Sunday, February 13, 2011

Empathie du Cinema (Claire Denis Literature Review)

The first is a French-African subway-train driver. His wife passed away a while ago, he has never remarried. His university-aged daughter is now living on her own.
The second is a recruit to the French-legionnaire in the desert in Djibouti, who has to endure the aggressions of the camps unexpectedly cruel captain. His training includes military boot camp exercises.
The third is a sixty-five year old recluse who hangs around his mountainous property with his two dogs. He leaves everything to go to Pusan for an illegal organ transplant and then to Tahiti to find his lost son.
The fourth is a soft-skinned woman with curly brown hair as she makes her way around a traffic-filled Paris one Friday night. She goes through the emotional roller coaster of a one-night stand.
The fifth is a dark-skinned tradesman who has a troubled relationship with his wife as he is trying to leave with their son to go to Martinique. He plays the violin, beautifully.

These people compose five of the portraits created by the French director Claire Denis in her ten full-length feature films (excluding short-films and documentaries): Chocolate (1988), No Fear, No Die (1990), I Can’t Sleep (1994), Nenette and Boni (1996), Beau Travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), Friday Night (2002), The Intruder (2004), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and White Material (2010).

I am currently compiling a bibliography for my colleague, Andrew Tracy, and local film-critic, Adam Nayman, for an article they are writing, Vers Claire: Locating Denis in the ‘Post-Cinephilic’ French Art Cinema .

From what I could find:

In Cahiers du Cinema, Frederic Strauss reviews No Fear, No Die (No. 435), Thierry Jousse (who has written books on Wong Kar-Wai, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch) reviews I Can’t Sleep and interviews the director (No. 479-480), Jean-Marc Lalanne covered the Locarno Film Festival where Nenette and Boni premiered and won the Leopard d’Or – Lalanne emphasizes the director amongst the Marsaille “cinegenique” along with Dridi, Guediguian, and Comolia (No. 506); Jean-Marc Chauvin reviews Trouble Every Day (No. 559) and Friday Night (No. 571), and, finally, Nicolas Azalbert reviews White Material (No. 654). In Positif, Albert Bolduc reviews Trouble Every Day (No. 485-486), Yann Tobin reviews Friday Night (No. 499), and Jean A. Gili reviews White Material (No. 589). (I found these by searching the Internet Movie Database France release date; if they were not reviewed in that month’s magazine, they are not included as I have no other way to find them).

In North-American magazines, more recently, Jean Dupont interviews Isabelle Huppert, the star of White Material, who has much to say about her working relationship with the director, in Film Comment (November-December 2010), to accompany a Claire Denis retrospective at the IFC Center in New York, November 10-18 2010. In Cineaste (Winter 2010), Megan Ratner interviews Claire Denis, who has much to say about her creative process.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has famously said, “I know it sounds fancy to say this, but the difference between Claire Denis’s early work and Beau Travail is quite simply the difference between making movies and making cinema,” though he revisits this comment on his blog (which is not available with the Beau Travail review that can be found in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia) with, “I must confess that I’m embarrassed by most of my other reviews of Claire Denis films on this site. Writing from the Trumsoe International Film Festival in Norway, where I’ve just been reseeing many of her films at a retrospective", and, "part of what I think is so remarkable about Claire, one of my favorite people, is a trait she shares with the late Sam Fuller, which might be described as the reverse of the cynicism of the jaundiced leftist who loves humanity but hates people. ”

Though for Robin Wood in his essay Only (Dis)Connect; and Never Relaxez-Vous; or, ‘I Can’t Sleep’, he focuses on “Denis’ departure from the shooting/editing conventions of classical Hollywood – her insistence that the audience work, notice, remember”, he describes her stance as a “sympathetic but impartial observer” to present Denis two major thematics “alienation and transgression”, especially, of her protagonist within an urban environment. In Robin Wood’s Final Top Ten, a post published on JR’s blog, I Can’t Sleep ranked at number two and as Robin Wood describes one scene, “That shot (a few seconds) of their hands touching and not immediately withdrawing has become for me one of the most poignant moments in modern cinema.”

Though for James Quandt, in his infamous essay on sex and violence in recent French Cinema (ArtForum, Feb. 2004), he discerningly invalidates Denis’ Trouble Every Day starring Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle, where their blood thirst is too similar to the New French Extremity’s “aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.” For James Quandt’s most recent thoughts on French cinema, he has an article, Coming of Age: Late Style and the French New Wave, in the February 2011 issue of ArtForum.

Here is some biographical information:

In the Contemporary Film Directors series Claire Denis book, the feminist film critic Judith Mayne general thesis is that Denis’s “central preoccupation is a sense of displacement, masculinity and the migratory subject.” And, the last full-lenth feature discussed in the book is Friday Night (2002).

Claire Denis was born April 1948 in France and subsequently moved around Africa with her parents, living in Cameroon, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso. She got married to a photographer at the age of 18, who encouraged her to pursue film, and in 1972, she graduated from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC; now known as La Fémis).

Like Shohei Imamura (The Eel), who was an assistant to Yasojiro Ozu (a director Denis discusses in Talking With Ozu, with her recognizable raspy voice – it is a pleasure just to listen to her on the DVD commentary, with Kent Jones, of Friday Night). Claire Denis began her career in cinema by being an assistant director to Jacques Rivette, Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Constantin Coasta-Gavras, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wender. From them she learnt “self-reliance and tenacity” and there is a certain amount of credentials and cinephilic anticipation that comes from this background, especially if the films have narrative and casting similarities. Claire Denis also co-wrote Yousry Nasrallah’s El Medina (1999) and acted in Laetitia Masson’s En avoir (ou pas) (1995).

Here is some information to contextualize Claire Denis within French Cinema:

In 1981 Francois Mitterand was elected as the President of France and the three main trends that emerged, according to Michael Temple and Michael Witt (The French Cinema Book), are (1) cinema du look (which was also referred to as the ‘new New Wave’) that includes the filmmakers Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Leos Carax – “Common features include studio shooting, high production values, romantic plots, symbolic use of color, explicit borrowing of advertising and pop videos, and an emphasis on spectacle over characterization”; (2) film historique, and (3) the beur cinema [which itself has similarities with the banlieu films like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)], which includes the filmmakers Abdelkrim Bahloul, Rachid Bouchareb and Mehdi Charef; and according to Temple and Witt, “In a political atmosphere marked by the popularity of the racist Front National, the emergence of beur cinema provided an important space for the representation of working-class youth culture in multiethnic France.” Claire Denis is also associated with the rise of female directors that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, so with people like Coline Serreau, Josiane Balasko, Vera Belmont, Catherine Corsini, Nicole Garcia, Zaida Ghorab-Volta, Jeanne Labrune, Toni Marshall, Yolande Zauberman, and you might as well include Claire Denis’s regular director of photography, Agnes Godard.

It is rewarding here to bring up Nicole Brenez and her contribution to The French Cinema. She begins her article with, “To the staff of the Cinematheque francaise” and her focus is, “Since 1960, therefore, three equally rich areas of experimentation have existed side by side: “figurative investigation; social intervention; and irreconcilable research.” The three filmmakers that get the most attention are René Vautier, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, along with the experimental proletariat tradition, Lettrism, syncinema, Guy Debord, and Marcel Hanoun. Nicole Brenez adds, “In France, two related strands of figurative investigation, minimalism and naturalism, have explored the problematics of cinema as mimesis or the representation of the real.” For Brenez, minimalism is “essentially an aesthetic of trauma, stripping representation down to its barest essentials, as in the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, Alexandre Astruc, Robert Bresson, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Philippe Garrel, Silvina Boissonnas, Yvan Lagrange, Jean-Pierre Lajournade, Christian Boltanski, Chantal Akerman, Gerard Blain, Jacques Doillon, Claude Lanzmann.” While naturalism is “not so much the opposite of minimalism as its continuation by other means: in the works of Maurice Pialat, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Patrick Grandperret and Claire Denis.”

While in Brenez’s contribution in For Ever Godard (the book itself includes a good article by James Quandt on the difficulty of arranging a Godard retrospective at the Ontario Cinematheque), she asks, “What, then, would be a question for the cinema? In relation to Godard, from the outset, three remarks seem imperative.” And they are (a) “A classical belief in the virtues of the problematic”, (b) “The Problemata of Aristotle: the art of concrete questions”, and (c) “The Materiality of the questions.” While, for Brenez, the six identified ways in which question are given form are: 1. The interrogation; 2. The lesson; 3. The interview; 4. The dialogue; 5. The torture scene; and 6. The Question-image. And, finally, Brenez’s conclusion on Godard’s latest work (Cahiers, No. 657), is, “Without forgetting of concrete suffering, Film Socialisme metamorphoses into a collective tragedie, the disaster of lost illusions, in spectacular pyrotechnics.” - David Davidson