MY TOP 5 CLAIRE DENIS FILMS
When it comes to Claire Denis films, there is one thing that is guaranteed; the films will affect you. Whether it makes you cry, cringe, rage, or dare I say it, laugh, you will most certainly be affected in some way. One of the greatest things about Denis’ work is that she makes you feel things and this is the lone reason I even go to movies in the first place, to feel something.
Denis’ films are always extremely poetic, but it would be an oversimplification to call them poetry. Each film she makes has a strong narrative structure, although in many cases, it may be hard to follow. Each of her films is a journey, both for the mind and the heart. Denis deserves respect as a director for many reasons, but the most important one is that she never spoon-feeds her audience. Denis gives viewers all the pieces of her complex puzzles, and lets the audience do with them what they please. I can see how this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re the kind of person that likes to think while watching a film, then you’ll surely want of taste of Claire’s tea.
So as TIFF’s Claire Denis retrospective comes to an end, here are Black Sheep’s favourite Denis films (in order of release):
Once again, I must reiterate that this is not the movie about Judi Dench eating chocolate. Even after making eleven feature films, Denis’ first remains one of her strongest to date. Denis’ semi-autobiographical film follows Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), a black houseboy working for a wealthy white family in Cameroon. Protée’s situation becomes increasingly complicated as sexual tensions between he and his boss’ wife, Aimée (Giulia Boschi), are brought to light. The film set a precedent for the rest of her career, and I’m glad to say that she has continued to impress for twenty years since then.
Denis’ fifth film is her most widely appreciated out of her entire filmography and it is also arguably her most figurative film. BEAU TRAVAIL is anchored by a powerhouse performance by Denis Lavant. Lavant portrays Galoup, an ex-Foreign Legion sergeant looking back on his career, focusing on a long conflict with one of his soldiers, Sentain (Grégoire Colin). The film shows the daily life in the Foreign Legion, using beautiful dance-like images and choreography to set its wondrous tone. This mood cannot be credited to just Denis and the actors alone; one must acknowledge and praise Denis’ go-to cinematographer, Agnès Godard, as well. Godard’s images in this film (and every other she works on) are absolutely stunning, and Denis’ films would lose so much of what makes them great if not for her work. Besides the acting, direction, and cinematography, the film is most widely recognized for its ending. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it’s a perfect ending for a film starring an ex-circus performer (Levant).
TROUBLE EVERY DAY
Expectations were high for Claire Denis’ follow-up to the critically adored BEAU TRAVAIL, and when she reemerged with her unique take on the horror genre, many didn’t know what to think. It’s tough to label this as a horror film because there is truly no other horror film that is remotely like it. The film stars Vincent Gallo, in one of his best performances, as Shane, an American newlywed honeymooning in Paris. Shane’s choice to honeymoon in Paris is revealed to have ulterior motives. Shane hunts through the city for scientist, Léo (Alex Descas), whose wife Coré (Beatrice Dalle), suffers from a disease that makes her crave the taste of human flesh. Shane must find Léo before he too is taken over by cannibalistic cravings. The film is slow at times, and its extremely shocking and graphic scenes appear out of no where. This is one of the things that makes TROUBLE EVERY DAY such a strong film, and also one of the possible reasons why many critics did not appreciate it.
L’INTRUS (THE INTRUDER)
THE INTRUDER, one of Denis’ most complicated films, is also one of her best. The film is led by Michel Subor as Louis, a man in need of a heart transplant. After failing to find the heart he needs in France, Louis leaves his home and estranged son (Grégoire Colin) behind to head to South Korea in search of a heart. The film can be extremely tough, because as Denis admits, many of the things shown in the film are completely in Louis’ head. An issue here is that it is extremely difficult to tell which images are imagined by Louis, and which are actually happening. Another film enriched with wonderful images by Angès Godard, THE INTRUDER is very philosophical and certainly one of Denis’ most fascinating.
35 RHUMS (35 SHOTS OF RUM)
Inspired by Ozu’s LATE SPRING, Denis wrote 35 RHUMS specifically for actor, Alex Descas. Descas is Lionel, a widowed train operator living with his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop). Living a rather isolated life in a small apartment, the pair only have two other relationships with neighbors: Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a cab driver, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a man living alone with his cat. While Lionel himself often has short flings with Gabrielle, he becomes worried when he risks losing his daughter to her attraction to Léo. The film is extremely quiet, putting the details of the plot in what is seen, rather than what is said. Descas is able to say so much in his expressions, and one must pay close attention to them in order to feel the true sadness that this film holds. It is Denis’ most linear film, and her easiest to follow. For this reason it is a great film for someone hoping to be introduced to Denis’ filmography.
Though I adore Denis’ most recent effort BASTARDS, I have decided not to include it in the list as I have already written extensively about it already. TIFF has done many retrospectives over the past couple years, but the Claire Denis retrospective has been their most rewarding. Getting to see Denis films on the big screen was a delight; some are not even available in other formats. It was also a pleasure to hear Denis herself speak about BASTARDS. She is a truly complex woman and filmmaker whose brilliance is exemplified by her great works.