Denis, Claire 1948-
Denis, Claire 1948-
Born April 21, 1948, in Paris, France; daughter of a French civil servant. Education: Institute des Hautes Études Cinématographique, Paris, France, graduated, 1972.
Office—European Graduate School, Media and Communications, 158 E. 7th St. C5, New York, NY 10009.
Film director, actor, educator, and author. European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, educator and conductor of seminars; has worked as assistant director for noted directors such as Constantin Costa-Gavras,Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch; former professor at La Femis, Paris, France; actor in films, including Mais oui et donc Ornicar, En avoir (ou pas), Le Jour de Noel, and Venus Beauty Institute;director of films, including Chronicles de France, 1973; (with Jacques Rivette) Man No Run (television film) Casa Films, 1989; (with Serge Daney) Cinéma, de notre temps: Jacques Rivette—Le Veilleur (documentary), La Sept, 1990; Ni Une, Ni Deux (television film), 1991; Boom-Boom, 1994; Nice, Very Nice (television film), Margo Films, 1995; and Vers Mathilde, Celluloid Dreams, 2005; worked as assistant director on films such as Mais oui et donc Ornicar; Paris, Texas; Down by Law; Der Himmel über Berlin; and En avoir (ou pas). Has also worked as a bandleader.
Golden Leopard Award, Locarno International Film Festival, 1996, forNénette et Boni.
(Author of screenplay, with Nasser Abdel-Rahmane and Yousry Nasrallah) El Medina (screenplay), Ognon Pictures, 1999.
La Médiatrice et le conflict dans la famille, preface by Irène Théry, afterword by René Guitton, Eres (Ramonville Saint-Agne, France), 2001.
Contributor to periodicals, including Filmcritica, Cahiers du Cinéma, Mensuel du Cinéma, and Filmmaker.
FILMS; DIRECTOR AND SCREENWRITER
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) Chocolat, MK2 Productions, 1988.
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) S'en fout la mort (title means "No Fear, No Die"), Cinéa, 1990.
Keep It for Yourself (short film), Allarts, 1991.
Contre l'oubli (title means "Against Oblivion"),Amnesty International and Les Films du Paradoxe, 1991.
(With Jacques Nolot) La Robe à Cerceaux (television film; title means "The Hoop Skirt"), Le Poisson Volant, 1992.
J'ai pas sommeil (title means "I Can't Sleep"), Arena Films, 1993.
(With Anne Wiazemsky) U.S. Go Home (television film), IMA Productions, 1994.
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) Nénette et Boni, Centre National de la Cinématographie, 1996.
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) Beau Travail (title means "Good Work") La Sept-Arte, 1999.
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) Trouble Every Day,Centre National de la Cinématographie, 2001.
(With Emmanuéle Bernheim) Vendredi soir (title means "Friday Night"), Centre National de la Cinématographie, 2002.
Vers Nancy (part of short collection, Ten Minutes Older: The Cello) Why Not Productions, 2002.
(With Jean-Pol Fargeau) L'Intrus (title means "The Intruder") Centre National de la Cinématographie, 2004.
Over the course of a career spanning more than twenty-five years, Claire Denis has created an impressive body of work that ranges from narrative features and music documentaries to films for television. Known worldwide as an inspired director and screenwriter with a vivacious, trenchant perspective, she has been hailed as one of the greatest directors of the latter part of the twentieth century, and she enjoys a reputation as an extraordinarily inventive and influential independent filmmaker. Denis is "internationally recognized for her fearless investigation of the human condition with its cross-cultural tensions and family troubles," commented a biographer on the European Graduate School Web site. Interviewer Damon Smith, writing for Senses of Cinema online, called Denis "a major artistic voice whose ceaselessly innovative experiments in narrative filmmaking have garnered the support and admiration of cinephiles, critics and many of her fellow image-makers around the world."
When she was two months old, Denis's parents moved to Africa, where, while her father worked in the French civil service, they lived in a series of countries until she was fourteen years old. When she finished college, Denis took a position as a trainee at a company that made short educational films, whereupon she decided to attend film school in Paris. After she graduated from film school at the prestigious Institute des Hautes Études Cinématographique in Paris, she worked her way from production assistant to assistant director for several highly esteemed filmmakers, such as Jacques Rivette, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch. In a few years she was writing scripts; four years later she made her first feature film, the much-praised Chocolat. In general, her films are rich, complex combinations of intimate drama and acute sociological and political awareness, according to critics.
It was while working as an assistant director on Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas in 1984 that she had the idea for her first feature film. The southwestern landscape prompted her memories of Africa, and the result was Chocolat, a fictional rendering of her own experience as a privileged, white female in colonial West Africa and of the emotional conflicts generated by colonialism. The film features the aptly named character, France, a French woman who returns as an adult to her childhood home in postcolonial Cameroon, where her father had been a district officer in the late 1950s during the last years of French colonialism. France's story and growing racial consciousness are revealed via a long flashback to her life as an eight-year-old girl. Denis has explained that the film was fictional, rather than a documentary account of her own experiences.
After Chocolat, Denis switched gears and made Man No Run, a documentary about the Cameroon band Les Tétes Brûlées on their first French tour. Her next feature was No Fear, No Die, which offered a brutal depiction of the strange and metaphorical realm of cockfighting. I Can't Sleep, based on a true story, is about the infamous "granny killer" of Paris. It features the beautiful Daiga, who has emigrated from Lithuania to Paris and is looking for work; Theo, a struggling musician; and Theo's brother Camille, a transvestite dancer. It is one of the three who might be linked to the serial killer who has been terrorizing Paris; strangely, no one notices them. The film's loose narrative evokes the work of director Eric Rohmer, but is distinctively Denis's, inasmuch as characters are revealed via their brief intersections and subtle gestures. The movie is "an uncommonly complex film, at once nervy and coolly distanced in style," commented Stuart Klawans in the Nation."Watch it the way Claire Denis made it, with your wits about you."
U.S. Go Home was part of the series Tous les garçons et les filles ("All the Boys and Girls in Their Time"), a collection of ten coming-of-age movies by esteemed French directors. Denis's highly energetic contribution is set in 1965 France and considers the pervasive influence of American culture, especially upon fourteen-year-old heroine Marlene, who attends a party with a single-minded goal—to lose her virginity. She fails at the party, but while hitchhiking home, she meets an American serviceman. Denis conveys Marlene's likable charm, as well as her ambivalence—both fascination and fear—of sex.
Denis routinely collaborates with Jean-Pol Fargeau on the screenplays for her films. Her films share a commitment to examining racism and colonialism (as in No Fear, No Die and Chocolat). Further, several of her films feature characters who are siblings, includingU.S. Go Home, I Can't Sleep, and Nénette et Boni, because she is drawn to the complexities, and, as she has put it, the weirdness of sibling relationships. The award-winningNénette et Boni is an impressionistic, unsentimental look at sibling ties and immature teenage emotions. Notably, the film's characterizations and story are built in layers of metaphor and scene fragments. In the southern port city of Marseilles, Boni is a nineteen-year-old pizzeria worker with an active sex fantasy life; Nénette is his fifteen-year-old sister, who discovers that she is pregnant and runs away from boarding school. When she unexpectedly arrives on Boni's doorstep, the two eye each other suspiciously. Both sister and brother are tough and uncompromising, as they are used to years of tribulations and coping with the legacy of their father, whom they both hate. Slowly Nénette's pregnancy brings the two together, though she is apparently indifferent to the baby, and it means perhaps too much to Boni. Like Denis's other work,Nénette et Boni is deeply sensual.
Beau Travail, which is based in large part on Herman Melville's novel Billy Budd, is an "achingly beautiful meditation on work, honor, pleasure, and betrayal among a company of men," commented Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. The movie is set within the tightly knit, harshly disciplined community of a French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti. In this regimented environment, the sergeant Galoup has found the life he enjoys most among fellow soldiers. However, when new recruit Sentain arrives, Galoup finds the world he treasures—the only world he knows—threatened by the new man's presence. Sentain attracts the attention of the outpost's commanding officer, and his nobility and kindness makes him universally liked and respected by his comrades. Obsessed with the respect and admiration Sentain receives, Galoup conceives of a deadly scheme to get rid of the new man. When Galoup unjustly punishes an African member of the Legion, Sentain's compassion overcomes the Legionnaire dictum to not interfere with disciplinary matters, and he gives the tortured man water. This provides Galoup with the excuse he needs to punish his target, forcing Sentain to find his way back from the treacherous salt flats with no supplies but a compass to guide him. Sentain nearly dies during his ordeal, and when Galoup's sinister plan is found out, he is expelled from the Legion. Forcibly separated from the life he was willing to kill to preserve, he ends up an outcast in France. "A simple story, then, but what Denis does with it is mesmerizing," commented George Rafael in Cineaste.
Trouble Every Day is a gory, sexually explicit film that did not fare well as an entry into Denis's canon. "Overlong, underwritten and needlessly obscure instead of genuinely atmospheric, [the film] is almost unrecognizable as a work from the director of the rigorous Beau travail and engaging youth pic Nénetteand Boni," stated Derek Elley inVariety. In the film, Shane Brown, accompanied on his honeymoon by his new bride, June, is on the trail of Dr. Semeneau, who is holding a research paper Brown needs for his work. Semeneau has another secret, however: He is harboring a woman named Core who has been shown to kill men in the throes of sexual union. The movie "scandalized Cannes audiences and earned vituperative reviews from irate critics for its admittedly gory scenes of sexual cannibalism," Smith reported. "Yet, on a formal level, the film obscured the distinctions between high and low genres while examining such themes as the violence of desire and 21st-century anxieties about the ethics of scientific inquiry."
With her next film, Vendredi Soir("Friday Night"), Denis "turns her reputation on its head by directing a film that is a work of subtle sensuality," commented Judith Prescott in the Hollywood Reporter. Written with and adapted from a book by Emmanuele Bernheim, the movie opens with the main character, Laure, packing up the last of her belongings and preparing to move in with her thoughtful but conventional lover, Francois. As the sun sets, Laure debates whether or not to keep a sexy red skirt, wondering if it is too provocative for her new life with Francois. She decides to pack it in her suitcase, then heads out for a dinner date with friends and a final Friday night as a single woman. Her plans are foiled as she drives the city's crowded streets, however, learning that a mass transit strike has resulted in a tremendous traffic jam. Announcements on the radio encourage motorists to offer transportation to pedestrians, and Laure gives a ride to Vincent, a taciturn older man. As the story progresses, the attraction between Laure and Vincent grows, first over a simple cup of coffee at a café, and later to a full-fledged sexual affair in a hotel room. "Their night together is like a rendezvous between two people who know each other well, like each other truly, and make love as if they were experienced with each other," observed Stanley Kaufmann in the New Republic. When their tender interlude is over, Laure leaves to resume her new life, but "she will be able to glow when she remembers this Friday night because it was enclosed, perfected by the qualities of Jean, not data about him," Kaufmann noted. "This Friday night will be a private, warm mystery in the middle of a world of traffic jams." Prescott called the film "a truly liberating experience."Film Journal International reviewer Maria Garcia called it "a good movie by a great filmmaker whose cinematic style steers clear of the psychological and the philosophical."
L'Intrus, which Smith called Denis's "most mysterious, enthralling, and strangely invigorating work since Beau Travail," unfolds a three-part story as it follows the dual quest of aging Louis Trebor, a sixty-eight-year-old man looking for his lost son and for a new heart to replace his own rapidly failing organ, and his eventual return to a former home near Tahiti. WithL'Intrus, Smith commented, "Denis's concern is to explore the literal and metaphorical borderlands where aliens and natives, intruders and guests go wandering, looking for signs of home within and beyond the barriers of nation, culture, sex, and family."
"Aside from their striking visual quality and formal dexterity, Denis' films exude tender affection for, and solidarity with, a range of everyday people—exiles, immigrants, sexual transgressives and alienated urban dwellers—who thrive on the margins of society," observed Smith. "At the same time, much of her work questions the self-serving assumptions and prejudices of the dominant white European culture." Forbes Morlock, writing in the Journal of European Studies, noted that Denis's films "are not about or for specific communities. Rather, she seems interested in the ways that making and watching them may engender unforeseen connections or solidarities." Morlock also observed: "The films explore not the role of the outsider as such but specific relations between people outside the mainstream of representation. No one is marked as the Other—rather, in working with others every day, the films make the Others of race, gender, sexuality and location strange again." In her work, Denis also avoids being characterized specifically as a female director. "I think making films deals with something more important than a role and/or being only a woman director," she told Smith in theSenses of Cinema interview. "I only try to be the best I am as a human being." Smith concluded that Denis "has proven herself one of the most versatile, if categorically elusive, film artists in the world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 31, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Diawara, Manthia, African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1992.
Petrie, Duncan, editor, Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema, British Film Institute (London, England), 1992.
Tomaselli, Keyan, The Cinema of Apartheid: Race and Class in South African Films, Smyrna Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Women Filmmakers & Their Films, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Cahiers du Cinéma, July-August, 1990, Frederic Strauss, "Feminin Colonial"; September, 1990, Frederic Strauss, review of S'en fout la mort; July-August, 1995, J.P. Limosin, "Six Regards en contre champ."
Cineaste, fall, 2000, George Rafael, review of Beau Travail, p. 40.
Entertainment Weekly, September 8, 1995, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of I Can't Sleep, p. 52; April 7, 2000, review of Beau Travail, p. 75.
Film Comment, September-October, 1992, Kathleen Murphy, "The Color of Home."
Film Journal, July, 1995, E. Kelleher, "A Real-Life Parisian Killing Spree Animates Denis's I Can't Sleep.
Film Journal International, January, 2002, Ed Kelleher, review of Trouble Every Day, p. 48; March, 2003, Maria Garcia, "Fateful Friday: Claire Denis Orchestrates a Romantic Encounter in Paris," review of Vendredi Soir, p. 44; July, 2003, Maria Garcia, review of Vendredi Soir, p. 41.
Hollywood Reporter, October 21, 2002, Judith Prescott, review of Vendredi Soir, p. 15.
Journal of European Studies, March-June, 2004, Jean Philippe Renouard and Lise Wajeman, "The Weight of the Here and Now: Conversation with Claire Denis," p. 19, Forbes Morlock, "Solid Cinema: Claire Denis's Strange Solidarities," p. 82, and Julia Borossa, "Love of the Soldier: Citizenship, Belonging, and Exclusion in Beau Travail, p. 92.
Mensuel du Cinéma, May, 1994, D. Roth-Bettoni, review of J'ai pas sommeil.
Nation, August 28, 1995, Stuart Klawans, review of I Can't Sleep, p. 216.
New Republic, April 17, 1989, Stanley Kauffmann, review ofChocolat, p. 28; August 21, 1995, Stanley Kauffmann, review ofI Can't Sleep, p. 30; July 21, 2003, Stanley Kauffmann, "On Films—The Unexpected Self," review ofFriday Night, p. 24.
New York Times, March 5, 1989, Paul Chutkow, "This Chocolat Is Bittersweet"; October 12, 1997, Leslie Camhi, "A French Director with a Taste for the Gritty and Unglamorous," profile of Claire Denis.
Premiere, March, 1989, Stephen Shea, profile of Claire Denis.
Variety, May 21, 2001, Derek Elley, review of Trouble Every Day, p. 21; September 9, 2002, David Rooney, review of Friday Night, p. 31; October 21, 2002, David Stratton, review of Towards Nancy, p. 37.
Village Voice, August 22, 1995, Amy Taubin, "Now, Voyeur."
European Graduate School Web site,http://www.egs.edu/(June 19, 2006), biography of Claire Denis.
Hollywood.com,http://www.hollywood.com/ (June 19, 2006), biography of Claire Denis.
Senses of Cinema,http://www.sensesofcinema.com/(June 19, 2006), Damon Smith, "L'Intrus: An Interview with Claire Denis."