Martine Beugnet’s study of Claire Denis is a highlight of the lively Manchester series on French film directors, and well worth an uninterrupted read from cover to cover. Ending with a full critique of Vendredi soir (2002) after a balanced coverage of Denis’ career, it begins with her stunning debut in 1988 with Chocolat and goes forward through films both familiar and unfamiliar to English language audiences. In her assessment Beugnet is guided judiciously by the lure of theory and her faith is not misplaced. She threads together two key concepts in film aesthetics, a subtle fusion-mix of the unsaid and unseen, by linking Gilles Deleuze’s “narrative incertitude” and Pascal Bonitzer’s “décadrage” (de-framing), then using them to explicate the central motif of foreignness in Denis’ cinema. It is to the credit of this book that she does so with great clarity and conviction. For Denis’ films, as befits a French-West African woman with deep experience of two contrasting continents, all chart in different ways the constant presence of the Other in the fabric of the contemporary world. Otherness is thus filtered through the uncertainties of duration in film time and the de-centrings of cinematic space, a double difficulty in perception whose overcoming brings for the engaged spectator its own rewards. Denis is an heir in that respect not only to the French nouvelle vague of the 1960s but also to New German Cinema of the 1970s, to Wenders, Herzog and Fassbinder, a true daughter of modernism who is transformative rather than prodigal.
Already in Chocolat, deemed by some the most conventional of Denis’ features, Beugnet finds the template for the porous rendering of time and its detachment from details of plot. She demonstrates that the film goes against the conventions of the costume epic through non-linear format, using long takes to capture specific moments in time, sacrificing continuity to “the evocation of free-floating sheets of duration” (53), a Deleuzian formula that characterises, for Beugnet, all Denis’ subsequent filmmaking. The film has no conclusion as such, no resolved ending. Moreover it starts with a de-framing, off-field sequence soon to become typical of Denis’ collaboration with cinematographer Agnès Godard. The silhouettes of an African father and son are framed against dark sand by the shore before they exit left while the camera pans right 180 degrees inland, heading in the opposite direction: here the contrary use of space embellishes the uncertainties of time. That temporal incertitude is consistently sustained throughout the film.
In her other great African feature Beau travail (2000), made a decade later, Denis matches her spatial imaging of landscape to the rhapsody of the time-image in ways that are even more powerful and startling. For Deleuze, the crystalline nature of the time-image is one in which no shot or sequence can be clearly reduced to an actual or virtual past, or present. In some respect it combines all elements of the actual and the virtual in problematic but enticing measure – reality, dream, daydream, memory. Thus Beugnet notes the insertion of a fleeting image of the shepherdess late in the film between two shots of Galoup (Denis Lavant), the narrator, in repose, an image which remains suspended between the actual and the virtual. How do we make sense of the shot-sequence? What relation do the shots bear to one another? The spectator’s puzzle lies in the film’s enigma. Beugnet also contends that the film’s time-image is more, that here “independently of the plot…time can become the time of diffused fear, of waiting and expectation, of boredom, of alienation” (136). She could have added that time is also suspended here in the sensual pursuits of the body, of ritual and of dance. And in a way it is not totally independent of the plot. For in post-colonial mode the legionnaires have no real sense of purpose at all. No mission in Djibouti obviously defines them, no goal crystallises in the desert sands. Different, we might add as an aside, from the formidable and goal-directed mission of the American military now in Djibouti watching assiduously, post 9/11, over its interests in the Southern flank of the Gulf. For Denis’ film is homage, over and above its tragic story of Sentain’s (Grégoire Colin) death-by-persecution, to the beautiful male body of the superfluous warrior. And it only works on a foreign landscape that is known from distance of exile, the exile of its disgraced narrator, Galoup, in wintry Marseille but also the exile of Denis herself from the African landscapes she has left behind. Galoup, one might add, is French film’s riposte to Camus’s Algerian outsider, also a murderer in love with sun and landscape. Instead of the amoralism of the acte gratuite in Camus’s existential frame, however, that makes his pied noir a killer of Arabs, we have in the plug-ugly figure of Galoup a tortured sexual politics of envy that Denis transposes perfectly from Melville’s Billy Budd.
Denis’ African films saturate us in sensuality without sex: desire in its most transgressive forms is constantly de-framed, an offscreen presence deferred as part of time’s perpetual waiting. In the 1990s, her Parisian films followed the same pattern. After Beau travail the pattern ends. Her controversial and very glacial Trouble Every Day (2001) openly shows the sex act as a form of vampirism, an act of devouring in which her two predators, Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo, cannibalise the pleasured bodies of their victims. Her sensuous, impressionistic Vendredi soir shows a sensuality so completely different you have to blink before realising the two films have the same director. Here, an unexpected one night stand between Valérie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon turns into a form of love that displays its own wonder. Denis’ stranger-lovers cross the boundary between sex and love and demolish it in the process. Thus Denis reverses the trend of her 90s cinema, but does so in a way that refuses the right to put a signature stamp on her vision of sexuality. On the one hand, sex is predatory and murderous: on the other, it is sinuous and reciprocal. The contradiction works because it is separated out into two distinctive features. There is no imbalance because both films are coherent in their own terms and Denis fans can choose one over the other as their preferred vision.
The highpoint of her 90s cinema J’ai pas sommeil (1993) has had poor distribution outside of France but is a key text because it combines the formalism and spontaneity that are often separated out elsewhere in contemporary film. Beugnet notes that although it is compared with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) because of its forked-path narratives and parallel editing, it is not really concerned like Altman’s LA movie with its strategic plot integration of disparate narrative elements. Rather, there is a studied aimlessness in the solitary wandering of its characters through the Montmartre district of Paris, achieved not only by separation (parallel montage) but also through intersection (depth of field) where its diverse characters, unknown to one another, share a Bazinian space on different planes within the same shot. This still allows for the dramatic climax that takes place in the small moment – a talent for which a very different director, Eric Rohmer, has long been renowned. Here, as Beugnet observes, it happens in the one brief encounter of its two central figures, West Indian serial killer Camille (Richard Courcet) and Lithuanian actress Daïga (Katerina Golubeva). Living in the same hotel but knowing nothing of the other’s life, they share a cup of coffee at the bistro. Their hands brush each other; their eyes briefly meet. Camille’s eventual arrest for multiple murders seems like an afterthought, for this is the defining and magical moment of the film. It is a bold, transgressive move where the auteur ups the ante. We have already sympathised with Daïga confronting hassle and harassment in this alluring but hostile city, yet we also know by now that Camille is a serial killer of ageing women. Denis makes of it a tough and demanding encounter, her way perhaps of transposing the ambivalence we feel for Peter Lorre’s child murderer in M‘s (Fritz Lang, 1931) criminal court sequence to another city and another age, where one of the killers is black and gay and his victims white.
While Beugnet again shows with great conviction the fluid intersection of temporal uncertainties and spatial de-framings, she partly undermines the insight with a kind of incongruity that is sadly widespread in film criticism. For she goes on, unnecessarily, to offer up this film as an example of postmodern discourse, which is superfluous to her own critique and simply pointless in assessing Denis’ cinema. Here academic postmodernism creaks predictably onstage: this text destroys the opposition between surface and depth but also celebrates the return of history etc…etc. Yet the opacity of motive is something Denis inherits from her modernist predecessors, from Godard and Fassbinder, and in this film she simply wants to pose the dilemma for her spectator to resolve. And as far as cinema is concerned, history never went away. We also do have a figure of sympathy, someone we feel we can come to know. Daïga may be an outsider in Paris but we come to see the world of the city through her uncertain eyes. With Camille’s brother Théo (Alex Descas), who wants to go back to the Caribbean with his son, it is much the same. But with Camille, matters are different. Like these two, Camille is also an outsider but not in a thousand years are we able to see the world as he sees it, or act as he would act. All three characters present us with textural images of physical beauty, but that too is not enough for spectator-identification. The figure of Camille the serial killer remains in question, his mind-set remote. (And you could argue here that Denis is upending the complacency in the Hollywood version of the genre, which uses cliché to enable audiences to get a handle on its mass-murderers.) One thing is not in doubt: the shortfall in our perception remains as enigmatic as the serial killer’s motive that eludes us, despite the grounding of the camera’s eye in the detail of the quotidian. The other postmodern cliché of “the end of metanarrative” also makes an ungainly appearance here. Yet stylistic fragmentation and experiment do not alter the narrative fact of this kind of cinema. Denis may be an innovator but she also remains a natural storyteller and one who films stories worth telling, stories that are very local but also, at her best, coherent and universal. Her cinema in toto has a metanarrative of its own.
A more fruitful rescue of the postmodern might be to look upon Denis as an eclectic filmmaker, a director who changes style rapidly from one film to the next to serve the subject of her narrative, the complete opposite of someone like Philippe Garrel who makes the same film, often brilliantly, over and over again. In Beau travail Denis uses a lot of wide shots on a broad canvas and, at times, an array of different formal compositions. The intense warmth and sensuality of the filmic look contrast with the glacial de-familiarising compositions of Trouble Every Day. Yet both are measured: both serve a clear and effective purpose. By contrast, the camerawork of Nénette et Boni (1996) had been intimate and textural, as it was to be later in Vendredi soir. Here she departs from both her previous features, using close-in hand-held camera for traffic jam exteriors and the love-making interiors, a hotel bedroom mise en scène that is highly kinetic yet has a painterly impressionistic feel. The look of the film is also, as Beugnet notes, comparable to the photographic Paris of Robert Doisneau. Not only is there a different style for each feature, it is often impossible to guess from Denis’ previous work what moves she will use next. This would separate her from most directors of the previous generation but place her closest to Rivette among her predecessors or François Ozon among her successors. (Or indeed to Gaspar Noé, who chooses contrasting visual styles for Seul contre tous  and Irréversible .) Yet her willingness to experiment so boldly within the narrative feature without ever being pretentious, without ever losing hold of intelligibility, makes Denis, thankfully, difficult to predict.
At the same time Denis is part of the cinema of the body that Deleuze had identified as a distinctive sequel to the new wave in the work of Eustache, Garrel, Akerman, Doillon and Pialat. And yet she is also unlike any of them, in their static shot aesthetics, because of Agnès Godard’s virtuoso camerawork, which always possesses a labile sensuality. At times throughout her work, close hand-held shots make the camera something of an intimate travelling companion that wants not only to record but also to absorb the texture of the face or figure it observes. The visual effect is akin to a musical fugue or jazz improvisation. Perhaps Beugnet overlooks Denis’ place in this wider movement of post-new wave cinema, since she is more concerned to make a comparison with Denis’ contemporary, Catherine Breillat. Yet Denis’ cinema is more fascinating and mysterious because it is less explicit. Her work, you could say, explores the continuing enigma of the human body. A good part of the way in which she does this is through her “formal experimentation”, to use Beugnet’s apt phrase. But Beugnet also notes that this enhances her cinematic vision of otherness and her explorations of transgression. It is never sterile or excessive: it never betrays her kinship with humanity in general. Thus Beugnet concludes with Denis’ own perceptive comment on her continual ambition “to plunge through an aesthetic construct, towards a more profound, more mysterious dimension” (200).
The sinuous but evasive pattern of Denis’ latest feature The Intruder (L’Intrus, 2004) fully merits the Beugnet assessment of her as a Deleuzian filmmaker. The jagged shifting topography of Michel Subor’s journey to find a heart replacement leads him from the Jura mountains down to Geneva and then across the world to the Pacific, first to Korea and then Tahiti. His journey is a Deleuzian bal(l)ade of lyrical, distracted movement. At the same time the oneiric images of the journey raise questions about the crystalline nature of the time-image. Did Subor’s killing of an intruder at his mountain home really take place? Does the intruder’s avenger, played by Katia Golubeva, who follows Subor everywhere, really exist? Or is she a figment of his imagination? Who really is Subor’s second son? The film does not tell us but challenges us to make sense of its enigmatic events. It does not always succeed in its bold ambition yet it follows the cinematic pattern Beugnet has illuminated throughout her excellent study. And if any full-length critique gives us genuine and lasting insight into the French director’s work, then this is it.
Claire Denis, by Martine Beugnet, French Film Directors series, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2004.
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