(Originally posted at CineVue)
Although she consciously rejects the notion of recurring themes and imagery found within the linearity of her career, The Claire Denis Collection – which groups together a handful of the French writer-director’s finest works – highlights and explores how she actively imbues her cinema with an autobiographical edge, scrutinising history through an intensely personal prism. Dealing with topics stemming from the dichotomy between colonial and post-colonial West Africa, as well as relatable issues found in contemporary France, Denis discards any trace of mainstream cinematic conventions in order to offer audiences a raw and indelible, sometimes sub-Dardennes brothers’ look into the fragility of life, relationships and survival, using the regularities of human experience to distort the strictures of narrative.
The four films found in this collection aren’t a merely arbitrary assortment; they instead offer an introduction to Denis’ cinema by divulging the distinctive auteurist techniques that have grown from her cinematic debut to her most recent project, and give a perfect exemplification of how her directorial idiosyncrasies have become increasingly more sharp and honed, refusing to be blunted by mainstream conformity.
Her first feature, the Palme d’Or nominated Chocolat (1988), features a common leitmotif that will become a somewhat commonplace feature of her filmmaking: that of the breakdown in projecting past present. Shot on location in West Africa, the film is a study of Denis’ own experiences with racism, projected by a woman in the present (whose scenes bookend the film) contemplating her past as a young girl living in a ruptured colonial outpost in Cameroon. Composed and calculatingly restrained, the film studies racial divides and the oppressiveness (and repressiveness) of French colonialism, whilst coupling strong performances with a simmering menace. Nenette et Boni (1966), on the other hand, is an abstract sex comedy of sorts that sees the titular characters – two teenage siblings separated by divorce – battling with looming adulthood, exasperated (and sometimes violent) sexuality and unexpected pregnancy. It may not be as accessible or challenging as her better-known films, but Nenette et Boni depicts a fraught familial relationship still suffering from the complex ripples of separation.
Loosely based on Herman Melville’s novella ‘Billy Budd’, Beau Travail (1999) is Denis’ sinuous masterpiece, a tapestry of frustration physical and mental, internal and external. It features a searing performance from Denis Lavant as master sergeant Galoup training his squadron in Djibouti. Galoup remembers his time in the desert, and the film visualises his festering envy of new recruit Gilles Sentain (played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin), which builds to both a striking crescendo and a dance scene that is as metaphoric as it is intensely provocative. Bringing us full circle is White Material (2009), a vivid and self-contained rumination on how the outbreak of African civil war leads the farmers of an ailing coffee plantation to desperation and ultimately madness. It’s a gripping and claustrophobic thriller, bolstered by a nuanced Isabelle Huppert, and is analogous of Denis’ evoking clarification from landscape, visuals and character emotion over explicit dialogue.
One of the most significant, unique and indeed prominent French filmmakers working today, Claire Denis is a beacon of independent cinema that is rarely bettered, nor matched. Her films focus on the intensities of human interaction, the constant shifting of society and the complexities of humanity, describing how memory continues to seamlessly invade and weave into one’s experience of everyday life.