Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 26, 2022 8:06 am 
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( Feature films)

1988 Chocolat
1990 No Fear, No Die/S'en fout la mort
1994 I Can't Sleep/Je dors pas
1994 US Go Home/Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge... (TV Series) (1 episode)
1996 Nénette and Boni/Nénette et Boni
1999 Beau Travail
2001 Trouble Every Day
2002 Friday Night/Vendredi soir
2004 The Intruder/L'Intrus
2008 35 Shots of Rum/35 Rhums
2009 White Material
2013 Bastards/Les Salauds
2017 Let the Sunshine In/Un beau soleil intérieur
2018 High Life
2022 Both Sides of the Blade/Fire/Avec amour et acharnement
2022 Stars at Noon

Claire Denis. Notes from 'Claire Denis Revisited'

CHOCOLAT (Claire Denis 1988). With a really great filmmaker, a film she made 34 years ago can still seem like exciting news. First time rewatching this stunning debut. When I originally saw it Denis hadn't yet become one of my favorite filmmakers and didn't quite take it in. It's subtle; you must attend closely. It is based on her life to age 12 in Africa (Cameroon), and concretely represents colonialism and race through its action. This becomes pretty complicated as the film progresses but never strays from the basic triangle of the French provincial official, his wife, and the pull between her and their extremely overqualified servant Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), who is also the only friend of the little girl, France. Ebert's original review is good; he got it. Watch the film, read the review. I will try to report on some of Denis' less talked about early films - not available on streaming.
EBERT:"'Chocolat' is one of those rare films with an entirely mature, adult sensibility; it is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other. It is a deliberately beautiful film - many of the frames create breathtaking compositions - but it is not a travelogue and it is not a love story. It is about how racism can prevent two people from looking each other straight in the eyes, and how they punish each other for the pain that causes them."

concretely represents colonialism and race through its action

NO FEAR, NO DIE/S'EN FOUT LA MORT (1990). This little-known item is Denis' gritty, assured sophomore feature, starring the African-born Isaak de Bankolé (as Dah, from Benin), who starred in her debut CHOCOLAT, and French-born Alex Descas (as Jocelyn, from the Antilles). They play two immigrant pals who team up to run cock fights which are organized by a sleazy white owner of freeway roadside businesses, Pierre Ardennes (iconic actor Jean-Claude Brialy of LES COUSINS and THE 400 BLOWS and 191 other credits). Okay: Denis says she was inspired by Franz Fanon's classic analysis of colonialism and decolonization, The Wretched of the Earth, and everyone talks about racial exploitation and colonialism. But first of all this is a no-nonsense action film with realistic scenes of an obscure illegal gambling sport. Perhaps not atypically for such a film, it ends with a somewhat melodramatic tragic denouement a little like an old B-picture. In keeping with the first aspect, Descas, whose character Jocelyn grew up on the islands with a cock-fight-specialist father, trained extensively in preparation for his role in how to handle fighting cocks, and those scenes are riveting. Not stopping at that, though, he creates in Jocelyn a repressed, disturbed, tragic character full of mystery and anger who turns to drink. Brialy's Pierre is just an asshole, obviously trying to cheat the black guys every chance he gets, not a very interesting role but he plays it very well. There is a love interest; a focus on a white cock as a stand-in for the desired white woman. Not too subtle, but the no-nonsense style and authenticity, Agnès Godard's strong cinematography, and other Denis tech and team features, make this a strong, flavorful film, which sadly online citizen critics weigh down with empty political, cinephile jargon, forgetting to talk about the actual film. Typically for Denis, it's a whole new direction. Unique is a jazz score recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at his New Jersey studio, with Abdullah Ibrahim, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Frank Lacy, trombone; Ben Riley, drums. I had not seen this film before. It's hard to get. Actually bought a DVD that just arrived from England (9/23/2022). The disk has no case but is new, with excellent subtitles (details later). Denis' next feature would be the ensemble serial killer film I CAN'T SLEEP (1994). Coming next on this thread, NÉNETE ET BONI (1997), which I also recently purchased a DVD of for this Denis-binge.

a focus on a white cock as a stand-in for the desired white woman

I CAN'T SLEEP/J'AI PAS SOMMEIL (1994) Watched on M4HD.TV. Not a favorite but it's surprising who likes this, Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle, for instance. An IMDb citizen critic says it "demystifies" the film noir genre. Based on the real eighties Paris "granny" serial killer, it treats him as just like everyone else, integrating him into a group of miscellaneous immigrants in the picturesque 18th arrondissement whose different stories it follows and interrelates, starting with a pretty Lithuanian arrival, Daiga. Not sure I wanted the noir genre demystified. We see such known names and Denis actors as Jacques Nolot, Alex Descas, Béatrice Dalle, and some other appealing types, sometimes it feels like a sterile exercise but still it is a highly original, a distinguished film. The citizen critic relates it to Kieslowski's RED.

TOUS LES GARÇONS ET LES FILLES DE LEUR AGE.../aka/U.S. GO HOME (1994), one episode of a TV series. See IMDb for a description of the series and its impressive lineup of directors. Free on YouTube. First appearance in a Denis film of her regular Grégoire Colin, then 18 or so. Theme: The Sixties, its American music, French teens seeking to get laid. Colin is the brother of two siblings who go to a dance party with that purpose. Agnès Godard's camera. Vincent Gallo is also featured as a US Army officer, "Captain Brown." It is drenched in catchy American soul/pop music and, with a military base nearby, a love-hate attitude toward Yanks prevails.

NÉNETTE ET BONI (1996). Estranged siblings in Marseille reunite to deal with the underage sister's pregnancy. Following Denis' 1994 TV anthology series one-hour TOUS LES GARÇONS ET LES FILLES DE LEUR ÂGE.../U.S. GO HOME, NÉNETTE ET BONI has the same personnel, Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri as the titular brother and sister, also Vincent Gallo as part of the erotic-sexual mix, and Jacques Nolot, as the father who'd been a character in I CAN'T SLEEP (also 1994). Stunning when you know Denis's work well though I find the finale problematic. Agnès Godard's cinematography's up-close intimacy is cranked up to the max for the sexed up 19-year-old pizza-maker Boni's young man cuddliness, semi-comic masturbatory fantasies, and repressed desire for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's voluptuous, amiably ditsy wife of the neighborhood baker (Vincent Gallo; Gallo and Bruni Tedeschi have several lovely amorous scenes with music; the Tindersticks score is much admired). There was a beautifully written New York Times review at the time by Stephen Holden and Ebert was appreciative and grasped an essential quality, the way the intense, cryptic vérité style simultaneously tells us less than a conventional film would about the characters but makes us feel we know them more intimately than a conventional film would. Even subsidiary scenes of low-level gangsterish associates of both Boni and dad Monsieur Luminaire (Nolot) are vivid, intensely voyeurish, a little like the cockfight scenes in the 1990 NO FEAR, NO DIE. Odd is how Denis interweaves the most realistic sequences with dreamy erotic fantasies. But at the end that backfires (or the conclusion is just fudged) because it winds up being a little unclear what happens after Nénette has her baby, though we gather Boni overrides Nénette's wishes and the system (with a shotgun, yet!) and kidnaps the baby to raise it himself. Watched now on a new DVD I recently bought. Originally seen without much understanding on a rented video in the nineties. Three years after this, Grégoire Colin was to become the homoerotic fantasy hunk of Denis' dreamy Billy Budd dance tableau BEAU TRAVAIL. Denis' obvious fascination with him in NÉNETTE ET BONI makes it seem funny or unduly modest on his part that Colin in the Criterion BEAU TRAVAIL interview says he was very doubtful at first that he would even be included in that movie.

the sexed up 19-year-old pizza-maker Boni's young man cuddliness

BEAU TRAVAIL (1999). This striking, utterly confident variation on "Billy Budd" is the film that secured Claire Denis' international reputation. Rewatching it carefully with the Criterion bonus material, especially the recent statements by main actors Grégoire Colin and Denis Lavant, I can appreciate all that went into training the troop of young actors in dance and athleticism and making them into a tight unit, the use of the harsh beauty of the Djibouti locations and local population. Agnès Godard's images, oh my. The way Denis took over Michel Subor's "Bruno Forestier" character from Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT, very cool. It's a unique, highly accomplished film. Great material for discussion, for film class. But for all its beauty and intensity rather than touching or believable it is more than anything 92 minutes of gorgeous beefcake tableaux. Impressive, a must-see, not a personal favorite. (P.s. AlloCiné lists a boxed set "collectors edition" called "Terres étrangères" with BEAU TRAVAIL + L'INTRUS, for sale "from 199.99 €.")

92 minutes of gorgeous beefcake tableaux

There is an interview with Claire Denis in the GUARDIAN today (9/10/2022).

TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001). Made right after BEAU TRAVAIL (1999), which everybody loves so much, and right before FRIDAY NIGHT (2002), this is a cannibal movie and I had to sign up for a free trial on Shudder to watch it. This shows how when you see a bad movie by a filmmaker you admire you start to question your admiration. Featuring Béatrice Dalle, whom I don't like, and Vincent Gallo, who gives me the creeps, as the cannibals, is where things start to go wrong. This uses the same intensely sensual closeup visuals, minimal dialogue, and cross-editing, as L'INTRUS. Maybe here they don't engage, but you can study them cooly. Also am re-watching L'INTRUS in a new very sharp screener. Wanted to watch NÉNETTE ET BONI, but have to get a DVD to do so.


THE INTRUDER/L'INTRUS (2004) See full-length recent review HERE.

35 SHOTS OF RUM (2008) Four people who live in proximity in the same suburban Paris apartment building are at the center of this warmest of Denis' films, one of my favorites and one of the best and most accessible - not that it's talkative or explanatory. You can refer to "Close to Ozu," an essay by Rob White on Cinema Guild Home Video, that spells out what happens at the end (I wasn't sure). The Boston Globe critic ended by saying that he was devastated when the final credits rolled and he was separated from these characters. Ebert says "You can live in a movie like t his." Denis said this was inspired by Ozu's 1949 LATE SPRING, also her own mother's and grandfather's closeness. Living close to the father and daughter (Descas, Diop) who're as close as lovers but must prepare to part, are the man's former lover Gabrielle (Dogue) and Noé (Colin), a rakish admirer lodged in his late parents' penthouse above. Ebert points to how Godard's camera dwells on the faces of these four in a famous highlight sequence in an after hours cafe dancing to a calypso version of "Siboney" and the Commodores song "Nightshift" - one of the most enveloping, intimate, visually communicative scenes of all Denis' films. All this, and not a hint of sentimentality. That's perfection! Also notable, despite an obtrusive classroom discussion of Fanon, is the seamless absorption of blackness, with only a sleazy-sexy Colin of the four, not black. The Tindersticks score is particularly fine. (See My Feb. 19, 2008 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema review HERE.)

the seamless absorption of blackness: Grégoire Colin, Mati Diop

WHITE MATERIAL (2010). Much more satisfying to see this during a home Denis binge, not worry about (my NYFF) festival debut disappointment, appreciate how it speaks to other Denis films, and appreciate how incredibly effective Isabelle Huppert is as a mad colonial Mother Courage. To see once more how this director scores at something new - an action film forged largely through still tableaux - depicting a country dissolved in chaos. What is happening in this undefined African nation (Cameroon, like CHOCOLAT - and a sequel to it)? The feds are restoring order, demolishing the rebel army and the marauding child soldiers. Colonial remnants now virtually stripped bare, all French are fleeing or fled, except Maria (Huppert) who runs the Vial coffee plantation. We see Denis regulars: Michel Subor (of multiple films) as her father-in-law the plantation owner, Nicholas Duvauchelle of BEAU TRAVAIL is her no-account son, and Isaach de Bankolé as the wounded, dying rebel leader "The Boxer" who, 22 years earlier, was the impeccable servant of CHOCOLAT: what a rich irony to compare those two roles! Again Criterion bonus material, a statement by Denis, makes me understand the film's context better. (Huppert was 53 in the photo below.)

Isabelle Huppert as a mad colonial Mother Courage

BASTARDS/LES SALAUDS (2013). Disappointing and unpleasant yet done very well (like TROUBLE EVERY DAY?), BASTARDS is a grand noirish tale of big disintegrating families, with several 'grand' actors, first Vincent Lindon, then the tragic-faced Chiara Mastroianni, playing the mistress of the evil billionaire 'enemy,' the legendary Michel Subor, of L'INTRUS, before that BEAU TRAVAIL, earlier still Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT, and the narrator of JULES ET JIM, 77 or 78 here, his last sad scary villain. This is about some very sleazy, corrupt, or corrupted, people, but it's a film whose strain of sleek elegance is symbolized by Lindon's exquisite pale robin's egg blue Alfa Romeo, which he sells off to help pay bills as he tries to bail out his sister from that billionaire's predations and her husband's terrible mistakes. This is all inspired by Kurosawa's corporate revenge drama THE BAD SLEEP WELL, also Faulkner's SANCTUARY, as is mentioned in VARIETY by Scott Foundas - departed from film criticism since 2015 for Amazon's development team - whose review, typically for him, gives the clearest explanation of a film where, critics suggest, Denis' elliptical style is particularly challenging. This is not much fun, as is clear in the first frantic, furtive sex scene between Lindon and Mastroianni. But Lindon's presence is reassuring, as always. Foundas points out this was Denis' first movie made in digital, and uses its nighttime penetration qualities as Michael Mann did in MIAMI VICE and COLLATERAL. Grégoire Colin is a pimp here, as Foundas puts it "a long way from the baby-faced pizza-seller of NÉNETTE AND BONI." This gets creepy at it's "shallowly sordid" end, as Mike D'Angelo put it - Pasolini SALÒ creepy. One of her less-well critically received films or, as they say, "divisive." I took a neutral stand in my 2013 NYFF review. Now I just want to ask Why? But the obvious answer is that Denis is a compulsive explorer, and going in new directions feeds her creativity in essential ways.

a grand noirish tale of big disintegrating families

LET THE SUNSHINE IN/UN BEAU SOLEIL INTÉRIEUR (2017). See my full length Oct. 30, 2017 review HERE.

HIGH LIFE (2018).. This is more clearly a flop on carefully rewatching, four years after my NYFF review. It lacks even the qualities of a good minimum budget sci-fi film which Duncan Jones' MOON has - a good clear plot. Lugubrious, depressing and violent, it's another of those bad films by good directors that make you wonder if you were wrong to love their other ones so much. Robert Pattinson's perfect bone structure is not enough. As overly enthusiastic Atlantic piece is right about one thing: that there are plenty of "loving and tender moments" in HIGH LIFE too. So it's not as simple as I'm trying to make it sound here, but it's not satisfying: it doesn't hold together. Richard Brody wrote a detailed analysis for The New Yorker online. He argues that HIGH LIFE is too conservative, stilted, stiff and expository. Jordan Mintzer in Hollywood Reporter in his good, balanced assessment, describes it as "a film both sensual and disturbing, strangely fascinating and slightly tedious, tender and off-putting, bold and also a bit stilted." Of course if you are a fan of Claire Denis, offbeat sci-fi movies, or Robert Pattinson, you will still have to watch this film despite its tedium and other obvious flaws. AlloCiné press rating (French review aggregator): 3.1, 62%, but Metascore (US or anglophone critics) is 77%. Is one turnoff for the French that it's a French director's first English-language film? There is another factor: Denis is working with a somewhat different crew here, notably without her collaborative cinematographer, Agnès Godard, whose lovely, intimate images have been so much a part of her films.

Robert Pattinson's perfect bone structure is not enough

BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE/AVEC AMOUR ET ACHARNEMENT (2022). See my full length July 7, 2022 review HERE.

STARS AT NOON (2022). See my full length Dec. 1, 2022 review HERE..

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