The Silent, Black Centre in the Early Features of Claire Denis

(pour la famille Verna)

French films, like French culture, have a reputation on the international circuit for being talky, exhibiting the cleverness of exchange, a love of debate. Within this tendency towards elegantly wordy, intellectually demanding work 1, the films of Claire Denis show a distinctively laconic, understated aesthetic, with an approach of quiet, pondering observation of the human body, the soma observed in space. Her narratives are loose – based more on impressions and small moments than plot. Scenes give some of the pieces of the puzzle, but leave many things unexplained, disconnected. She builds an aura of mystery and sexual charisma around many of her central characters, relying more on a cinematic contemplation of gesture and expression, without the psychological exposition of dialogue-heavy work and traditional shot / counter-shot filmmaking. Of this often silent, somatic approach Denis herself has said, “I’m not saying this as a joke: capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me”.2 Unusual in any filmmaker, male or female, is that her gaze is directed largely towards the male body – however, it is perhaps most surprising to find a woman filmmaker whose films are more about men than about women.

This paper will look at Denis’ first three feature films: Chocolat (1988), S’en fout la mort (1990), and J’ai pas sommeil (1993), all of which reveal this early emphasis on silent observation of bodies in space, all of which are marked by a sense of sexual tension and possibility. More particularly, these three films focus on and observe black men in some of the central roles. What interests me here is that, while the regard directed to the black men in these films can be seen as one of fetishization, of eroticizing the black male body, it can also be understood to be crucial to Denis’ narrative strategy – the establishment of physical presence through camera being one of firmly locating the character within the viewer’s identification process. To center her films on a marginalized people is a tricky prospect for a white female – and there is room for many interpretations and misunderstandings between the intentions of the filmmaker and the eye of the beholder. It is always possible that for all of her carefully thought out considerations in the way she films Africans and blacks, the historical trappings that weigh on these relationships will forever shape what is possible from her position.

Amongst contemporary European filmmakers there is an increasingly visible tendency in the work of sensitive white liberals – a preoccupation with the portrayal of outsiders and immigrants in the country, and the legacy of colonialism. Apparent is the need to address the relationship with immigration in general, but also specifically with ex-colonial subjects in modern France, to evoke on film the contemporary, post-decolonization landscape, and the complex encounters between Africa and France. This impulse can be clearly seen in works such as Code InconnuLa Promesse, and of course, La Haine. Within the white European’s approach to the legacy of colonialism, what is often apparent is an obsession with the hideousness of this shadow of white society – perhaps guilt, but maybe even a morbid fascination with these more obvious, pointed examples of racism. This is sometimes not so much about the lived experience of the Other, about black people’s lives, but is in some ways more about the white self, about the diseased portion of one’s own society. Frequently these post-colonial films have a white hero as central character and “natives” serve as either unknowable Other, or as colourful backdrop. 3

Denis reveals some of these tendencies, but she also pushes further into attempts to position the viewer more centrally, more directly within the black character’s experience, deeper into an investment with their perspective. This is a complicated choice, a troubled position, given who she is – a problem of which she is clearly cognizant. In interviews she responds always in a sophisticated and thoughtful way to these concerns. If there are known limitations – she is still a white person with a specific, historically, culturally loaded position – clearly there is a relevance to modern life in examining these relationships nonetheless, in continuing to think about them. Particular to these three films, is a kind of restitution of a black male presence as a magnetic center.

About her motivation for making films, Jonathan Romney asked her, in relation to S’en fout la mort, “In that film particularly, but in many other films, you seem to be really interested in marginal worlds – people on the outskirts of society who are in a kind of underground. Is this part of a decision for you as a filmmaker…?”. Denis answered:

…I always consider that to make a film – all that energy, all that money – was to put the camera in the direction of the people I want to see and not the people I watch on TV…I feel like obliged to go to people that should be seen, that should be in the light. Because they are interesting, not only because they have had the hard life. Because I think they are worth it, you know? 4

Part of her challenge in this is to present these “interesting” characters without putting words in their mouths, words she as a white woman cannot really know.

This leads us to the aesthetics that are distinct in Denis – the lack of talkiness and the way the camera approaches the male image, the male body – a much more lingering, attentive, affectionate regard of the male than is usually seen. While this approach is seen in much of Denis’ work – Beau Travail being perhaps the most extreme example — the three films in consideration here are also centred upon black men, a further rarity in cinematic representation.

While there is a sensuality suggested, an aestheticism generated by the female gaze observing beautiful men, this is also relevant within the demands of the various narratives, reflecting the fascinations and desires of other characters in these films.

While her secondary characters are often wordy, talkative chatterboxes, delivering some of the exposition of stories and situations, they also serve to convey a sense of the dialogue-loving culture within which her more laconic central characters move and live. The silence of Protée and France, Jocelyn, Camille and Daiga, is highlighted in contrast to the talkative secondary characters – the crowd who arrive in Chocolat, Ardennes in S’en fout la mort, aunt Ira and the hotel owner in J’ai pas sommeil.

The storytelling approach in these films – using minimal dialogue and a camera that lingers on gesture and nuance of expression to establish and evoke the laconic central characters – creates a charismatic and enigmatic center which we seek to know more about. Generally we know little or nothing about the main characters in any concrete way — we guess at their motivations, thoughts, feelings. This effort required from the viewer encourages a stronger connection with the character’s experience – the creation of studied mystery around the characters leads to a curiosity and inquisitiveness vis-à-vis these characters’ internal lives, and what is either outwardly visible or universal in their emotional response. Black people are allowed to exist without having words placed in their mouths, invoked instead by long holds on silent, inscrutable men, contemplating their mysteries, the equivocal expressions of their interior lives. The camera’s lingering manner allows for a charisma through mysterious presence to evolve or reveal itself in a way that would not be possible if there were quick cutting or extensive dialogue. As they are silent, we watch them and imagine their thoughts, projecting a range of possible interior monologues, issues, on to them, in effect giving them a richness and complexity through their observed, enigmatic presence.

In this silence there is also a hint of the noble, stoic indigenous type, as there is also a sense of the foregrounding of black male beauty. However, though there is unquestionable Beauty in these men, and long slow cinematic contemplations of their physical selves – particularly in Chocolat and J’ai pas sommeil – this fact of their beauty also holds its place in the narrative, it is part of the story. The focus on the physicality of the person is relevant and deliberate, not merely a self-indulgence – these stories do have significant elements of attraction, fascination, and forbidden desire. All of these layers of the nature of the gaze are existing at the same time.

If we consider for a moment another filmmaker’s comments on the effects of the camera fixating for a long time on characters, we can look to Norman Cohn, filmmaking partner of Zacharias Kunuk (AtanarjuatThe Journals of Knud Rasmussen). While he speaks of taking the observational camera to a much more exaggerated length, his thoughts hint at the profundity of the difference possible in extended close observation. Cohn has said, “When we look at people, we normally do so for not more than about ten seconds at a time. What I realized was that if you look at someone for, say, half an hour, or an hour straight, something else starts to happen. It’s illuminating. There’s a radiance”.5 While Denis’ shots are obviously much shorter than this, and remain within classic narrative function, there is a favouring of lengthy master shots, and a different use of the camera’s capacity for observation, especially given the near-silence of many of her central characters. The hint of their interior lives is predicated on the close study of nuances in gesture and facial expression. Denis herself describes the choice of shooting style, of the long, uninterrupted master shots (plan séquences): “Le plan séquence pour moi, c’est le temps nécessaire pour qu’un rapport s’établisse avec un personnage…c’est le corps lui-meme de l’acteur que développe la chorégraphie”. 6

 

CHOCOLAT

Denis’ first feature film is composed largely of a flashback to the 1950s, and French colonial presence in an African country. We observe the struggles to maintain a rigid power structure but within the context of the domestic sphere – the minutiae of this little world suggests the feminine eye behind it, and allows for all the absurdity of the relations to show themselves in small battles around the mundane details of a household, the sphere of woman, child, and “boy”. It is a nostalgia and guilty conscience movie, more experiential and capturing an impression of a time, a way of life, than narrative driven. The filmmaking is elegant and simple, using only two lenses, long slow takes, occasional simple moves of the camera. And for the large part it is a very visual storytelling, understated, relying on few words.

Denis was raised more in Africa than in France, and this first film explores her own mixed feelings about her experience through the rendering of an unfortunate set of relations. Viewing the colonial adventure in retrospect, she is concerned with conscience and conscientiousness: “When I was making Chocolat I think that I had a desire to express a certain guilt I felt as a child raised in a colonial world….knowing I was white, I tried to be honest in admitting that Chocolat is essentially a white view of the ‘other’”. 7 Denis’ clarity about the implications of the white view included the decision to not have scenes between blacks only, without whites present – she makes no pretense of being able to capture a black African exchange independent of white presence. Instead, the white view is entered through France, the adult woman (Mireille Perrier), who takes us back to France, the child (Cécile Ducasse), who introduces us to the world of her childhood, and specifically – enunciated through close-ups in the first ride in the truck – to Aimée (Giulia Boschi) and Protée (Isaach de Bankolé). France is our conduit into a perspective of whites watching blacks – she is able to traverse boundaries between white and black living spaces and relationships, guiding us into an encounter with Protée, and an African colonial experience.

There is an aura of complicity in the relationship between France, the child, and Protée, her caretaker – although he is an adult, he plays with her at a childish level, while also protecting her and serving her. Theirs is a relation of considerable tenderness and intimacy, in the sharing of food, riddles, and quiet moments – as if they are secreted away from the adults in their own world. However, France’s relationship with Protée – initially its own warm, trusting though sometimes complicated interaction – is pendant on the shifting state of the attraction and sexual tension between Protée and Aimée, culminating dramatically in his final cruel betrayal of little France’s trust.

While we enter through the child, the film does not closely follow her point-of-view, and she is not actually present in all scenes. She is central, but in a sense she delivers us to Protée, the silent heart of the film, the “pivotal character”. 8 With Protée’s substantial role we see that Africans in this film are not simply colourful background, but rather that the film is attempting to directly address the encounter between black and white. France is our way in, but her role is more one of observer, and she does not reveal the complexity of her interior life the way Aimée and Protée do. As the adult drama develops, France’s relationship with Protée changes, so as viewers we are taken beyond this child’s viewpoint out to the adult world beyond. Of significance, France, the child, does not actually witness Protée’s anguish in the two shower scenes – the first where he brings water for Aimée’s shower, the second where he showers himself, crouched against the wall outdoors. These are clearly his scenes, entirely about his internal life, his frustrations and humiliations. France does not appear to be present when Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin) showers in the “boys’” shower. Nor is she visible through the climactic sequence of events around Luc’s comment to Aimée that surely she would like to be in his place “pour frotter contre Protée”; Luc’s fight with Protée, the two jealous rivals, that evening on the porch; or the silent approach and rejection between Aimée and Protée later in the darkened room.

Increasingly through these various scenes, we become firmly established in Protée’s perspective, his angle of the story. His emotional life is not brought to bear by dialogue, but by the presence of his physical self, the camera’s attention to him, his powerful understated performance within each scene. The camera’s frequent proximity and clean low-angles give him considerable substance and weight. While this visual treatment of Protée does have a fetishizing element , contemplating him as an object of beauty, it can also be observed that the camera hangs on him with the purpose of establishing his person as the center of the film, the heart of the film. This non-verbal choice would appear to be a desire to avoid putting words in mouths, as Denis says, “…to show, without seeking to explain them (the blacks), without practicing an offensive ‘psychologism’, the real inhabitants of this African country”. 9 This approach to Protée as a substantial character with a visibly complex if unspoken internal life, makes the scene of his final cruelty to the child, something we can comprehend from his point of view. We understand fully his longing, the mounting frustration, and his misplaced deliberate betrayal of the child all too well. It is not only the child who has our sympathy.

However, his considerable beauty and the conveying of this beauty is not insignificant, as within the story there is a strong sense of Aimée’s gaze and France’s gaze – they look at him, and we see him through their eyes. While he is beautiful for our eyes, more importantly, he is beautiful in Aimée’s eyes – he is a sexual being, both desirable and desiring. This fact is the crux of the story. The camera both reveals and represents this white woman’s lingering look at a desirable black male, and the affectionate look of the child at one of her first significant close relationships.

The real story, the central story of the frustrated attraction between Protée and Aimée is conveyed almost entirely without dialogue (Luc’s confrontation with Aimée on the subject being the exception) – the dynamic is all looks, gestures. The various scenes that make the problem clear rely largely on glance and subtle shifts in expression – the hyena scene, the doing up of the dress in front of the mirror, the two shower scenes. Even after the intense moment where Aimée and Protée look at each other in the mirror, the attraction undeniable, Aimée then dances with the Englishman, Boothby (Kenneth Cranham), outside, and although Protée stands far in the background, his presence is palpable, given the preceding scene. The strength of these nuances makes us always highly aware of his presence, his observations.

Within the spoken relationship, reinforcing the separations revealed visually between servants’ space and master’s space, is the way language is rendered faithfully as it would have been in these circumstances. Aimée addresses Protée as “tu” as he is the servant, while Protée addresses her as “vous” or “madame” as she is the master. This serves as a constant belittling reminder of the inequality of their relations. Both Boothby and Luc address Aimée as “vous” as she does them, reflecting the politeness of French address at the time, and of their status as adult males, raised above children and servants.

In contrast to Protée’s silence, restraint and mystery, the crowd of French guests who arrive evoke all of the chattiness of French culture, and the insensitive thoughtlessness of people of privilege, giving them an absurdist, provocative role. These secondary characters provoke revelations, epiphanies and change. They deliver context and information, and can be seen digging their own graves with their offensive behaviour, embarrassing their hosts with their rudeness towards the locals. Luc’s role as agent provocateur is a verbose addition to the film — his mischief and remarks expose the ugliness, the hypocrisies, all that lies hidden. His role is catalyzing as well as being insulting and offensive, to Protée in particular. It is significant that in such a relatively non-verbal film, one of the longer pieces of speech is Luc’s reading from a book about the unnaturalness of white people – as illuminating angel, Luc is the natural one to deliver this thought. The quote appears to be a kind of Conrad-ian diary excerpt. Protée’s approach at that moment brings an awareness, a sentience that everyone in the scene then has of their situation together in Africa, a manifold self-consciousness. Protée’s awkwardness as he approaches is inscrutable and compelling – though it is difficult to pinpoint what his thoughts might be, the possibilities are interesting to consider. The low angle MCU on him as he bends and listens begs the question: What is he thinking about? Is it the political tension between white and black? Is it the developing animosity between him and Luc? Is it that Luc’s manner is overly intimate with Aimée?

Aside from the story of longing and forbidden desire that shapes the narration, the other subtext throughout the film is the stirrings of revolt, the movement towards independence from France — the men meeting in the school at night, the reference to a massacre of a household nearby, the original owner of their house having been reputedly killed by one of his houseboys. The possibility of violence to the French from the Africans is raised repeatedly, as if the country is continually lurking on the verge of uprising and revolt, but again it is a force which is somewhat hidden underneath all the restraint and manners.

Back in the present again with the adult France, Mungo Park (Emmet Judson Williamson), the American who offers her a lift and who tells his story at the end, gives us another dimension to the African colonization trajectory, reminding us that race is not the only story. We have just witnessed a moment in history where colonial relations emphasized racialist divides, but Mungo’s experience broadens the complexity of what ultimately separates people beyond simply skin colour, to include nationality, language and culture.

Finally, the last shot with the three workers at the airport in the post-colonial context is again a scene understood entirely through body language. Emphasized by the strength of the music, we watch the three contemporary African men at great length without comment, gathering simply an impression of their freedom of movement, a lack of constriction, a lack of oppression, a sense of self-determination.

 

S’EN FOUT LA MORT

This second feature from 1990, represents a significant stylistic departure from the smooth control of Chocolat. The surface of the film appears rough and gritty – instead of the expansive landscapes and many wide shots of Chocolat, these settings are crowded, close, confined, the camera close to the actors, often dirty, over the shoulder, shaky and hand held in a cramped corner. The exteriors show an outskirts-of-the-city landscape of highways and overpasses, and have a blue non-adjusted light. The interiors consist of low doorways, winding grimy corridors and underground rooms. Again the body is rendered in space, albeit squeezed into this chaotic, claustrophobic terrain. The dismal mise-en-scène conveys the sensation that,“blacks only enter the realm of the white man as stowaways”. 10

Dah’s opening words,“Je suis noir et mon ami est la même couleur”, alert us to the element of the buddy movie, one whose adventures exist in a dark underworld of French society.

Given that we see Dah (Isaach de Bankolé) as he says this, the redundancy of image and voice emphasizes the first person experience – introducing us to an unspoken but physically portrayed bond of friendship. The two large close-ups of the men driving in the night throughout the credit sequence immediately conveys their bond. Dah speaks – his voice over narration is direct, in the present, introducing us to his world. He is not self-investigative – his commentaries are basic introductions, the matter of fact tone of a rough, essentially hurried life.

The function of the camera and its regard of the actors has changed enormously from that seen in Chocolat, reflecting the very different nature of this narrative. Here, Isaach de Bankolé is not played for his beauty – the camera is not steady enough, the lighting does not highlight details, the mise-en-scène is a chaotic scramble of dark underground pathways and small crowded rooms, offering a deliberately clumsy proximity to the characters that is not focused on the capturing of beauty. In fact, we do not so much look at Dah as see through him — from his perspective we watch Jocelyn’s rapport with the birds, his withdrawn character creating a kind of negative centre. Dah’s voice offers an open door into his world, and through him we again watch the silent tragic center, his friend, Jocelyn (Alex Descas). Jocelyn we watch to see what he will do – he is the mysterious curiosity at the center, the intense young man with the Malcolm-X glasses. However he is not a forcefully charismatic character as is Protée in Chocolat, in part because of the looseness of the camera, in part due to his body language using a more collapsed posture, physically evoking the closed nature of his future.

Both of the men are fringe characters, each of them linked to musical themes. Both musical tracks – Dah’s theme being Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier, Jocelyn’s theme the more anguished, busy urban hiphop tape – represent black male pride / resistance / cultural strength. To some extent the music stands in for character, suggesting an interior life without requiring exposition. The bond between them is visible but largely closed to us, and the minimal moments of the quiet playful affection between them occasionally lift the weight of the oppressiveness of their circumstances. The brotherhood between them, and their tender caretaking of the roosters makes them momentarily more sympathetic and accessible. Dah is the money-man, the negotiator, and so has something of a tough exterior, while Jocelyn is not personable or even particularly likable. There is a sullen severity to him which promises disaster. He does show a gentle devotion to the birds, and in a rare vocal moment, quietly reminisces about his grandfather’s roosters, conjuring up an image of Jocelyn the child back in Martinique, far away from the land of the colonizers, where the authentic experience of cockfighting was lived out passionately.

We watch them negotiate their dismal, sordid environments on the outskirts of Paris, and the troubled relationship with their employer, Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy). Ardennes here is the agent provocateur – he exists to chatter and offend, to manipulate, control and exploit. He haggles over every detail, insists that they enter through the back entrance, and has an implicit ownership over the women in the film. His previous relationship with Jocelyn’s mother back in Martinique is referred to repeatedly, as deliberate torment to Jocelyn — Ardennes talking too much, too insistently, too provocatively about the beauty and nature of Jocelyn’s mother. His wife, Toni (Solveig Dommartin) becomes an object of fascination and undoing for the men, though she, herself, is peripheral. Toni is more symbol of transgression, of inaccessibility, of that which belongs to Ardennes, than she is a real character.

With these two female references, Jocelyn is powerless to either defend his own private past with his mother, or partake in a relation with Toni – the one, in effect, displacing the other. These pivotal issues of love and power become combined with the increase in violence to the roosters, heightening Jocelyn’s sullen frustration and rage. With Ardennes’ reference to his relation with Jocelyn’s mother, he is able to reach deep into Jocelyn’s personal life and pull his heart out. It is as if he lays claim to ownership even over Jocelyn – if he wasn’t so black, he could be a son – both hinting at a position of paternal authority in Jocelyn’s life, and at once rejecting him. After this scene, Jocelyn wants to leave immediately, clearly sensing this cannot, will not end well.

The main body of the film, the content, is cockfighting – a world suggesting contraband and the trafficking of live beings, a poor man’s underworld sport, evoking the colonial past, a whiff of the previous period of slavery. Speaking to the history of cockfighting as sport in colonial times, Denis says,“…the slaves were not authorized to fight because if they fight they might injure themselves and therefore would not be able to work in the fields in the morning. So the cock fight was also a symbol of their own violence…”. 11 The grimy underworld of S’en fout la mort is full of the violence and death of the roosters, and yet it is also full of a nurturing tenderness in their caretaking. The twisted turn this tenderness takes in Jocelyn’s descent, drunk on the floor rubbing himself sexually with one of the roosters, is a striking image conveying the deep ache at the centre of this film – a dark and despairing evocation of contemporary black immigrant experience in France.

His final demise is both heartbreaking and inevitable, as Denis says: “I was all the time thinking of …this death which is expected, which brings relief but is also painful”. 12 The agonizing ambivalence of this experience we feel also through Dah, as we have entered this story through him. From within this entry point into the film, we live out a moment in time, a job, a friend who passed away. There is no pointed revelation, no social commentary or larger frame of reference – simply, this world exists, is presented as is, without further comment or apologies. We witness it and move on, on the highway once again.

J’AI PAS SOMMEIL

Denis’ third feature, while returning to the city for environment, again maintains a fairly smooth, controlled surface, rendering a Paris that is not so gritty as in S’en fout la mort, yet is threatening in mysterious ways. The ensemble nature of the piece broadens the scope to this urban landscape and the many unpleasantries and violence it hides. If the theme of the film is societal breakdown and lack of security in modern big city life, it is not rendered in suspense or sensationalism, but in a cool observation of the state of affairs, and the quiet actions of the characters. If the film is about this overwhelming, dangerous, big city, fear is built in part by not understanding all that is going on. A lot is left unexplained, giving a narrative insecurity that helps destabilize, underlining the fact that we don’t know so many things about what goes on – tears, violence, love and unhappiness are evident but are witnessed without elucidation.

The various threads of the different characters we meet introduce us to this place full of strangers from all over – the strangers are the neighbours next door, strangers are the dead upstairs on the eighth floor, strangers are your brother of whose deeds you are wholly ignorant.

With all of these mysterious goings-ons, we are most frequently left to create our own back stories – repeatedly, scenes will suggest a situation, a problem, and we must guess at what may be going on. Specifically, during the scenes with Camille and boyfriend and / or Doctor, we surmise from the arguments, the embraces, the packed bags, what must most likely be happening within this love triangle. Similarly with Theo’s neighbour, we are left with most of the doubt and unknown of an urban living situation – we are never sure exactly what is going on between the couple in the neighbouring apartment – is it abuse? is it elaborate sexual play? – we don’t know, no matter how much we might speculate, a feature common enough in big city life.

The story begins with Daiga (Katerina Golubeva) driving into the city – again, the foreign white female as outsider coming in leading us to the central story. Denis has said of the use of this female character: “It seemed essential to me, because I did not want to use the old woman’s killer … as the thread we follow. I wanted us to discover him, as we do when we open a newspaper and discover a foreign universe… and I saw a foreign woman arrive and enter this Paris which arouses fear”. 13 Daiga is a strange young woman – rude and impulsive, but funny and compelling in her beautiful, sullen silence. However, she is not the center, but more a representation of our own curiosity, a thread following and observing Camille in the hotel. Camille (Richard Courcet) is aggressive yet charming, caring but intimidating, violent but with a laidback easy human rapport. He is classically enigmatic – more mysterious than knowable, sexy in his cultivated mysteriousness. Humour and context and a certain amount of expository dialogue are offered by the secondary characters such as the hotel owner (Line Renaud), Aunt Ira (Irina Grejbina), and Mona (Beatrice Dalle). They fill in some of the gaps necessary put the narrative pieces together, and again provide a point of contrast to the more laconic central characters.

Early on, the camera’s long view on Camille as he lies on the bed with his painted nails, POV of the child, and then lingering as he dresses in the bathroom revealing his fishnet stockings, while allowing us to observe these details, also seems to function as a kind of visceral proximity, an exaggeration of the betrayal of intimacy in a very banal private moment. The camera’s strange closeness and lengthy immodest observation suggests and arouses a natural curiosity – Who is this person? Why is this man in fishnets and what is he doing in this bathroom? The performance is neutral, always understated, never given to dramatics, but his physical being is so foregrounded, that we wait to see what will emerge from him.

Similarly, his drag performance some forty minutes into the film is a slow, almost boring and yet fascinating moment, where we do little besides watch him and contemplate his beauty and charismatic mystery. His dance and dress are effeminate, pretty and vulnerable with no shoes and his dress falling down – he evokes none of the clowning of drag, there are no fake boobs or exaggerated makeup, only the beguiling melancholic connotation of the female as sought-after object. The unusualness of all these elements, the camera’s long roving over the details of his body, and the duration of the performance through an entire song make him unquestionably the central, enigmatic, inscrutable star. This magnetic display of him as sexy, beautiful, desirable, is key to the ambivalence of his character – we want to know him, we understand how charming he appears to be, so there is a curiosity aroused, based far from the monstrous criminal side he reveals later in the film.

Camille’s brother, Théo (Alex Descas), in some ways shares the center of the film – this weight of his is not based on the same kind of attention from the camera, but on the authority of his morality, his caring parenting, his concern for his neighbour, his loyalty to his family. We know only a few things of Théo, yet we are presented clearly with his longing to leave the city – to return to the homeland, to Eden – to leave the land of the colonizers, the psychotic city. Again this Descas character has a kind of inward energy, somewhat sullen, but who provides us with an obviously decent soul in the midst of the various amoral or self-interested activities of some of the other characters. Not that the film is ever moralizing – on the contrary, there is an openness, a lack of conclusiveness about the characters, a lack of sensation to the criminality and complex sexual relations woven through with all of their mundane and comic elements. Between the two brothers there is a balance or a dualism in their roles – a kind of implicit Cain and Abel dynamic. In terms of the strategy of the script, it is also possible to understand Théo’s presence as a “good” black male presence in the film, helping deflect any racially-based assumptions.

Both brothers barely register inflection in their expressions – nothing really reveals an interior – they are exteriors, they are their actions, with little indicating the nature of their interior lives. They sleep on opposite sides of a wall, share a bathroom, and even early on there is a cut from a shot of one brother, Camille, walking along the street, which then cuts directly to Théo, in precisely the same walking posture, suggesting a similarity, a parallel, a connection, a simultaneity. Throughout the scene of the birthday party, they are both attentive sons, awkward, tense and funny with each other, though not with mother. As the scene is only dance, body language and facial expression, no dialogue, one wonders if there is rivalry between them? Playful discomfort? Both appear to be doting sons, but they avoid getting too close to each other.

One of the key scenes between them occurs when Camille comes to the apartment to speak to Théo just after we have seen him in a hospital waiting room. We assume Camille is sick, but there is an awkward moment in the doorway, and Camille leaves, having said nothing. When Théo follows him to the Metro, the lack of communication continues, Camille boards a train, and they part, each seen in close-up, looking troubled, disappointed, sad. Here again, the function of the silently observing camera builds its own momentum with characters, its own approach to psychology. The minimal verbal exchange between the characters makes the tiniest gesture, glance, or brief moment become one loaded with dramatic weight. This is as true of the various shifts in ambivalent feeling between the brothers as it is in the moment where Daiga and Camille actually speak, briefly, barely, in the café. The parallel movement between their stories since the beginning of the film suggests an inevitable meeting, and Daiga’s constant observing of Camille hints at the possibility of erotic fascination on her part, so we are primed for some kind of revelation when their paths finally cross. The minutiae of the specifics of this meeting does not diminish its impact. As Judith Mayne has observed: “…the film has so patiently watched these two, and in particular has watched Daiga watch Camille, that when this moment arrives, it is both poignant and momentous”. 14

With Camille’s arrest, still it is not words that deliver much insight. Camille, the films’ central enigma, addresses his captors, the camera, in a small speech, saying only, “Je suis un type facil”, suggesting it is the world in general, “les choses”, that makes things goes wrong. The nothingness of these statements, the lack of any helpful explanation leads us to the next scene, where, in some of the last moments of the film, the brothers pass in the hallway of the police station. They look at each other, heads cocked, and say nothing. They are silent strangers.

* * *

Each of these early Denis films are engaged with black, male characters in central roles, a choice loaded with political issues of who is looking at whom, of the gaze and its problematics. We can see how her tactics, while always highly cinematic, evolve and shift, or are approached somewhat differently with each project, the stylistics depending on their relevance to the story. Throughout, we can understand Denis’ point of identification or reference as a kind of outsider / insider ambivalence. Each of these films deals with foreigners in strange lands, each film opens and closes with traveling sequences of people arriving into and departing from the place where the film unfolds. Denis herself has admitted, “If my films have a common link, maybe it’s being a foreigner…”. 15

With Chocolat, Denis begins her career with a film apparently motivated by white guilt, a story of the oppression of blacks by whites – entering via a white child to allow an observation of the relationships between black and white, in terms of power and sexuality. But immediately she has begun a cinematic approach to the human figure as able to evoke its own stories and mysteries. Her next feature, S’en fout la mort, does away with the white person’s primary footing, and plunges into a first person account of black male exile. Jocelyn and Dah are clearly the colonialized adrift in the colonizing country, without homes, jobs, negotiating an underworld on the edges of society. Filmically, the image reflects this rough, scrabbly existence, and the witnessing of Jocelyn’s descent suggests a mix of pathos, tragedy, and waste. J’ai pas sommeil offers the most complicated central character, the amoral Camille – a likable, soft-spoken serial killer, a loving son who murders old ladies. Here we see a highly attentive, lingering camera that quietly allows him to show us the range of his contradictions.

The focus on men throughout the body of Claire Denis’ work, the salience of male beauty, and the complexity of sexual relations, is a highly distinctive part of her filmmaking style. The strategy through all these films can be seen to be a carefully considered cinematic address to socio-political conundrums, in terms of characters, the situations depicted, the use of the camera, and consistently, of silence.

Notes

1. Diana Holmes & Robert Ingram from the “Series Editor Foreward” in Martine Beugnet’s Claire Denis, French Film Directors, Manchester University Press, 2004, vii.

2. Denis quoted in Judith Mayne’s Claire Denis, Contemporary Film Directors, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, 25.

3. Beugnet offers a very full discussion of Otherness in Denis’ films, pg 12.

4. As quoted by Jonathan Romney in “The Guardian / NFT interview: Claire Denis interviewed by Jonathan Romney”, Wednesday June 28, 2000. film.guardian.co.uk/interview/ interviewpages/0,,338784,00.htm. Date accessed: 3 October 2006.

5. Norman Cohn quoted in “Kunuk’s Silent Partner” by Sarah Milroy, Globe and Mail. Wednesday September 6, 2006: R1 – R2.

6. Denis in Beugnet, 40.

7. Denis in Mayne, 36 – 37.

8. Attributed to Denis in Susan Hayward’s “Reading masculinities in Claire Denis’s Chocolat”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 1.2 (2002b), 120 – 127.

9. Denis in Hayward, 122.

10. Beugnet, 71.

11. Denis in Romney.

12. Denis quoted by Aimé Ancian in “Claire Denis: An Interview”. Translation by Inge Pruks. Senses of Cinema 23. Nov – Dec 2002. www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/23/denis_interview.html Date accessed: 3 October 2006.

13. Denis in Ancian.

14. Mayne, xi.

15. Denis in Romney.

2 Comments

  • Reply Steven McCabe May 17, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Fantastic article. Thank you.

    • Reply Katharine Asals May 18, 2016 at 7:28 am

      Thank you so much, Steven.
      Wonderful to know people have a look at it now and again 🙂

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