NENETTE AND BONI (Nénette et Boni) B+
France (103 mi) 1996 d: Claire Denis
France (103 mi) 1996 d: Claire Denis
One of the director’s more most sensitive, humane and accessible films, what initially appears to be a pair of mismatched lovers only becomes revealed as brother and sister a half hour into the film, where Nénette (Alice Houri) and Boni (Grégoire Colin) share a troubled past, where both have grown distant from living apart following the separation of their parents, each living with a different parent, culminating with the death of their mother, where Boni is living in her house. Both earlier played siblings in Denis’s made-for-French-TV film U.S. GO HOME (1994), reunited here as title characters, a constantly embroiled brother and sister living in Marseilles. Much of their relationship is expressed through constant bickering, often turning ugly, where the one thing they both share is a uniform hatred of their father (Jacques Nolot). While the film is shot in a social realist style, where it could just as easily be a product of the Dardennes brothers, it also contains abruptly strange mood shifts, where we hear 19-year old school dropout Boni go through his rape and domineering masturbation ramblings from his diary entries about forcefully screwing the neighbor’s wife, where he has a fixation on the beautiful baker’s wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, gentle, gorgeously quirky, never better). When his raging male hormone teen sex fantasies blend seamlessly into the real life of his daily visits to the bakery, it casts an absurdly humorous skew throughout the entire film, especially when the vernacular of his sex fantasies becomes intertwined into the bakery world itself, often breaking into utter fantasy sequences, Bakery Scene from Nenette et Boni YouTube (3:27). Ironically Boni’s lustful gaze is counteracted by the director’s own eroticization of Boni, who often becomes the subject of an exploratory pan or a gorgeously held shot. 15-year old Nénette, on the other hand, has escaped from boarding school, where the opening sequence in the pool, especially scored by the Tendersticks, plays out like a reverie of momentary calm quickly interrupted by a harshly intruding reality, Tindersticks - Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009 Nenette et Boni YouTube (2:29), as she spends much of the film as a street urchin, having to fend for herself in a hostile environment.
The explosively charged opening rant sets the tone for the film, which is layered in a relentlessly dreary existence, much of it set in the financially troubled world of the streets where Boni sells pizzas out of a truck, while he and his gang of friends also invest heavily in black market merchandise, resulting in a reverently adored coffeemaker that becomes his most prized possession. The criminal underworld extends to his father’s business as well, where one of the givens of the film is financial insecurity, once more blending into the emotional instability of the characters. Boni actually kicks out his rebellious sister, even after learning she’s pregnant, showing the heartlessness of his situation. What is quickly realized is that both are essentially alone, two emotionally damaged misfit kids without any real support, living a minimal existence in a house that never has any food, where in an awkward way, he begins to care and feel protective of her. Once he realizes she’s actually 7-month’s pregnant, viewing an ultrasound photo confirming there’s a real baby inside, he develops a strangely fascinating curiosity, which surprisingly becomes the most profoundly affecting aspect of the story, becoming an unsentimental and totally unpredictable emotional journey. Having nowhere else to go, refusing to return to or even see her father, Nénette poignantly explores her deceased mother’s bedroom, which prompts grainy flashback images of a happier youth that feels all too brief. As they warily begin to accept one another, the camera’s exploratory gaze offers a hint of their previous relationship with a memorable shot that begins on Boni’s head and shoulders as he sleeps, slowly panning down until we see both he and Nénette’s feet sticking out at the end of the bed, humorously contrasting in size, where one gets the sense that they used to sleep like this in their earlier years. The film’s rhythm and structure is of paramount interest, as the overriding mood of bleak reality constantly breaks into moments of excruciating tenderness, where perhaps the ultimate irony is seeing Vincent Gallo (the baker), usually seen as such an aggressively macho guy become such a gentle and loving soul, where his wife is the adoring object of his gazing affections, beautifully scored to the Beach Boys “God Only Knows” Nenette et Boni Scene YouTube (1:53). Part of the little treasures of the film is the audience knowing Boni’s fierce sexual obsessions that he keeps to himself while neither the baker nor his wife have any knowledge whatsoever, knowing Boni only as a customer, always treating him with kindness and respect.
A distinctly urban film, filled with characters drifting through seemingly aimless lives, living day to day, hand to mouth, where there’s an emphasis on poverty, with people struggling to make end’s meet. In a city where no one knows anyone else, there’s a bit of an abrupt jolt when the baker’s wife (always dressed in baby pinks or blues) runs into Boni at the shopping mall, his ultimate fantasy, while she’s clearly happy to see a familiar face “from the neighborhood.” This is prefaced by scenes of Boni on the street as he stares at the baker’s wife through a store window, becoming one of the most tender scenes ever committed to celluloid, a love fantasia to the baker and his wife set to the music of Tindersticks “Tiny Tears” Tindersticks - Tiny Tears (From the Soundtrack Nenette et Boni) YouTube (5:54), where the clip is misleading, as the song is only used in the daydream sequence, where natural sound and dialogue follow. From this reverie, she latches onto him, grasping for a connection in the mad holiday rush of Christmas shopping where they’re literally crushed from the overflowing crowds. Their conversation couldn’t take on a more bizarre turn, where she nervously rambles on about the mysterious effects of chemicals used in making perfume, where especially the way she describes it makes it sound like a laughable supposition if it weren’t so true, while he can only stare in disbelief, his brain frozen in dream state. These fantasy interludes are outrageously exaggerated dreams of a perfect marriage, like something depicted in the gloriously artificial universe of musicals, perhaps rising out of the painful void of his own existence, imagining an alternate existence that takes the place of his own. By the end, reality veers into alternate universe territory, but in this strange and mysterious way, it poetically magnifies the theme of unwanted children, showing a teen mother so traumatized by the unmentioned circumstances surrounding the unnamed father (with hints that it could be her own incestuous father) that she doesn’t even want to look at her own child, while at the same time revealing a young father figure gloriously adoring a child that isn’t even his own, going to great lengths to make it distinctly and decisively an integral part of his life forever. A tender and touching portrait of damaged lives filled with lingering emotional scars, shot throughout with symbolism, humor, and an intimacy of expression, this is a film doused in a grim reality that seemingly knows no bounds, but is as optimistically uplifting as any fairy tale.