Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
Everyone I have spoken too since the release of 35 Rhums has said what a fine piece of filmmaking it is and for me it is the best film I’ve seen this year. It has made me more determined to see the rest of Claire Denis’ work.
I remember when Chocolat was released, but not why I didn’t see it at the time. I was surprised to see on IMDB that it made over $2 million at the box office in North America. But then I think there was a vogue around that time for films set in Africa (Out of Africa was a big hit in 1985). The responses suggest that people who did see Chocolat were often disappointed or confused. That doesn’t surprise me, but it is also good to see that there are several perceptive and fascinating reviews of the film (see below). Having watched the whole film now on DVD (having seen only extracts before) it strikes me that Claire Denis arrived as a filmmaker ‘fully formed’ with her first feature at age 40. Chocolat was quite clearly made by the same filmmaker who directed L’intrus and 35 Rhums. Of course, Denis was not a neophyte – she had served a long apprenticeship to directors such as Costa-Gavras and Wim Wenders (whose company helped produce Chocolat).
I can tell you about the content of the film since there is little in the way of plot or narrative in the conventional mainstream sense. As in the other films by Denis that I have seen, things happen, some of them surprising or shocking but they don’t occur in a classic cause-effect structure with a clear narrative resolution. Chocolat begins with a young, white woman on a remote tropical beach as she watches a black man and his small son splashing through the shallows. As she is walking away from the beach, the man drives up and offers her a lift. The main part of the film is then constructed as a single long flashback in which the woman, named ‘France’ remembers her childhood as the daughter of a French colonial official administering a remote region of Northern Cameroon. The little girl spends much of her time with the ‘houseboy’ Protée, a tall, strong and very beautiful young man in his twenties who is caught in a kind of no-man’s land between the house and the servant’s quarters, being neither fully ‘French’ or fully ‘African’. He is representative of the impact of colonialism and the crisis of identity. France’s father Marc is often away from the big house and an uneasy relationship exists between France’s mother Aimée (also young and beautiful) and Protée (and the other servants).
The ‘external incident’ that stirs up the household in the second half of the film is a forced landing by a French plane carrying a colonial official from another district and his new (French) wife, a planter and his female (African) servant. The plane needs a spare part in order to continue its journey and this will take several weeks to deliver. It is also necessary to prepare a runway for take-off and there is the problem that any runway will not be usable if the rains come, so there is a time pressure. The disruption also attracts another French couple and a team of African labourers amongst whom is Luc, a ‘rogue’ Frenchman who seems to be travelling across the territory and whose function in the narrative appears to be to challenge the sense of ‘order’ in the community. With all these new arrivals, there is bound to be conflict in the household. There is also a short coda in which the grown-up France has another brief exchange with the man from the beach.
If the above sounds like the plot of a colonial melodrama, it is and it isn’t. These are the elements of the colonial melodrama (which usually explores a charged emotional relationship across the taboo boundary line of coloniser/colonised) but here Denis uses the possibilities of combining the elements in a different way. The theme of the film is still sexual desire and the consequences of colonial power relationships, but not expressed through melodramatic excess. (I have commented on an extract from Chocolat used by Rona on our evening class in an earlier post.)
I’ve left out some of the narrative information from the outline above because if you do decide to see the film (Artificial Eye released the Region 2 DVD in 2005) you may want to keep some element of surprise. But I will refer to some of the background to the film. Claire Denis grew up in similar circumstances to little France, although I haven’t determined exactly where in French Africa her family was stationed in the 1950s. It may have been Cameroon or possibly Niger. The choice of Northern Cameroon for Chocolat is interesting for several reasons. Its remoteness helps the narrative in terms of isolation. It also allows Denis to make references to the ‘European’ rather than specifically French nature of colonialism in Africa. Cameroon was first colonised by the Germans and after 1918 was split into two mandated territories governed by France and Britain. The two separate colonies were reunited after independence. In Chocolat, France and Aimée are seen in a small cemetery where the German colonisers are buried. They have an English-speaking cook and they are visited by an Englishman who comes to dinner. I don’t think these are simply realist touches. Denis is not too concerned about ‘authenticity’ as such since the timescales are wrong – the older France looks to be in her late twenties in what appears to be contemporary Cameroon (i.e. the late 1980s), but the colonial narrative, in which France is seven or eight, must be at least 30 years earlier as independence in French Cameroon came in 1960.
The region used as a location is in the far North of the country, a wedge driven between Nigeria in the West and Chad in the East – land that is usually hot and dry with distinctive landscapes. It reminded me of films from Chad, but also from Mali and the rest of the Sahel further North (it’s actually not that far from the Northern tip of Cameroon to the Sahel region). I was reminded of incidents in Sembène Ousmane’s films such as in Aimée’s dismissal of a local Christian missionary in the predominantly Muslim local community and also of the visual similarities in some of Agnès Godard’s beautiful compositions, using the light against the compound walls, the long shots of the house and its inhabitants and the way characters disappeared into the dark of the surrounding night. It is the closest that I have seen a European filmmaker get to making an ‘African’ film. It is also a forerunner for the breathtaking imagery of Beau Travail (1999) located on the other side of Africa, but with similar landscapes. Landscape is an important element in the film, not least when France is told about what the horizon means by her father.
I’m not going to undertake a detailed reading of the film here, since there are already several very good reviews listed below. What I will say is that Claire Denis has become a kind of critics’ darling – both those critics who write in the specialist film magazines (she is one of the ‘visionary filmmakers’ in Sight and Sound, September 2009) and in the academy where she is a focus for both the application of contemporary theoretical writing to a body of work (such as the ideas of Gilles Deleuze) and also as a key figure in film studies within French language and cultural studies. This is great, but it would be a shame if Denis was thought of as somehow ‘difficult’ or impenetrable as a filmmaker. As long as audiences can get past their own attachment to Hollywood conventions about storytelling, Denis’ films are quite accessible on several levels with engaging and interesting situations and characters. So in Chocolat it is possible to use the film to explore how individuals and their desires are caught within the systems of taboos and restrictions of colonialism and post-colonialism. They react as functioning human beings, not as characters in a fiction, in what is a very clear-sighted representation of the worlds we all inhabit. I can’t wait to review some of the other films and find the ones I’ve missed.
There are several reviews and articles about the film and about the work of Claire Denis in general. The following are worth a look (along with the other entries tagged Claire Denis on this site):
The usually reliable Roger Ebert provides a useful way into the film without the need for a strong theoretical background.
An essay on the early work of the director from the ‘Reverseshot’ website
Detailed review of Chocolat from KinoEye
KinoEye issue focusing on the work of Claire Denis
Senses of Cinema review by Diana Sandars
Translation of an interview with Denis from French magazine, Sofa, posted on Senses of Cinema
Interview by Darren Hughes posted on Senses of Cinema
Review of Martine Beugnet’s book on Claire Denis by John Orr on Senses of Cinema
In the course of compiling this list I came across the ultimate Claire Denis resource collection compiled by Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free. If you are serious about accessing all the critical work, this is undoubtedly where to go.
Claire Denis delivers a nuanced portrayal of a relationship between a father and his grown-up daughter as their relationship reaches a defining moment moving from their symbiotic closeness to try to move beyond to start their own lives not without but beyond each other.
Denis uses many of her typical collaborators – Agnès Godard as cinematographer, Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script and ‘Tindersticks’ (lead singer, Stuart A Staples has written for Denis before on L’Intrus) for the scored parts of the film. It reminded me of Vendredi Soir where a chance meeting of a couple leads to a night of passion – but the film spends its time on the nuances of their mutual attraction as it builds. In Vendredi the Parisien buildings and skyline is the mesmeric presence throughout the film, shot by Godard so that the lights glimmer and create a beautiful cityscape to frame the stories within it. In that film, the city is thematically an ephemeral place where people have little contact, distracted and disconnected within their cars until they are forced to stop and made to touch. In 35 Rhums the city is there again but, even cinematically, plays a completely different role. It has been reconstituted because these are the lives of very different people and therefore seems to take on something of their perspective. Lionel is a train driver and the city is represented as a web of rails and moving trains through the high rises. Lionel and his daughter Josephine live in one such, near their neighbours including Gabrielle and Noé, pining for father and daughter respectively.
Godard, Denis and Fargeau are able to tell this story with great simplicity and yet embody the complexities that are present in relationships – the ebbs and flows of emotion between people as they seek to let each other go but can’t quite, or as they move in and out of desire or longing. Denis is unafraid to play the symbolic moments thrown up in these narratives (sometimes very literally) but they are blended so seamlessly into the narrative flow by the cinematography that there is no jarring or loss of dramatic impetus. (e.g. the death on the train rails). This moment of melodrama in 35 Shots almost jars because Denis is most powerful when she conveys the impact of an emotion and the state people are swept up into – visually and sonically – through moments of detail. Through Godard’s cinematography the visceral is conveyed through the visual. Early in the film, Lionel puts his foot into the slipper brought by his daughter – a resonating symbolic moment of their domestic symbiosis accentuated by the focus on that physical pleasure of slipping on our comfy shoes on getting home.
The performances are nicely underplayed, emotions seen passing through characters’ eyes in close-up. Gregoire Colin (a Denis regular) plays the courtly lover upstairs and the two central performances from Alex Descas and newcomer Mati Diop are absorbing in their simplicity – in keeping with the overall aesthetics of the film. Everything appears ordinary and flat on the surface (I’m reminded of the opening of L’Intrus with Colin’s character engaged in the domestics or Chocolat where Aimée sits idly on the back of the truck with Protée or where the legion soldiers in Beau Travail attend to their washing out in the desert); but in Denis’s films the flat surface is always slowly peeled away to reveal the depths of emotion that sit beneath – ordinary emotions create the dramatic tension in her films rather than melodrama.
I sense some tension in the group around whether or not we can take melodrama seriously. This is a pity since it is an important issue when considering films made by western filmmakers about stories set in African countries. Chocolat creates a familiar colonial narrative about the relationship between a white woman (the coloniser) and a black man (the colonised). This is the basis for the colonial melodrama which focuses on the emotionally explosive mix of sex and race. Interestingly, it more often features a white woman and black man than a black woman and white man — perhaps because the former is more threatening to the colonial/settler family. I’m not suggesting that Claire Denis sets out to make a colonial melodrama, but she consciously chooses its narrative and works to oppose it stylistically from what I saw in the extracts. In the films I have seen by African filmmakers, the colonial relationship is not dealt with as an emotional relationship — the colonists are simply there as representatives of oppression. There are several African films (mostly made by men, I’ve only seen one film by an African woman) which focus on the women as central characters and these are often careful to explore the status of women within distinct local communities.
Kim Longinotto attempts not to impose her sense of narrative on the events she records, even if she has to select and edit from her material. The melodrama that I found inherent in the court proceedings seemed to me to come from the performances of both the lawyers and their clients. Longinotto’s feel for the universal human stories she witnessed is certainly impressive, but I wonder how much her film was still an outsider’s view. I thought that the Denis and Longinotto extracts were very useful in posing questions about how women are presented in ‘African stories’.
If anyone is interested in the kinds of films which circulate in West Africa as part of Nollywood, there is an interesting UK centre for ‘Nollywood Studies‘ which offers a number of fascinating links.
In the dreamlike atmosphere Denis creates, it is not easy to distinguish between reality, memory and nightmare. (Philip French: The Observer).
I’m still scratching my head over this one, but the itch is mostly pleasant. (Xan Brooks: the Guardian).
The Intruder is a long and pretentious film that appears to be about a cold wealthy man
reconsidering his selfish ways before and after a heart transplant. (hollywoodreporter.com)
Well shucks, I tried to like it, and at least I succeeded in not hating it and in getting
something out of it. (schweinehunder from Canada: user comments on http://www.imdb.com)
Claire Denis has demonstrated repeatedly that film does not need to tell a story, that it is sufficient to create an experience that allows the viewer to take the ingredients and make of them what they will. (gradyharp from United States: user comments on http://www.imdb.com)
The range of responses to Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, will warn you that it is no ‘pushover’ and has had a tendency to divide opinions between filmgoers, making us ask what is the kind of cinema we enjoy? The story broadly relates to the character of Louis Trebor, his journey from his home in the French-Swiss border to the South Sea islands, after a heart transplant operation. There are a number of apparent narratives and characters weaved around this main character – including an estranged son and a mysterious girl. However, the experience of the film is not as a conventional narrative, but as a series of fragmentary experiences, where we follow Trebor through a bewildering variety of locations. As the film unfolds, we cease to be certain whether what we are experiencing is an external reality, or projections of his memories or his unconscious state.
It is certainly the story of a man aware of his own mortality, reaching a crisis point. His relationships to those around him, however, do not make him a character we feel natural sympathy towards in this situation. Michel Subor’s performance does not encourage this either. He is a Denis ‘regular’, having appeared in Beau Travail as the distant, complicatedly paternal commandant of the soldiers. In L’Intrus he brings to life a protagonist that it is hard to like or who provides an easy point of identification. His external appearance gives very little away about his mental state, and we are left to fill in the gaps of his motivation. Denis describes how Subor does not so much ‘act’ as ‘become’ the role that he is taking on.
Denis’s apprenticeship in filmmaking included working with some notable directors of art cinema: Wim Wenders (for whom she worked for fifteen years as an assistant director), Jim Jarmusch as well as Jacques Rivette (of the French nouvelle vague). Denis has, therefore, always been of the school of independent cinema, where there is attention to form as much as content. In Denis’s documentary about him, Rivette compares a film’s narrative or plot to a pelote, a ball of wool thatis unravelled only as the film is made. In Denis, as in Wenders, we can also find a love of shooting urban spaces and cityscapes, as characters move through them rather than staying in them or attaching to them. The small budget for L’Intrus, given its ambitious locations, meant that Denis relied heavily on the collaborative team she has built around her. Agnés Godard has been her cinematographer since her first film, Chocolat (1988). They share much of the same real life ‘film school’, Godard working for Wenders as well; in addition, Godard has collaborated with Peter Greenaway and Agnés Varda – both filmmakers known for their painterly eye. Perhaps influenced by Varda, she has an ability to make ‘unreal’, or poetic, objects that would otherwise seem everyday and banal. Jean Louis Ughetto (sound) and Jean Pol Fargeau (adaptation) have had similarly long associations with Denis.
Her personal biography is also relevant to the places of L’Intrus. Born in 1948, she spent much of her childhood in West Africa where her father was an administrator in the French colonial services. She, therefore, experienced at first hand the colonial life and the disappearance of empire. She returned to France at 14, a country of which she was a national but which she did not know. Therefore, it is possible to trace and understand her passionate interest in identity and how certainty about it has been undermined by the social and cultural changes of the last century. Denis is vociferous in her rejection of a nostalgic lens for viewing these past places; for her, it is the dramas taking place in the present there that she wants to explore. In particular, her characters suffer from the difference between their known colonial and the new, post-colonial world that has moved on without them.
L’Intrus does not visit Denis’ colonial childhood as directly as Chocolat did, but it does have biographical resonances. The French-Swiss borderlands are familiar to her from her childhood, but her intention is to create a resonance for all the audience about childhood nightmares and fears. The scenes shot in Tahiti, again raise the ghost of French colonialism and its legacy. Beneath the beauty of the exterior, and the purple light that Gauguin painted (that Denis says is real), there is something dangerously real to be reckoned in the relationships re-found.
Melodrama to Art Cinema
This may be cinema you love or hate. On the DVD of L’Intrus, Denis explains that the book affected her deeply; the experience of reading was ‘penetrating’ and physical. The images reflect this by revolving around physicality – sensuous experience – through Godard’s intense compositions. Denis and Godard also allow us to experience more dreamlike spaces, to match the dark, dreamlike space we are sitting in together. We can look more closely at the images, because we are not being rushed through to a (more obvious) narrative conclusion. We might reflect that Denis is expecting, or allowing, us to be part of making the film and its interpretation. As one critic comments, it is a film that will have a different interpretation depending on who is speaking.
She recognises that this could be regarded as a very ‘masculine’ film. Her instinct to recast the main protagonist as a woman could not be accomplished, she felt, from the entirely different physical symbolism of a woman’s heart and breast. Therefore, unlike our previous films we do not have the central female protagonist. However, in the intensity of the emotions and in the relationship between fathers and sons that is explored throughout, it is interesting to consider how far we have really come from the family saga or the melodrama.
1. Does the focus on the male protagonist move this film, by a woman director, away from the genres of melodrama and family saga discussed earlier?
2. How do you, personally, respond to the use of a fragmented narrative?
3. Do you think Trebor is offered as a representation of men and masculinity? Are other kinds of
masculinities explored in this film? How, overall, did you respond to the representation of the
4. Is it possible to attribute a ‘female gaze’ to the use of form and content in this film? Can we tell that this is a film made by a woman?
The Final Word
L’Intrus begins and I am riveted, baffled, and blown away . . . The movie burns itself into my brain.
Back into daylight, I run into a colleague. “How was it?” he asks.
“Impenetrable,” I say. “I loved it.”
(Tom Hall: http://blogs.indiewire.com/twhalliii/archives/010882.html)
Rona Murray 21/10/07