Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Claire Denis
















Claire Denis was born in Paris but moved to colonial French West Africa when she was only two months old, living in what is now Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal, and Cameroon, where her father was a colonial administrator.  Her father moved the family every few years as he wanted them to understand the significance of geography.  Her family stayed in Cameroon even after it obtained independence in 1960, where over the next three years her father helped set up a radio station for the new government.  At 14, she and her sister both contracted polio, so they were sent back to France, a country they had little recollection of, where Denis made a full recovery, while her sister still walks with a slight limp.  Denis spent her remaining teenage years in Sceaux, a suburb of Paris, as her parents wanted their children to complete their education in France.  Denis initially studied economics, but found it infuriorating, so she enrolled at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, IDHEC (now École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l'Image et du Son), France’s most prestigious film school where she graduated in 1971, learning the technique of filmmaking at a time that France was still galvanized by the events of the May 1968 uprisings. 

Her first job on a payroll was working as an extra on Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur) (1971), where you can see her walking by the Seine in a night scene.  One of her film school teachers was Pierre Lhomme, the cinematographer on the film, who recruited students to be extras, a job that led to the attention of Dušan Makavejev who learned she could speak a little English, where he needed a go-between for him and the French crew, especially Viennese Action artist Otto Mühl (now a convicted sex offender) and his Therapie-Kommune, which led to her job as a second assistant on the surrealist dark satire SWEET MOVIE (1974).  As Makavejev's assistant, Denis apparently lived with the Kommune members through part of the shoot, where Denis recalls, “They did terrible things.  They wanted me to shave my head, drink my blood, eat my shit, things like that.  But, in a way, I was not afraid.  Maybe because I was smoking pot.”  While she is about the same age of Philippe Garrel, whose association with Godard and leftist politics left an imprint on his style of filmmaking, which began at age 16, Denis would not make her first film until the age of 40, deciding instead to work as a scriptwriter and assistant director under a myriad of diverse directors from Jacques Rivette, becoming lifelong friends, where her collaboration with Rivette gave rise to the television documentary portrait, Jacques Rivette – Le Veilleur (Jacques Rivette – The Nightwatchman, 1990), which Denis co-directed with Serge Daney, but also the likes of Dušan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, making several shorts before obtaining the financial backing needed from Wim Wenders for her debut feature film in 1988 with Chocolat (1988), an elaborate portrait of 1950’s French colonialism in Africa as seen through flashbacks into early childhood memories, which was selected into Director’s Fortnight at Cannes.  Since 2002, she has been a Professor of Film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. 

Claire Denis occupies a unique place in world cinema, one not easily categorized or associated with any particular “wave” or style. Both sensual and rigorous, languid yet at times explosively energetic, her films are highly idiosyncratic and often focus on those living on the margins of society usually absent from mainstream work, both in colonial and post-colonial Africa (where she spent her early youth) and in her native France, but also characters existing outside the parameters of a white, bourgeois, European ideal.  Her films tend to be internationally financed, multilingual, while outwardly rejecting the cliché’d conventions of Hollywood cinema, accentuating the personal with the historical, advocating lyricism and sensuality over any narrative coherence, where she’s sensitive to issues of exile, homelessness, and border disputes.  Denis prefers to work on location, often framing her actors as if they were positioned for still photography, as in Beau Travail  (1999), where she is especially fond of the male anatomy, using longer takes that are often captured in perfectly framed long shots, while also relentlessly focusing upon the faces of her subjects.  In this way her films are as much about sounds, textures, colors, and compositions as they are about themes or examining social content, where immediate landscape determines her visual style, suffocating and claustrophobic in the Parisian traffic jams and compact hotel rooms that effect FRIDAY NIGHT (VENDREDI SOIR, 2002), or the ominous beauty of the arid African landscape in Chocolat (1988) or White Material (2009), captured in long tracking shots, often set to intoxicating music, where it actually has the transfixing feel of a momentary reverie or dream, where memory is as fleeting as silhouettes, or a streak of sunlight, where tone and texture matter more than words or action.  According to Denis, “In Africa, nothing is ever said, but the weight of things is always there.”  An evocative and controversial filmmaker that often thrives in complex, non-narrative structure, helped along the way by her trusted cinematographer Agnès Godard, she is known for making emotionally powerful films through haunting and hypnotic visual imagery, where she has a contemplative talent for exposing the beauty of a lingering thought.

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