Claire Denis and the Challenge of Bringing New Perspective

Last Updated:Monday, January 29, 2024

France has a special association with cinema. David Lynch, for one, calls the country: “the biggest film bugs and protectors of cinema in the world.” And he’s not just saying that because they awarded him the Légion d'Honneur.

Half a century on from the French New Wave, the Left Bank of Paris remains filled with semi-run-down, very well-attended art house cinemas like L'Accattone and Studio Galande. Go to a nearby cafe and you’re sure to hear some loud, lively, and highly gesticulated discussions on the merits of so-and-so’s mise-en-scène.

The country has always embraced outsiders and radical visionaries, stirring the pot and keeping things interesting while other European film industries have boomed, busted, and flatlined.

In recent times, hard-to-pin-down auteur Claire Denis has become the major torchbearer of this rich film culture worldwide. She’s been described as “consistently the most interesting French filmmaker of the 21st century” by the New York Times’s A.O. Scott.

He’s hardly alone in this high-flown praise. Among many others, director of the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, is a big fan. He says “her films are like nothing else… she has a very unique way of translating the human experience to images” and generating “metaphor out of silence, gestures, and expressions.”

Now 72 years old, Denis cuts a strong form in small stature—fiercely opinionated, testy, and always adorned with her signature frizzled plume of fluffy blonde hair. She just made a weird, wild English-language sci-fi movie called High Life with Robert Pattinson from Twilight and shows no signs of slowing down.

Her body of work shows what an uncompromising career looks like, and may well offer us some wisdom on the subject of authentic achievement. Her creative process might also offer insight into what can be accomplished by allowing one’s workflow to take on a life of its own.

How Claire Denis parlayed ‘double outsider’ status into a storied filmmaking career

Claire Denis’s father was a French civil servant in Africa, and kept the family constantly on the move. She spent the first 14 years of her life across Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, and French Somaliland.

Her father and mother, defying the mainstream colonial attitudes of the era, made a concerted effort to develop their daughter’s appreciation for local culture. She attended non-segregated schools and was often the only white person in the classroom.

As a teenager, she was sent to Paris to finish her education. Perhaps understandably, she didn’t fit in ‘at home’ at all. This upbringing of double-alienation in Africa and France, and the idealistic, non-conformist political and moral compass she inherited from her parents, perhaps explains in large measure why she ended up ‘flying the coop’ so to speak.

The first phase of her rebellion came with marrying a wealthy older man at age 19, then moving with him to London. Although they promptly divorced without having any children (and she never remarried), the relationship had important consequences. Despite their separation, her husband encouraged her to follow her desire to study filmmaking and even provided a level of financial support that made doing so possible.

She managed to earn a spot at the prestigious L'Institut des hautes études cinématographique (IDHC) in Paris, now known as La Fémis (the school’s rigorous admissions process is the subject of a recent, fascinating film by yet another director named Claire).

After graduating, her first big break came in 1984, when she landed a job as assistant director on German director Wim Wenders’ classic bummer tale Paris, Texas (said to be Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie, go figure). Filming with Wenders in the USA led to her meeting America’s favorite indie director, Jim Jarmusch, and she subsequently worked with him on Down By Law (1986), starring everyone’s favorite grumble-core singer, Tom Waits.

Her directorial debut finally came in 1988 with Chocolat, a tale of family intrigues set in Cameroon during the French colonial period. The film explores the ways that racial prejudice strains and corrupts normal human relationships, focusing on a white French family’s interactions with black house servant Protée (played by Isaach de Bankolé, who you may know from Jarmusch’s insane mafia-samurai movie Ghost Dog).

The story is told through the eyes of the daughter, France. Through her, we observe her mother Aimée’s attempts to seduce Protée, and the consequences of trying to stray outside of prescribed social boundaries.

Denis’ bonafide reputation-making film came about a decade later, with the movie Beau Travail (aka. ‘good work’), which follows the intra-male tensions of a French Foreign Legion troop stationed in the tiny African country of Djibouti.

Based loosely on Herman Melville’s novel Billy Bud, the action unfolds from the arch rivalry between sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) and legionnaire Sentain, a dashing young newcomer to the unit. Sentain’s strength, wit, and energy stir up intense feelings of jealousy and paranoia in aging commander Galoup, who feels he is being upstaged. The ‘showdown’ between the two men slowly boils towards its conclusion between portraits of boredom, ballet-like training routines, and beautiful empty landscapes.

Since then, Denis has made a string of acclaimed films, including White Material (2009), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and Let The Sunshine In (2017). Her newest, and first English-language film, High Life, features some truly fascinating casting, with Juliette Binoche, aforementioned ex-teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson, and Andre 3000. Plot-wise, it mines the existential sci-fi genre, with some definite Kubrick/2001 Space Odyssey comparisons ready to be made.

Her oeuvre spans period dramas, film noirs, sci-fi, and dramas, all replete with her signature touch. So she’s all over the place, that much is sure. But what is it about Denis that makes her films so special?

Technique and Philosophy

Denis’ technique works with a significant amount of uncertainty. By provoking a level of chaos and improvisation on set, she challenges the egos of actors and crew and their assumptions on how you make a film ‘correctly.’ In this grey zone, new ways of seeing can take root.

Denis does her shooting fast, favoring a limited number of takes. Then she goes to the editing room and assembles the film, frequently re-arranging scenes out of chronological order. She uses long shots to linger contemplatively on a scene (but never too long), and lots of close-ups of faces and bodies to catch subtleties and involuntary gestures. Reading emotions in landscapes, she often places her stories in head-turning geographies and makes them an active part of the film.

By letting actors have space to ‘be themselves’ and catching their vulnerabilities by holding the camera on them, she achieves a mood that is both sensual and mysterious, in spite of the fact what is depicted may well be ‘just’ rituals of everyday life and everyday emotion.

Such quotidian scenes are handled in a way that gives viewers the space to look deeper and closer at familiar things, to consider the small details and contradictions of life and the basic, elemental struggles and pleasures of being a human being.

Her films often engage with uncomfortable themes, but they do so in a way that doesn’t ever feel explicitly political or ‘lesson-y’. Race, social belonging, personal identity, and violence are front and center, but always in a complicated way that leads you to think.

There is no ‘lesson’ per se in her films. They are both highly ‘aesthetic’ at times, and raw at others, making them hard to pin down in terms of stylization.

Meanwhile, Denis basically never gives us a clear-cut ‘bad guy’ antagonist for the audience to vilify, so our minds are left to wander around the main characters and try to understand their relationships and hidden motivations. Nothing is spelled out for the audience, but there is just enough plotline to string the action along.

On taking broad influences and making them your own

While raiding the Criterion Collection back catalog in her Criterion Closet Picks video, Denis selects a couple of films telling of her own personal style. She grabs canonical Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s tale of youthful romance and looming adult responsibility, Summer with Monika (1953), as well as Japanese surrealist gangster movie-maker Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh (1964), which depicts the rough and tough life of a band of prostitutes in post-war Japan.

In some weird way, these two contrasting choices say a lot about her own cinematic language. Apart from her decidedly non-typical, split-world personal experience of life growing up, Denis draws heavily on global cinema in a way that goes much farther than many of her fellow French who, in some way or another, often get tripped up in the richness of the country’s so-called “complete culture”.

Summer with Monika is all about two lusty youths hiding out on an island together, knowing that at the end of the season they’re going to have to go back to civilization and face real life. It’s about two people thinking, talking and dealing with the constraints of their life situations in a vast, silent landscape. Bergman’s camera casts its gaze on their facial expressions, their bodies, and the naturalistic wonder that surrounds them.

If you’ve ever seen a Denis film (and if not, hopefully, you’re now well on the path to checking one out), all that sounds just a bit familiar, particularly when we bring up her movie White Material.

Co-written with Marie NDiaye, a French writer of Senegalese background, White Material centers on a white French woman named Maria (played by the always-excellent Isabelle Huppert); she’s the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country, and stubbornly refuses to leave it, despite the violent civil conflict brewing around her.

In White Material, Maria is dwarfed by the landscape. It is vast, foreboding, and full of vivid colors and sensations. She is ‘from’ this place, but we have a sense she doesn’t truly belong here, that her time here is coming to an end in spite of her deep denial that it isn’t. This is visually communicated with long shots and compositions that make her look quite lost and quite small. Her mental deterioration over the course of the film is communicated in tight close-ups that linger on her expression, while her whiteness abstracts her as mere 'white material' in the background of local events where Africans are the sole protagonists.

Despite Denis’ denials to the contrary, there is definitely something about this scenario that draws on her personal experience as a person who fundamentally ‘does not belong’ in Africa.

Meanwhile, Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh is similarly all about visual sumptuousness, but with a strong dose of stylization thrown in. It’s a particularly crazy looking movie, with all the tough women wearing helpfully color-coded dresses against horror movie-esque ruins of 1940s Tokyo. But what comes through above all else in the Suzuki flick is the focus on the relationships between people in a state of crisis, who are more or less ‘doomed’ by circumstance from the outset, yet continue on nonetheless.

This sort of ‘fatalistic’ plot is one that Denis takes up repeatedly. For example, her newest film, High Life, is about a ship of prisoners drifting towards a black hole and opens with a very creepy shot of bodies drifting in space.

There’s no illusion or tension about how the film is going to resolve—she’s ‘spoiled’ the ending so to speak, so our pleasure and interest in watching stems from the personalities of the characters and the interactions between them before the inevitable end.

That’s wonderfully liberating in a way. No spoiler alerts needed.

Fearlessness and playing the long game

So-called art house films have become more and more accessible in recent years thanks to the emergence of video-on-demand. Shouts out in particular to Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

Meanwhile, YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo, and all those other ubiquitous streaming platforms we use have made previously difficult-to-find films viewable in a few keystrokes.

That may well be a big part of why Claire Denis is having such a ‘moment’ after decades in the game, putting out two films in two years and reaching new audiences with her first English-language feature.

With High Life she’s poised for a real breakthrough into the American mainstream. The last time a French director accomplished such a feat was back in the 90s, when Luc Besson somehow made Leon the Professional an American box office smash, then went on to get The Fifth Element made in Hollywood.

So what relevance, if any, does all this French cinema-ness have to those of us sitting on our sofa working on an app or some other decidedly less rarefied venture?

If nothing else, there’s a lesson in endurance and parlaying fringe experiences into real, tangible success. It’s fascinating to see that the most globally celebrated person from France’s film culture is someone who never really fit in at home. Denis had experiences and perspectives that may well have proven a handicap to success were it not for her stubborn will to pursue her craft and develop a new lens for looking at life.

Like any good auteur, she has a distinctive signature style, but it’s strangely ephemeral and hard to pin down, subtle, sophisticated, and decidedly anti-ego.

In our era of iterative change, where the focus has shifted from big idea hubris to fine-tuning the little things for humanity at large, maybe she’s the perfect example of humble, authentic success.