Perhaps, given that Beau Travail was for some time my absolute favourite film in 2018 or 2019, a post such as this is quite overdue. I have to admit, the release of High Life did give a post like this a pause – I found it to surprisingly be the first Denis film I didn’t really take to, with it feeling like a push in the wrong directions. High Life appeared to lean towards a more brutal look inwards, to the body, whilst I have always personally taken so much to Denis’ work due to her focus on tenderness, though it has been long enough by now that maybe I should simply see the film again and re-assess.
But all of that is besides the point – the only other film of Denis’ to this point that I haven’t greatly admired is 35 Shots of Rum, another film I feel a need to rewatch as I feel it’s much more likely to click with me upon second viewing. But let’s focus on the overwhelming positives instead, the numerous Denis films which are breathtakingly good. I still have a few of her major works left to see – L’intrus, I Can’t Sleep, No Fear No Die and Chocolat are four films I really ought to get around to as soon as possible, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy most if not all of them.
My introduction to the work of Claire Denis was Beau Travail, a film I believe I found when searching through the excellent Sight & Sound top 250 list from 2012 for the films I hadn’t yet seen. It sat at the top for quite some time as the focus on the military was always putting me off, but eventually I gave it a shot and saw what I still consider to be one of the greatest films ever made, one of intense restraint, insanely impressive emotional control and awareness and a film that has possibly my favourite ending to any film with the utterly brilliant performance by Denis Lavant, a man whom I consider among the ten greatest film actors of all time too. The film shows a distinct tenderness unlike any film I had seen before and unlike any film I’ve seen since, and is exemplary for its meditative, slow style that breathes life into the characters and their locations. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, and one of the greatest ever created it seems.
Of course, after that, my interest in Denis’ work grew – I quickly saw more of her work. I found her early works to be most interesting, with Nenette and Boni especially being really interesting. Gregoire Colin’s performance struck me deeply, and the appearance of Vincent Gallo was certainly a welcome surprise. Friday Night (maybe more known as its original title, Vendredi Soir) is equally tender and beautiful, but there appears to be a large leap in Denis’ focuses with White Material, a film that saw her change pace and approach though still make a fantastic film. Trouble Every Day and the equally brutal Bastards are both more reminiscent of something like Verhoeven’s great film Elle rather than any of Denis’ earlier films, but they’re still stunning, leaving a lingering brutality that reverberates around for long after the credits roll. The latter especially, Bastards, is a uniquely bleak film that is hardly rivalled in its grim aura. It’s fantastic.
Let the Sunshine In, Denis’ most recent French language film before she made her English language debut with High Life, is more in contact with Denis’ tender work than her brutal ones, and works beautifully as a gentle rom-com starring the excellent Juliette Binoche (who, like Denis Lavant of Beau Travail, is also known for working with Leos Carax who I’d like to write on soon) as a middle aged woman searching Paris for love. It’s a funny film, but again, a notably tender one as it simply allows its characters to be human, to hold with them their many flaws but to be accepted entirely by the camera for them. It is the rare film that doesn’t really shun any of the characters involved, as they’re all only doing their best, so the camera seems to ask – ‘What more can we expect from them?’. In a filmography filled with either very beautiful or very grim works, it obviously leans towards the former, but it does fall in line with almost every Denis film as it is truly great.
So, it may be clear why it felt necessary to speak more on the films of Claire Denis. She is one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers currently working, a unique auteur with her own focuses in cinema who constantly makes great films and dares to go further than most any other director with her tenderness or its opposite, a purer evil.