Where to begin with Claire Denis

As her love triangle drama Both Sides of the Blade arrives in UK cinemas, we trace a beginner’s path through the sensual, rapturous films of Claire Denis.

5 September 2022

By Elena Lazic

White Material (2009)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Even if you’ve never seen a film directed by Claire Denis, chances are you’ve heard of the French filmmaker or seen her name on a t-shirt. An inspiration for a whole new generation of directors, not least Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, she is often one of the first women mentioned when discussing outstanding female filmmakers. That her films are now so far-reaching is testament to the fact that, despite the intimidatingly serious aura around them and their maker, they are in fact accessible, intuitive experiences.

Her characters are often overcome by their physical senses in what many refer to as a ‘cinema of the body’, a trendy concept that has gained her many fans in a film landscape otherwise so lacking in sensuality. But if Denis’ cinema leaves a lasting mark, it’s because she doesn’t conceive of a separation between the physical senses and the workings of the mind: repulsion and desire, nostalgia and trauma are operating all at once, in a total experience that involves both body and soul. 

Driven by a compulsion to probe into some of the most mysterious corners of the human experience, her films begin where platitudes and commonplace ideas end, where words fail and the truly cinematic begins. 

The best place to start – Beau Travail

Her most celebrated work, Beau Travail (1999) ticks all the boxes of a cool arthouse movie today. It’s a film about men directed by a woman, and like most recent movies ‘about masculinity’, it features a dozen shirtless hunks in a series of scenes ranging from the vaguely homoerotic to the very homoerotic. On top of that, its deconstruction of machismo is literally set on an army base, and it may even have invented the trope of the karaoke/dance sequence still going strong in arthouse cinema today.

But there are few things Denis cares about less than touching the zeitgeist, and Beau Travail is a lot more than the sum of its parts. Shot by Agnès Godard (a frequent collaborator), it offers a heady and hypnotic experience where the beauty of both people (Grégoire Colin chief among them) and landscapes sucks you in, just as they trouble the film’s tormented narrator Galoup (the charismatic Denis Lavant). Reminiscing about his time in sunny Djibouti as part of the Foreign Legion, this lonely man now living in grey Paris is haunted by guilt and memories of unfulfilled desire as painful as they are perversely beautiful.

Beau Travail (1999)

What to watch next 

Chocolat (1988)

Denis was raised in colonial French Africa herself, and her debut, Chocolat (1988), establishes the themes of colonialism and French identity that run throughout her work. Centred on the memories of a white French woman who returns to her childhood home in Cameroon, the film also sets up Denis’ interest in the dynamics of power, fear and attraction in one-to-one relationships, as the character recalls charged interactions with her Cameroonian servant (Isaach De Bankolé). 

Denis would return to Africa in 2009 for an even more confrontational and uncomfortable study of the troubled colonial psyche in White Material, about a white French woman (Isabelle Huppert) who refuses to leave her coffee plantation even as civil war erupts around her. 

Most of her films, however, examine French life and identity by centring non-white characters living in France. De Bankolé returned for No Fear, No Die (1990), starring alongside another of Denis’ recurring collaborators, Alex Descas, as a duo of immigrants who make a living through illegal cockfights. Though its story is simple, the film gains an almost existential resonance through the careful camerawork, warm tones and palpable textures that are trademarks of Denis’ filmmaking. It demonstrates her talent for making her actors seem both ethereal and grounded in a concrete physical reality.

No Fear, No Die (1990)

No Fear, No Die was also Denis’ first feature to venture into the city. Her subsequent duo of films from 1994, I Can’t Sleep and US Go Home, continue her exploration of urban life, the former through the interconnected stories of various outsiders in a Paris haunted by the brutal murders of a serial killer, and the latter – a TV movie – in the study of a young woman in the suburbs desperate to lose her virginity. 

Denis’ interest in experiences that defy language and overcome logic has naturally led her towards young characters. Her next film, Nénette et Boni (1996), stars Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri as siblings engaged in a close but tense relationship, each uncomfortably teetering between childhood naivety and adult responsibilities. Though full of lighthearted, even tender moments, this is also a psychically violent film about wounded youth navigating childhood pregnancy, family estrangement and abuse. 

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Denis often envisions the adult world as perverse and brutal. In her sole horror film to date, Trouble Every Day (2001), love is what guides both murderers and their keepers: because the sexual cravings of his lover (Béatrice Dalle) always crescendo into cannibalism, a man (Descas) keeps her locked up in their house. An American doctor (Vincent Gallo), meanwhile, must fight the urge to devour his own young wife. Like a sombre fairytale, the film’s extreme scenario deals with taboos of science and the flesh.

The high-definition aesthetic of Denis’ first digitally shot film, the bruising, misanthropic neo-noir Bastards (2013), portends more disturbing revelations and horrid images that cannot be unseen. The rugged Vincent Lindon gets involved with the sinister machinations of a rich white Parisian family, better to investigate the death of his brother-in-law and the rape of his niece (the arresting Lola Créton). 

35 Shots of Rum (2008)

At the other end of the scale, 2008’s 35 Shots of Rum is one of Denis’ most hopeful and loving films, showing a family going through hard but necessary change, with Descas very touching as a father afraid to let go of his grown-up daughter (Mati Diop). A central scene featuring the Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’ is a highlight in the career of a filmmaker who, without relying on words, is unafraid to let images and sound work their magic.  

It echoes the sexy and romantic Friday Night (2002), which has Lindon as a beautiful stranger who sweeps Valérie Lemercier off her feet one scintillating Paris evening. A sensual, feminist film, it seemed an uncharacteristically lighthearted Denis offering until 2017’s Let the Sunshine In, which follows a divorced woman (the radiant Juliette Binoche) as she rides the rollercoaster of expectation and disappointment in her search for true connection. Here, as in her heavier films, Denis rejects plain characterisation and lets her actors flesh out their roles with their own personality and charisma. 

High Life (2018)

Denis followed this first comedy with High Life (2018), her first English-language feature and her first work of science-fiction. But for all its departures, the film is far from a UFO in her universe: here again are makeshift families and outsiders, this time convicts inseminated by a mad scientist (Binoche again) on a spaceship headed for a black hole. A sometimes alienating but often striking viewing experience, High Life presents Denis’ thematic concerns as though abstracted from real life, a quality mirrored in Robert Pattinson’s otherworldly looks. 

Where not to start

The Intruder (2004) is a precursor to her divisive 2022 Cannes offering Stars at Noon in its portrayal of the diffuse feeling of exile and the bitterness of foreign lands whose early promise has turned sour. Denis’ most opaque film, The Intruder is better saved for when you have a good grasp of her style and concerns. Its images, each more remarkable than the last, can be overwhelming and even confounding. The key, as in all of Denis’ sensual cinema, is to surrender and let the film leave its mark on you, whatever it may be. 

Both Sides of the Blade is in cinemas from 9 September.

Chocolat, White Material, Bastards and High Life are all available to watch on BFI Player.

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