Claire Denis

by on Dec.30, 2010

I’ve been watching French director Claire Denis’s movies recently. I think they are pretty brilliant, even though I don’t quite understand her racial politics (a self-conscious-seeming invocation of Heart of Darkness except mostly in reverse, Heart of Darkness comes to France).

Here’s a trailer for “Trouble Every Day”:

What I most love about them is her treatment of narrative. It’s not a chop-chop reverse/backwards experiments in narrative that might come so readily in mind in the post Pulp Fiction era. Rather the movies move along rather langerously – despite being about murder and melee. It seems the langerous atmospherics refuses to give in to the sensationalistic story, or rather seems almost indifferent to the murder story.

Rather than focusing on the narrative, the narrative seems de-privileged in favor of surfaces. She has a beautiful, amazing sense of pacing when it comes to the surfaces and depth of the film; topographical aesthetics perhaps, in which the narrative exists but does not have ultimate power.

I don’t know really what I mean by this, but I’ll give you an example. In “Trouble Every Day,” we keep seeing the aftermath of cannibalism, we see the beautiful cannibal, we see her skin, and then she’s locked into her room. The young american couple are on an airplane, then they’re in a hotel room. There is a sense of containment, holding back the awful cannibalistic violence. Then these teenage boys break into the house in which the female cannibal is locked away and this unleashes her violence – and for the first time (in a torturous, torturous erotic scene) we see the actual violence, not just the aftermath. They break into the contained house, and she breaks into one of the boys’ body. This seems to lead – on a topographical, not causal level – to the american (Vincent Gallo of course) engaging in a dialogue with a researcher, which uncovers – through hints – the back story of this cannibal problem (an ill-fated research expedition to Africa). The story opens up just as the cannibal is found. And the the American starts walking around Paris etc. The surfaces have opened up. I’m not sure I haven’t said anything not totally obvious, but I just wanted to say the way she works with atmospherics and surfaces is really beautiful. The same is true for her other movies.

Here’s a Salon article about the movie:
“… Watching “Trouble Every Day,” at least if you don’t know what’s coming, is like biting into what looks like a juicy, delicious plum on a hot summer day and coming away with your mouth full of rotten pulp and living worms. I don’t quite know whether the characters in this film are cannibals or vampires or symbolic representations of a diseased culture or some combination of the three. I do know that “Trouble Every Day” contains two of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to sit through: a pair of steamy, anonymous sexual encounters that degenerate into horrible crimes of violence — lurid spectacles that would challenge the imagination of Herschell Gordon Lewis or H.P. Lovecraft.”

In this quote I like how the author gets at the surface-play (with the fruit), as well as the just nauseating erotics of the climax. And I like that it points out the b-movie connection.

One more thing that I loved: the gothic tradition of the house. Like Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” the infected house suggests a lineage that can’t go on. Like a lot of Poe’s stories (Ligea comes to mind most strongly) the house is connected to the people. And when the teenagers break into the house and let out the cannibal woman, she transforms the house into a body, painting the walls with blood.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. david

    Oh man! Where is the bathtub full of expensive awards for this lady?

    Not a fan of Trouble Every Day but

    Beau Travail
    The Intruder

    are favorites.

    I think of her as a cousin to Terrence Malick in terms of getting a lot of mileage out of beautiful landscapes and developing characters through mood. But where Malick has gotten increasingly ponderous since 1973’s Badlands (which I love) in my opinion, Denis seems to be improving and refining.

  2. Sarah Fox

    Glad you got around to watching “Trouble Every Day,” I’m still unpacking it myself. I very much agree that Denis’s approach to narrative is brilliant—her visual storytelling, finding context fully in the frame of the shot—so skillful. And yes the patience and confidence of her pacing, I think “topographical aesthetic” describes it nicely.

    I really loved the scene where the cannibal woman (named Coré, which of course refers to Koré or Persephone, who, like this Coré, was contained against her will as consort of Hades and Queen of the Underworld) paints the walls with blood—all that religious iconography (esp. crosses/crucifixes), and so beautifully shot—a feral visual glossolalia you might say, or cave painting, marking her act in concert with the base principles of the Eucharist. And suddenly the whole house is bleeding and alive and seething as a fully decivilized under/inner-world. That actress (Béatrice Dalle) was just incredible.

    Of course the “cannibal virus” originates in Africa!

    A gorgeous & horrifying film, remarkably accomplished and brave.