Saturday, June 4, 2011

Claire Denis Was All Around the Bay

This spring, Claire Denis films turned up all around the bay. The 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival brought the Tindersticks to the Castro to perform the film scores they composed and performed for Denis' films between 1996 and 2009. One of short films I recalled from the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was Dirty Bitch which the credits stated was inspired by Denis' Nénette and Boni.

Finally, the PFA had a six week series on her films. I was able watch three films in the series. All films were directed by Denis. Agnès Godard was also the cinematographer on all three films.

Nénette and Boni starring Grégoire Colin & Alice Houri; French with subtitles; (1996)
Beau travail starring Denis Lavant & Grégoire Colin; French with subtitles; (1999)
Trouble Every Day starring Vincent Gallo & Béatrice Dall; French with subtitles; (2001)

I'm embarrassed to say I had not seen Claire Denis film before this series. I was aware of White Material and 35 Shots of Run (her two latest films) but had not watched them.

Although not by my design, those three films are sequential in Denis' filmography. In other words, she directed Trouble Everyday immediately after Beau travail which she directed immediately after Nénette and Boni. In addition, I saw them in the same chronological order they were made.


Nénette and Boni reminds me of a French New Wave film. Nénette and Boni are teenage sister and brother. Nénette is several months pregnant. Boni is involved in fencing stolen merchandise, running a pizza van and fantasizing over the neighborhood baker's wife. Nénette and Boni is episodic and portions of the film are Boni's fantasies. Even the portions that represent parts of the narrative have a surreal and exaggerated feel such as Boni's many methods of coping with sexual frustration. In one memorable scene, Boni's kneads some pizza dough with a fervor bordering on pornographic.

Nénette's (Boni's younger sister) pregnancy does not allow her to indulge in teenage pursuits and diversions. The two have been separated as a result of their parents' divorce. Nénette has returned to Marseilles to find her brother - a safe harbor to dock while she prepares for childbirth. Although estranged and initially distant from his sister, Boni & Nénette eventually form an ersatz couple (nothing incestuous).

Fragmented and stylized, the film primarily follows Boni as his hormones rage, his imagination stirs and he confronts his rather shabby surroundings. Nénette and Boni is a poetic film that evinces more than is on the screen.

Partly choosing to attend Nénette and Boni due to its reference in Dirty Bitch, I can see the parallels but Dirty Bitch is a vulgar and violent reimagining of Nénette and Boni with some over the top comedic moments. Reportedly, director Sun Koh saw a heavily censored version of Nénette and Boni from Singaporean library. The artistic qualities of Nénette and Boni were so badly mangled that she was inspired to make Dirty Bitch.


I was auitably impressed by Nénette and Boni and its director. However, I hadn't seen anything yet.

Beau travail is loosely based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd. To further highlight the relationship between Beau travail and Billy Budd, Denis used some music from Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation of Melville's work.

Semi-random thought - about 12 years ago or so, I saw a great stage adaptation of Billy Budd which was performed on the Balclutha, a ship at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

I don't think I have the skills to really express my thoughts on Beau travail. It's one of the best films I ever seen.

Grégoire Colin (Boni in Nénette and Boni) plays Sentain, the Billy Budd proxy. Sentain has joined the French Foreign Legion. Attractive, young and pleasant, Sentain has provoked an irrational hatred in Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), his immediate superior.

The rest of the film is Galoup simmering as his feelings towards Sentain intensify. There is an undertone of homoeroticism in Galoup behavior but either insecurity and/or jealousy causes him to manifest his feelings as animosity. On this somewhat slender thread, Denis weaves her masterpiece.

It's appropriate that Denis used Britten's opera music for the film because the film has an operatic feel. Balletic too as the Legionnaires go about their exercises. More like tai chi, the soldiers with their shaved heads, look monastic with their ritualistic and synchronized movements. The seeming calmness of their exercises masks the inner turmoil felt by Galoup who joins his men in their exercises.

Layered on top of this are the vistas of Djibouti. The action shifts an urban (at least what passes for urban in Djibouti) to the desolate as the Legionnaires go on maneuvers near the sea. Denis makes good use of the deserts and water as backdrops for the Legionnaires unending training. There are several extended scenes of the men exercising with the desert or sea as a backdrop. The beauty of Denis' direction is that she makes the repetition hypnotic and lyrical rather than boring and distracting. Her success is likely due to the fact that there isn't much plot to the film.

Denis has constructed a film where the viewer can infer what s/he wants within the parameters established by the film. Galoup and Sentain are left superficial with much backstory or expository dialogue. However, Levant and Colin imbue their roles with much more depth than the spoken dialogue. With a lesser skilled director, this is a recipe for disaster. "Look into the camera and emote." That Denis has managed to make such a film immensely watchable is the highest praise from me.

Finally, there is Galoup's dance scene which serves as the coda. Throughout the film, the young Legionnaires go to the disco to dance. At the end of the film, Galoup who has attempted to kill Sentain, dances alone on the set of the disco. No one else is there and the dance is largely symbolic - inner turmoil, suicide, repressed emtion, etc. Lavant dances like a man possessed. In a very brave decision, Denis changes the tone and look of the film in the final scenes by letting Lavant do his interpretive dance of Galoup's psyche. It could easily be criticized as pretentious because by this point Denis has already established the contemplative even meditative tone for the film. Like everything else in Beau travail, Denis films this scene perfectly.

I was not familiar with Denis Lavant before watching Beau travail. The film is almost a solo vehicle for him. His appearance and performance make it seem like he was born to play the role of Galoup. I'm almost afraid to seek out any of his other performances for fear of disappointment. Actually, I have seen Lavant before. He was the monster in Leos Carax's portion of Tokyo!. Honestly, I can't remember the performance.


Trouble Every Day was quite a departure form Beau travail. Essentially a vampire story, Trouble Every Day includes some gory scenes but again Denis gives the film comtemplative veneer. Vincent Gallo (who had a small role in Nénette and Boni) plays an American scientist. He is a newlywed (married to Tricia Vessey) who has combined his honeymoon with a business trip to Paris. His business is to find a cure for the disease with which he is afflicted. The unnamed malady causes him to go into a murderous and cannibalistic frenzy whenever he is sexually aroused. You can see how that would put a damper on your honeymoon. Apparently he contracted the disease in Africa (or was it South America)?

Gallo's Shane is not alone though. While searching for Léo, a fellow researcher (Alex Descas), Shane discovers that Coré (Béatrice Dalle) suffers from the same affliction as he does and that Léo is searching for a cure also. Shane's search for Coré and a cure lead to disastrous circumstances.

In Trouble Every Day Denis films two of the most amazing sex scenes I've ever seen. In one, Coré has sex with a punk/intruder. To protect the public, Léo locks Coré in their house. Coré seems to be promiscuous as well as bloodlustful. Anyway, the sex scenes devolves into Coré attacking and killing her paramour. That scene had the feel of a horror film. Dalle looks sexy and malevolent so it had a black widow feel.

Later, Shane stalks a hotel maid. He "rapes" her in the laundry room of the hotel before he kills her. That scene has a much more menacing feel as I always thought there is something creepy about Vincent Gallo.

By contrasting the two scenes, Denis must be commenting on gender roles as well as sex and violence which goes together like bread and butter (at least in films). Denis also throws in the virginal looking Tricia Vessey whose character's marriage is unconsummated due to Shane's disease which he keeps secret from her. Shane is carrying some heavy emotional baggage - he is a killer, he cannot allow himself to be aroused by his wife for fear of killing her and he is guarded about the peculiarly chaste state of their marriage.

Denis trains her circumspectful camera on the horror genre with interesting results. I'm sure the close proximity of sex and murder make many feel uncomfortable. Her languid pacing and Gallo's introspection hint at a genius in Denis' direction that could get lost in the shuffle. Trouble Every Day also has a 1970s aesthetics. It reminded me a little of The Hunger which was 1983. Trouble Every Day is closer to the film I wish Tony Scott aspired to when he made The Hunger. Shane looks like he played for Oakland A's in the 1970s with his mustache and unshaven look.

After seeing Beau travail, I think any film would have been a letdown but Denis creates an interesting genre piece that she stamps with her trademarks. Trouble Every Day is a serious film within the broad confines of the horror genre that I liked which is only another testimonial to Denis. I typically get bored by the cinematic sophistry filmmakers exhibit to give their horror films the patina of art.

I'd like to see Denis' later films because the three I saw were distinct from each other but have a common look and feel that define them as a Denis filme. Does that auteurism run through all her films? Perhaps what I am sensing are common themes in Agnès Godard's cinematography rather than Denis' direction.

Seeing these three films makes me wish I had sampled Denis' films long ago.

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