnamed African country. While most of the locals flee their homes and jobs, Maria desperately clings on to her land before she begins to realise that her empire had fallen long ago. It’s a simple socio-political set-up, yet one made infinitely evocative by Denis’s dreamlike style.

Where not to start

Denis’s 2001 film Trouble Every Day is notoriously grisly so won’t be for everyone. Featuring Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle as the subjects of a scientific experiment that has turned them into voracious sexual cannibals, it scandalised Cannes and came to help define the ‘New French Extremity’ movement. Exploring the savagery of carnal lust and the insanity of desire, it continues the director’s sensuous obsession with matters of the flesh.

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Trouble Every Day (2001)

For different reasons, 2004’s L’Intrus isn’t the ideal first encounter either. Loosely based on a booklet of the same name by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, it focuses on a melancholy loner (Michel Subor) who goes looking for a long-lost son and a new organ to replace his ailing heart. The result is a strikingly poetic yet challenging experience, which requires a complete surrender to its unique rhythms.

Denis’s rain-soaked, noir-infused tragedy Bastards, from 2013, is also a more divisive one. Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni star in a tale about a sea captain, Marco (Lindon) who takes revenge on a corrupt billionaire, Eduard (Michel Subor), who he holds responsible for a family tragedy. Although narrative ambiguity gives way to arresting imagery and moments of tender intimacy, the film doesn’t quite pull together at the end. Like most of Denis’s work, Bastards refuses to provide a conventional denouement, encouraging us instead to reflect upon the indefinable and boundlessly complex internal landscape of her cinema.

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