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The Films Of Claire Denis: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 19, 2010 at 5:56AM

The IFC Center in New York City recently ran a retrospective of French director Claire Denis’s laudable films—the most expansive retrospective of her work that NYC has ever seen—to commemorate the theatrical release of “White Material” this Friday. On the occasion, we have also decided to look back at some of her most noteworthy features.
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I Can’t Sleep” (1994)
In the hands of near any other director, "I Can't Sleep" would've been boilerplate mystery-procedural fare. In Claire Denis', it's a deceptively complex study of sin's blow-back, its consequences on the sinful and those innocents caught in the crossfire. It's also a scathing commentary on the poor conditions for immigrants in the ghettos of Paris, developing its mosaic of characters (many played by Denis regulars like Alex Descas and Béatrice Dalle) over a leisurely two hours. Daiga (Katia Golubeva), a tall, wispy Lithuanian beauty, moves in with relatives in Paris. She doesn't speak much French, and when a radio announcer warns of the "Granny Killer," she doesn't understand. But we do. She's our entry point; we feel just as uprooted as she does in this seedy place, and our understanding of her displacement pays off two-fold when it lends insight into the mind of the killer, an immigrant who shares her frustrations and feelings of alienation. Denis is too smart to create a film rote with cynicism; there are no heroes in "I Can't Sleep," but the city fights its own demons, "grannies" take up martial arts to defend themselves, and those with any shred of humanity reach out to others, often in vain. Denis understands that people sin, but knows that they also regret. The title, "I Can't Sleep," may suggest that even the gravest offenders lose sleep over their transgressions. [B+]

Beau Travail” (2000)
This is the imposing masterwork of Claire Denis' illustrious career—an adaptation of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" which relocates the story's action to a French legionnaire camp in Northern Africa where jealousy and braggadocio inform an intense power struggle and elevate a classic parable to the level of Greek tragedy. In the opening scene, the film's two protagonists, Sentain (Gregoire Colin) and Galoup (Denis Lavant), circle each other like predators; the soldiers are established as silent rivals through intense physical gestures: penetrating stares, arched backs and clenched fists. Denis' surreal rendering of their harsh environment blurs the line between masculinity and an unspoken homoerotic tension, just as it makes ambiguous the separation between regimented exercise and interpretive dance. This director's cinema is all about suggestion—erotic tension abounds but there's no release. Denis focuses not on action, but inaction here: the soldiers rehearse tirelessly for a battle that never comes, and that hypothetical threat, looming in some potential future, infuses "Beau Travail" with a wellspring of unnerving tension. But Denis' interests extend beyond the blows traded between her two brooding ciphers; setting the film in Djibouti hints at the pointed critique of “Chocolat,” her exceptionally underrated debut: that dark-skinned people often become casualties to the senseless whims and conflicts of white egotists. [A]

Trouble Every Day” (2002)
Unfortunately the title “The Hunger” is taken, but it does a solid job emphasizing the carnal rage with which Denis’ sojourn into more horrific territory is concerned. Along the French countryside, a curvy animalistic nymphomaniac (Béatrice Dalle) can’t help but devour her lovers, held back by the dutiful concern of her male paramour. At the same time, two Americans (Vincent Gallo and uber-cute and underused Tricia Vessey) struggle to understand how they’ve arrived at this place of sensual longing and flesh-eating scientifically, while at the same time struggling with how their passions seem both exactly the same, and, because of a lack of compatibility, completely opposite to their interests. “Trouble Every Day” is a gory test for the average arthouse consumer, but it continues Denis’ sensuous obsession with the matters of the flesh and the chasm that separates even the most dedicated of lovers. It also boasts a solid score by the Tindersticks. [B]

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Feature, Foreign Directors, White Material, Claire Denis, Retrospective


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