Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Quick Takes: "Chocolat", "No Fear, No Die", "Down by Law"

Directed by Claire Denis

It's a piece of irony that a course called "Women and Cinema" focuses around films with predominantly male casts, but I'm actually quite pleased that the course I'm currently taking decided to revolve around a particular blind spot in my cinematic intelligence, that being Claire Denis. I've made no secret of my affections for "White Material", so going back to her directorial debut, also set in Africa, it's hard not to notice similarities in terms of tone. Denis has never been an obvious or rather outspoken director, and you can tell that in her interviews. She's not an exuberant presence, and is rather reserved when you consider how devastating some of her films can be.

"Chocolat" proved to be quite an eye-opening experience in terms of how I view her work. At once simple in its narrative propulsion, but complex in how it approaches that. The chemistry that exists in the relationship between Protee and Aimee is at once both palpable and invisible, existing at merely the electric level, which is stimulating in the most fragile of ways. The ways Denis builds cinematic barriers between the races, through framing and distance, is just the start of what will continue in her work throughout her career. But it's a film that exists on several emotional, conflictive, and inevitably history-bound levels, and in all of its tactile machinations, it's is her most simplistic of artifacts.

"No Fear, No Die"
Directed by Claire Denis

It seemed like for her second film, Denis was determined to be even less concrete and even more elusive in her filmmaking than she was with her debut. Opting for a radically different change of scenery, an illegal cock-fighting syndicate in the grimy and cold urban freeway, the film seeks to distance the audience even further from removing a consistent protagonist. The narration of the character Dah is about as insightful as his name, as he is really entirely removed from what is going on in the head of his partner, Jocelyn. The film is at times as difficult to follow as it is to watch, as Jocelyn's perceived insanity echoes the audience's own pain with viewing the visceral atrocities of the cock-fighting ring. It's about how worldly and economic circumstances distance you from yourself to a point where you may not be able to come back from.

"Down by Law"
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

This was quite easily the most difficult film of the ones assigned in class for me to get into, because it seemingly situates itself in stark contrast from any meaning. The lasting impression the film gives off is one of whiteness, and thusly blandness. Things get really boring and pointless for most of the film, spending so much time with a bunch of boring and stupid white guys. But something that it took a second viewing to understand was the extreme importance of the opening sequence. From the very first shot, it is extremely and crucially relevant to how the film is interpreted and what it means, and the rest of the film does so much to distance you from that that it becomes truly frustrating to live with it. I'm at once stunned by the intellect that goes into the set-up of the film, but at the same time I am downtrodden that they didn't keep that up as a healthy reminder. I might be underselling the opening, but it's not just crucial, but brilliant. If it wasn't, the rest of the film wouldn't be so much of a letdown.

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