Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE LISTS: Ranking Claire Denis

In case you've been wondering about where the grand scope of my film oriented focus has been for the past couple months, I have honestly been caught up in other things involving rigorous schoolwork. Somehow this semester has been drain, though I don't wish to burden you with the boorish details. Let's just say, my heart has been torn up through stresses of extreme panic. On the one end, I've been completely unwilling to give myself to a production assignment requiring a hefty sum of money towards 16 mm film, along with all the acquaintances necessary to make a film go off without a hitch. At a stage when college itself is proving a drain, this has been an unnecessary extra weight.

On the other hand, I've also been immersed in one of the most amazing class experiences I've had in my two years here, which has done quite a bit towards convincing me that critical studies is where it's at, rather than production. The past couple of months have given me a much desired crash course in the cinema of Claire Denis, whom I had become simply acquainted with last year via Netflix. How taken with her was I before? Well, I've owned the Criterion DVD of "White Material" since my last birthday, so I suppose that's something. But I had admittedly only seen that and "35 Shots of Rum" before the class I had on her this semester.

What I learned from the missing eight films in her canon is that she is a much more complicated individual than I had originally assumed. You may look at any of her films and badmouth her for slow pacing, a faction in films of which I've become a huge advocate of. Something that I noticed time and time again throughout her career is how scornful she seemed to be of prior expectations. Isn't that the general norm? A director begins making films in a certain vein, and we become familiar with their trademark style for the rest of their career. Denis has repeatedly disproved that in her case, making a wide array of ten films, all stunning, but none of them at all similar.

10. "Friday Night" (2002)

Ten films, and not a single stinker, though some might lead you to believe that her one-two punch of "Trouble Every Day" and this film was an unfortunate venture. While it's true that these two films are the "worst" of her career, that's only stating how vastly superior a director she is to others. Even when she goes for a typical chick-flick, the results are gorgeous. One woman's flight of fancy over the course of an evening turns into gleefully silly fantasy adventure involving sex, high-speed car chases in reverse, and two sexually average individuals. Denis seems to be wonderfully poking fun at the ideal bodies we see in rom-coms these days, but there's never a point of insincerity in the film. I mean, a gal can dream, can't she?

9. "Trouble Every Day" (2001)

I take it that Denis wasn't too happy with everyone's assertion that "Beau Travail" marked a masterpiece, however true that may be, seeing as she turned around and made something so insanely violent that it even caused some of her strongest advocates to give pause. "Trouble Every Day" is a peculiar film to say the least, keeping its passion tucked with a massive sense of claustrophobia all the way, only to let its angst out in massively gratuitous fashion. The main roadblock, for me, is how heavily the film leans on narrative conventions, and even convolutions, to keep it intact. Denis should have simply ignored narrative explanations entirely, because the heavy invasion of boundaries builds all the scares, emotions, and gut-reactions it needs to.

8. "The Intruder" (2004)

It's hard to know precisely what to make of this film, most especially after the first viewing, and it's not because it isn't utterly fascinating. "The Intruder" takes an odd turn in the last third of its runtime, heading off to strange lands without giving us very much explanation as to why. Michel Subor's Louis doesn't seem to care about where we feel he should be, or what he should do. In fact, it's damn hard to land exactly what he, or Denis, cares about. It's kind of a "the grass is always greener" sort of tale, shown through a Denis looking glass. In other words, you really have no fucking idea what the grass looks like over there. Live with your fucking pale green grass. Louis doesn't listen to that bit of logic, and it costs him.

7. "Chocolat" (1988)

You'd have to be an idiot to go through all of Claire Denis' pictures and not realize her fondness for the continent of Africa. Her debut film asserts that quite definitely, and in some ways it is her most attentively crowd pleasing picture. It's a film about racial boundaries in a time of French colonialism in Cameroon, and there's a fine degree of homeliness made across the runtime. It's an endearing narrative, and not so choking as Denis' later films, but that's not to say it has no teeth. There's a burning sensuality beneath two of the main characters of the film, and a bittersweet realization of the nature of "home" and how Africa doesn't always respect that personal notion.

6. "No Fear, No Die" (1990)

Denis' sophomore film pretty firmly stated that she wasn't quite as quaint a director as "Chocolat" may have deemed. This was the moment she bared her teeth, and began fighting to keep the themes she introduced in her previous film intact. Set against a grimy and dreary backdrop, the film introduces by now Denis regular Alex Descas in a tightly devastating performance as the trainer for the birds who participate in illegal cock-fighting. It's a highly kinetic film that builds up further boundaries through a narrator who simply doesn't get what the main protagonist is going through, and a labyrinthine constructed, and admittedly senseless, production design. It's a tougher pill to swallow, but like any great Denis, it expands in your mind well afterwards.

5. "I Can't Sleep" (1994)

The conclusion of Claire Denis' loose knit trilogy beginning with "Chocolat" does what a trilogy conclusion should do, and rarely does. It takes the sacred themes introduced and fought for in the previous two films, and brings them crashing cruelly to the ground. In that degree, there's a comic aspect to "I Can't Sleep" that takes aim at the audience long before the guilt sets in. Indeed the "granny killer" storyline seems like such a silly and ridiculous prospect until the moment Denis shows it onscreen. From that point on, it becomes a nearly unbearable choke hold with a strange aspect of sympathy wandering throughout. It's a hyperlink narrative that emphasizes isolation over interaction, and in that way it's revolutionary.

4. "Nenette et Boni" (1996)

How does everyone else not just absolutely fall in love with this film? After three films of Denis putting up boundaries between people, she finally takes the time to bring them down, and not for some posturing dramatic tale. For something sweet, fun, and just plain yummy. Of course Denis hasn't forgotten the importance of her themes, making a great deal of headway in explaining notions of family and parentage when people break some pretty definitive taboos on that. It's also a nice case study of nature vs. nurture, but whatever with that. Gregoire Colin's hilarious and heartbreaking performance as a straight stud who doesn't exactly match his own macho shines. And as a cherry on the cake: BUNNY!

3. "35 Shots of Rum" (2008)

It may seem like an easy chore to knock this down a few pegs as lesser Denis for being more attached to its heart and less devastating, but her most emotional film couldn't help but hit me right where it hurts. Forgetting about things like big race issues, and even ethnic borders, the film embraces connection and interaction, but never forgets the consequences of that. The families that some of these characters want don't align with the greater plans of the others. "35 Shots of Rum" is straight up romantic, and overwhelmingly so. There's humor in how it breaks the hearts of its characters, and Alex Descas proves once more why he's Claire Denis' top man.

2. "White Material" (2010)

So damned close to being my favorite film of Claire Denis, it just misses by a hair, but that's no straw against it. In returning full force to Africa, Denis paints a land that is much changed since "Chocolat", and perhaps has taken rebellion a little bit too far. Overgrown, wild, and on the verge of civil war, Denis doesn't intend on looking to the past, but instead looks to the future. What will this land be? Through the prism of a French plantation owner who absolutely refuses to leave, Denis really sinks into questions of "home", and what gives you a right to that place. What does it require from you in return. It's not an easy journey, and it sinks in with dread and devastation, but it would have never worked if it weren't for Isabelle Huppert's absolutely riveting and damn brilliant performance, right up there with Juliette Binoche's tactile work in "Certified Copy". What we get is a film takes no prisoners, and isn't joking about it.

1. "Beau Travail" (2000)

I don't think there has ever been another moment in Denis' career where she created something simply made me say "DAMN!" as the credits came up. That's such a stronger vote of confidence than "Wow!", and it's perfectly in line with Denis' top cinematic achievement. Denis tows the line between boundaries and lack of boundaries in her articulation of an entirely male universe, and after this it's no wonder she went on detail women specifically in her films. Gregoire Colin fits a purely sexual presence that just sucks you in so deliciously. Denis Lavant inevitably owns the actor's show with a passive yet ferocious lead performance, but it's Denis who is really majestic. With broad strokes that hit like an epic hammer smack, it's a film that delivers a pulse at once heartbreaking and invigorating. In case it needs further statement, Claire Denis' got style!

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