NO FEAR, NO DIE (S’en Fout la Mort) A-
France Germany (90 mi) 1990 d: Claire Denis
It’s a film that’s influenced by Frantz Fanon’s Peaux noire, masques blancs (Black Skins, White Masks). I understood something in Fanon’s book that touched me immensely. I am a very sensitive person who can’t stand the feeling of humiliation, regardless if black or whites are the objects of this humiliation. When I read Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), it increased my anger over the social inequities that groups and individuals are forced to endure […]. In S’en fout la mort, I deal with a French West Indian man here in Paris, exploring his psychological weakness and the spiritual tragedy of his life. Fanon describes a special type of neurosis – colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future.
—Claire Denis in an interview taking place August 21, 1994 with Mark A. Reid from Jump Cut, Claire Denis interviewed by Mark A. Reid - Jump Cut
A powerful and brutally disturbing film, easily the most dramatically downbeat of all the Denis films, and the most racially charged work in her entire repertoire. Not an easy film to digest, with metaphoric implications, it is nonetheless a work of extraordinary power, but one that keeps its seething undertones beneath the surface. Coming early in her career, after having made the highly acclaimed Chocolat (1988), which is more of a classically structured, visually impressive European art film, this simply isn’t like that, at times feeling infurioratingly subliminal. While both films deal with the effects of colonization, Chocolat (1988) examines symptoms of a colonized occupation, while NO FEAR, NO DIE focuses more upon the psychological impact left behind, where the postcolonial mindset still has traumatic reverberations from having been imprinted by a colonized mentality. These are highly complex ideas that rarely ever translate well to the screen, where even Richard Wright’s Native Son (1951), starring the author as the lead character, comes across as less incendiary than the novel upon which it is based. While Beau Travail (1999) receives heaps of praise, deservedly so, but especially from white critics, who may be less inclined to endorse a complicated and downbeat work about two black immigrants from former French colonies, where racist attitudes are prevalent throughout, making it intentionally uncomfortable and difficult to watch. A work that was clearly inspired by Frantz Fanon, its grim racial implications are so subtly presented that some may miss it altogether, as Denis leaves plenty to the imagination, and there are no explanatory references communicated to the audience, as this is a film, much like psychological neuroses, that largely exists under the surface.
Isaach de Bankolé, who played Protée in Chocolat (1988) is Dah, an African from Benin, while Alex Descas is Jocelyn from the West Indies, where the two are business partners smuggling roosters into France for illegal cockfights. Their destination is an industrial factory district that is little more than a truck stop, a strange and mysterious landscape in the banlieues outside Paris where an abandoned warehouse has been refurbished inside for cockfights. While Dah offers a sparse inner narration, Jocelyn provides the training for the animals, having grown up with them as a child on the islands, and Dah handles the business end with white club owner Pierre Ardennes, Jean-Claude Brialy from early New Wave films, whose sensuous wife Toni, Solveig Dommartin from Wim Wenders WINGS OF DESIRE (1987) and UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991), runs the bar, while the brooding son Michel (Christopher Buchholz) handles the disco. Dah is the more jovial and outgoing of the two and seems unaffected by the callousness of his white business associates, while Jocelyn is silent for much of the film, whose growing resentment only escalates, where his troubling relationship with the whites slowly deteriorates, becoming the centerpiece of the film. Both black actors are superb, perhaps offering the performances of their respective careers, but they do so nonverbally, as so much of the film is expressed through their silent reaction to what’s taking place around them, an often brutal and suffocating world that if they’re not careful would swallow them whole. What’s immediately apparent is the difference in living quarters, as the whites live upstairs in relative opulence, with their own private chef, used to the finer things in life where wine and champagne are the norm, while the two blacks live downstairs in the boiler room in the same cramped space as the caged roosters. One can only imagine the smell.
The film opens with a quote from black American writer Chester Himes, who emigrated to France in the 1950’s, a contemporary of fellow expatriate black writers Richard Wright, William Gardner Smith, and James Baldwin: “All men, whatever their race, color or origins, are capable of anything and everything.” Denis finds a way of visualizing this expression through the underworld of illegal cockfighting, a savage ritual that exists in order to please the men who bet heavily on the outcome. The intensity of the men screaming on the sidelines with wads of cash in their hands matches the flurry of blurred movement in the pit where the two roosters continually jump around and peck at one another. This violent portrait of exploitation overlaps with the private worlds of the men who run the operation. No one identifies with the animals more than Jocelyn, who feeds and trains them, while also nursing them back to health after a fight, often seen dancing with them in the training ring while listening to blaring rap music. This draws the attention of Toni, who makes unannounced visits into their lower domain, where the underlying sexual vibe suggests these are the men she’s really interested in, as they name their most prized rooster after her, where the extreme physicality of their world is beautifully captured by the director’s approach to making such uniquely sensual films. It’s in scenes like this where the audience realizes these men have no privacy, where the lowered ceilings offer a claustrophobic environment that couldn’t feel more oppressively suffocating and confined, little more than an underground prison. Jocelyn’s attachment to the animals becomes problematic, as he identifies only with the lower life forms, seething with resentment at the brazenly offensive manner of Ardenne, whose arrogance compels him to freely discuss how he had an affair with Jocelyn’s mother, describing how he has her eyes, where one sees hatred brewing in the eyes of his own son Michel, not to mention Toni, where men crudely brag about their sexual exploits.
A word about Michel, as this character figures prominently in Denis films, perhaps best represented by Nicolas Duvauchelle in White Material (2010), the son of the white owner of a coffee plantation in Africa, where he inherits privilege, growing up expecting he can have anything he wants, and that he is entitled to it. His self-centered views, never having to think of anyone else except himself, are in stark contrast to people of color, who always have to make adjustments for white people and grow up wary of people like him, as they are capable of doing just about anything, and getting away with it. In this film, Michel has little screen time, yet he has a powerful influence, as he’s accidentally interrupted by Dah and Jocelyn who arrive in the basement while he’s having sex with Toni, his father’s wife, who stares directly at Jocelyn, which elevates the moral void to tragic Shakespearean proportions, as the Ardennes have no boundaries or shame. When viewed in this context, nothing is more dangerous than slighted masculinity, where in the eyes of blacks, there is no greater threat than white male violence, which is so unpredictable, supposedly your friend one moment, but viciously attacking you the next, where that violence may erupt at any time. Denis’s film pulsates with that untapped rage, ready to go off at any moment, where her film is a choreography of untapped masculinity, sexual desire, violence, and unforeseen danger, where the clash of these forces is like electrically charged objects continually bumping into one another, where it’s only a matter of time before there’s an explosion, heightened by the co-mingling forces of hostility, as represented by the oppressed and the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer, where every scene deals with one protruding into the other.
Relentlessly bleak and uncompromisingly honest, the film offers a parallel into the dangerous and inhumane living conditions of many black male immigrants living in France. When viewed under the lens of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), the colonized are forced to live in disgustingly cramped conditions resembling slave quarters, often made to feel like animals, which has a way of affecting their psychological outlook, as they are drawn to failure, feeling defeated before they begin, where the transience and impermanency of their lives diminishes their human value and self-worth, resembling the cheap, exploitive goods that are a staple of colonial trade and commerce. Ultimately humiliated and ashamed, especially when looked upon by an attractive white woman, where they are powerless to reciprocate, as it was the kiss of death during the slavery era, the colonized black man’s view of himself is extremely pessimistic, as his dignity has been destroyed, where he’s inclined to have a death wish to simply put an end to his misery. Alongside this dour mindset, Denis stages a series of high stakes cockfights, where Ardenne, being the vile and contemptible man that he is, ups the ante, making the fights even more brutal, believing he can make more money if they tie razors to the rooster’s feet, which means instant death, as roosters are suddenly carried out in plastic bags. For Jocelyn, who trains these animals like they were his own, this is the ultimate indignity and disgrace. While he wanted to leave earlier, as he sensed Ardenne’s manic energy was uncontainable, Dah tracks him down and brings him back, where he’s forced to endure this slaughter of the only creatures that hold any meaning in his life, all in the name of greed and money, so reminiscent of the amusement of men obtained by pitting gladiators against one another in the spectacle that was the Roman Colosseum. Slowly, through strangely unbalanced images, like a scene of Jocelyn dancing with a white girl, continually holding her too close, Jocelyn is seen losing his equilibrium, where his ultimate breakdown is heartbreaking, as is Dah’s comforting response afterwards, where the simplicity of childhood memories even under colonization reflect a time of happiness and innocence that had not yet been lost. Once more, though sparingly used, the raw and soulful music of Abdullah Ibrahim offers a perfect compliment.