Ticket to ride: Claire Denis and the cinema of the body


In our culture, man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element. We must learn instead to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements … What is man, if he is always the place – and, at the same time, the result – of ceaseless divisions and caesurae? (Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) )[1]

Serge Daney: So what belongs to you?
Jacques Rivette: What belongs to anybody? Outside of our own skin, and even then, are we really sure it belongs to us? We may feel it does, but not all the time.
(from Jacques Rivette – The Watchman (Jacques Rivette – le veilleur, Claire Denis, 1990))

Recall any single film by Claire Denis, or any aggregate image of the mood and texture of her work as a whole: every thing, every body, is in motion. People in cars (Katerina Golubeva in I Can’t Sleep [J’ai pas sommeil, 1994] ramming her vehicle into that of the theatre director who shunned her), in the back of trucks (little France and her black servant at the start of the central flashback in Chocolat [1988]), moving through the crowds that congregate on streets or in bars (Beau travail [2000], I Can’t Sleep), restlessly inhabiting the insecure confines of a home (Chocolat) or an illegal business operation (No Fear, No Die [S’en fout la mort, 1990]). And dancing, always dancing, married (with a rare skill and taste) to music that is, each time, perfectly chosen: Grégoire Colin as Alain alone in his bedroom dancing to Eric Burdon and The Animals in U.S. Go Home(1994), the two black cockfighters in their quarters, moving to the beat of Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier in No Fear, No Die, and (immortally) Denis Lavant, free at last (or maybe simply dead, draining away) in the no-man’s-land discotheque of the mind, as he poses, flirts with his own reflection, exercises, and finally cuts loose, spinning and thrashing to the ecstatic Rhythm of the Night at the end of Beau travail …

People drift, moving travelling incessantly, in Denis’ films – only she can give life to the final-shot cliché of a character ‘on the road to nowhere’, as at the end of No Fear, No Die and I Can’t Sleep – like in the Beatles song, they’ve got a ticket to ride, and they don’t care … But internally, too, their very ‘human nature’ seems to drift; their borders are uncertain. Blacks and whites (in Beau travail and No Fear, No Die); children and adults (Chocolat); figures in landscapes (L’intrus, 2004) or cityscapes (Friday Night [Vendredi soir, 2002], I Can’t Sleep); humans and animals (Michel Subor introduced outdoors, sleeping among his husky dogs in L’intrus); people and food (the cake shop in Nénette and Boni [Nénette et Boni, 1996]); bodies shedding particles of skin and hair in water (Tricia Vessey in the bath in Trouble Every Day [2001]): all these nominally differentiated entities are forever glimpsed in the process of dissolving into each other. People change places, too, in a phantasmic, ghostly way: Isaach de Bankolé ends up humming the same song as his dead friend in No Fear, No Die. A cinema of drift, but without nostalgia for the original pieces left behind in the incessant wash: following Gilles Deleuze, Saad Chakali describes Denis’ work as oceanic in its impulse – where everything is grasped on the cusp between now-emerging and still-immersed – rather than simply telluric (a lament for the broken-off, disarticulated fragments of some lost unity).[2]

Abstraction looms everywhere in these films, even in the documentaries: the meditative filmmaker-subject seems to merge into the darkness of night in Jacques Rivette – The Watchman; the bodily parts of dancers detach themselves as they move in space, fragmented by an obsessively recording camera, in Vers Mathilde(2005). Even men and their clothing merge into an odd, temporary assemblage, not just a natural body with its cultural covering but something harder to discern or untangle: the Foreign Legionnaires in Beau travail are at one in their ‘soul’ with the trousers they so immaculately iron, or the bedsheets they stretch and fold and tuck …

Yet the bedrock of Denis’ cinema is the flesh. She begins with the body – not so much as figure or silhouette (as Rivette does, with his whole-body framings), but as skin – frequently bare, exposed skin (recall Grégoire Colin in his bedroom in Nénette and Boni, or Subor in L’intrus). Flesh as a landscape, over which the great cinematographer Agnès Godard pans, explores, reframes, refocuses, at a very close, sometimes embarrassingly intimate range. Denis has expressed her primal admiration for Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), with its perverse diagram of love which feeds on hate (and on degradation, and even potential murder); it was Hitchcock himself who admitted to further triangulating this perversity with the eye of his camera as the invisible yet looming onlooker, a delight that Denis knows well and explores as often as possible … [3]

So many bodies in Denis are caught in a vice of desire but do not want to be: Béatrice Dalle and Alex Descas in I Can’t Sleep, for example, are like the painful, on-and-off couples in the films of Maurice Pialat (Nous ne viellirons pas ensemble, 1972) or Catherine Breillat (Sale comme un ange, 1991), crashing against each other, giving in to the old erotic tide, and then knocking each other around afterwards, accusing each other, devastating their shared domestic space, and swearing to leave. But of the many difficult bonds between people in Denis’ films, sometimes the mystery of intimacy – of the sensual and profound recognition that flickers between the bodies of two people – goes deeper than simply the sort of desire associated with sex.

Denis often asks in her work: what does it mean, how does it feel, to be a sibling, a child or a parent, the member of a family: to recognise, with a jolt, that you literally share your skin, your looks, your insides, your material identity, with another person? This sensation of doubling is both delightful and disquieting for the people in her films: brother and sister Nénette and Boni (Houri and Colin), children of an abusive father (and with, in a sense, their own child on the way), form an uneasy, unstable couple; Subor’s effort to procure himself a new heart in L’intrus is inextricably mixed up, on both literal and symbolic planes, with the acceptance or rejection of his sons; and the tormented black mother in I Can’t Sleep ends by cursing the demonic, ‘inhuman’ serial-killer son whom she cannot accept she brought into the world through her own body. Here, Denis echoes and extends some of the work she admires in contemporary American cinema: the films of John Cassavetes, where the ‘phantom double’ of a woman’s younger self is also the daughter she never had in Opening Night (1980), or a grown brother and sister (like Nénette and Boni, abused children in the past) share a love that is mysteriously beyond sibling sentiment in Love Streams (1984); and the more uptight films of Martin Scorsese, in which the moment of ‘mirror recognition’ – brother to brother between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Raging Bull (1980) – brings forth a torrent of disavowal and violence, as destructive of the Self as it is of the Other.


Whenever you make an incursion into a space, that space is altered. I like this idea of leaving a scratch, because that space is altered by that scratch after. It’s like a piece of paper that has a mark on it and is no longer blank; there’s something dirtying it. The scratch idea has other aspects: the energy you put into it, the weight, the breathing – it’s infinite. In other words, the memory leaves a mark … and this mark leaves a mark on the body. (Mathilde Monnier in Vers Mathilde)

As I see it, the cinema of the body in Claire Denis passes through four major phases or tendencies. One phase does not replace the others sequentially or chronologically; all of them overlap, with now one tendency moving to the forefront in a particular film, now another tendency …

The first phase, inaugurated by her debut feature Chocolat, concerns race, and the fraught relations between black and white people in colonial and post-colonial societies.[4]  What precise meaning does Denis’ work give to this term, ‘post-colonial’? In her films, even after the colonists have moved on and the social structures have been reformed, post-coloniality is above all the sense-memory of colonial violence, the strange, ever-reversible violence inscribed upon the bodies of both oppressor and oppressed. In Denis’ films, the drama of post-coloniality is the masochistic, self-inflicted burn mark left on the hand of Protée (de Bankolé) in Chocolat, the surgical scar suddenly revealed under Subor’s shirt in L’intrus, the death of Descas in No Fear, No Die from the knife wielded by a white rival, the trail of senseless ‘granny corpses’ left by the ‘dumb’, purely instinctive Camille (Richard Courcet) in I Can’t Sleep.

On this level, Denis’ films ask the biopolitical question of Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical work: what distinction gets drawn, by those in power, between full, divine ‘humanity’ and disposable ‘bare life’, the kind of life excommunicated, tortured and annihilated in wars and camps, the dispossession of populations, the homeless shoved out of public sight? In a shifted but dramatically powerful key, this is the terrain explored by Beau travail, with the cruel beating and punishments meted out by Galoup (Denis Levant) as he wanders, blindly and fiercely repressing his own homosexual desire, through a multi-cultural Western/Arabic space that is incomprehensible to him.

Still more displaced but no less pervasive in Denis is the obsessive attention paid to the byways of the criminal underworld and its black market economies: it is in these shadowy, illegal, illicit spaces that seemingly all the racially, territorially and socially dispossessed gather: Africans, Algerians, West Indians, underclass youth, gays, exiles, refugees, migrants … plus all those who prey on them for the frisson of pleasure and/or for monetary gain, chic whites ‘slumming it’ in the underworld of The Other (which is also a constant theme in André Téchiné’s films) and sometimes again deciding, as on the war field or in the camps, who shall live and who shall die.

Since any cinematic rendering of racial conflict and intermingling is inescapably, for Denis, a drama (and a dance) of skin colours – and not just of human natures, or souls – her work, on this plane, also moves close to the often derided, supposedly ‘trashy’ genre of ‘blood melodrama’, insistent in cinema from Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (1946) and King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) to Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975) and Australian director Tim Burstall’s The Naked Country (1985 – a very Denisien title!), as well as to the more intimate psychodrama of Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). But what is most central for Denis (as also for Téchiné) is the fact that the inevitable ‘intermingling’ of races and classes takes on a powerful aura of transgression – in the great literary tradition of Stendhal, who spoke of the ‘crystallisation’ of desire, where one always wants someone ‘other’ – from another class, another race, another country, another age bracket. Black Descas longs for blond, always dressed-in-white Solveig Dommartin (the boss’ wife) in No Fear, No Die; a French teenager loses her virginity to an American soldier in U.S. Go Home; officers gaze longingly at the soldiers beneath their rank, and consort with the local women, in Beau travail; vampires prey on normal people in Trouble Every Day.

Desire, in this context, quickly and inextricably mixes with envy, perversity, strategic game-playing – the sorts of moves that literary theorist René Girard described as competitive, triangular or mimetic desire (“the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be”),[5] and which are the very motor of the story of Beau travail. Denis’ characters often move from a position of ‘untouched’ solitude into a drama that shatters their innocence, ‘soils’ and confuses them at the same moment as it compels them. The space of the post-colonial, in Denis, is this space of social contradiction, intimately experienced.

At the European Graduate School in Switzerland, Denis teaches a course titled “Cinema as cultural anthropology”. The course description – “examines contemporary filmmaking as an exploration into multi-ethnic and cross-cultural environments, with the cool passion and distanced engagement of an anthropologist” – takes us into the second major phase of her cinema of the body. The oxymoronic ‘cool passion and distanced engagement’ help to describe an aspect of Denis’ films that is intensely descriptive – and especially focused on the body in its social being, what Gilles Deleuze referred to as modern cinema’s (post-Antonioni) study of the “attitudes or postures of the body”.[6]

The cinema of attitudes and postures is a broad sweep, from filmmakers who work on sensation and energy, ecstasy and agony (Cassavetes, Pialat, Abel Ferrara, Larry Clark), to those who refine a cool, droll minimalism of everyday life (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Sang-soo, Edward Yang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Comedy is centrally keyed into attitudes and postures, whether grotesque, shape-shifting body-comedy (Jerry Lewis, Jim Carrey, Sam Raimi), the adventures of the masses in technological, industrial and architectural space (Jacques Tati, Luc Moullet) or a delicate ‘comedy of manners’ exploring the psychology of social behaviour (Eric Rohmer, Whit Stillman, François Ozon). But linking them all is what the great critic Serge Daney (Denis’ on-screen go-between in Jacques Rivette – The Watchman) called the law of environment: social space prods, conditions, sets limits for bodies, and then those bodies absorb, react, resist, settle into or defy that ‘frame’. So this is a mode of cinema that studies how people sit, stand, walk, drive; how they fit into the seats at the cinema or the spot set aside for them at work; how they bottle their energy up or release it. Denis’ Rivette documentary is itself a classic example: her camera captures, above all, this famous man in the semi-private process of thinking, of weighing up his words and gauging their after-effects as the three-way conversation resonates through him.

Many of Denis’ films have an anthropological, ethnographic or sociological side: they portray underclass life in Marseille in Nénette and Boni or in the outer Parisian suburb of No Fear, No Die, the training routines of the Foreign Legion in Beau travail, the daily rhythms of the Polynesian natives in L’intrus. But the richest expression of this tendency is undoubtedly the too-little-seen U.S. Go Home which, from its first glimpse of Martine (Alice Houri) and Marlene (Jessica Tharaud), gives us a wonderfully observed inventory of teenage postures and attitudes: smoking cigarettes, lounging, hitching a ride, dancing with boys at a dimly lit party (as opposed to girl-to-girl intimacies, dressing up, applying make-up and singing in the privacy of their bedroom), flirting and kissing – everything that adds up to what Leonard Cohen called The Smokey Life, a topic which is of endless fascination to Denis. In U.S. Go Home, it all leads to the unforgettable final tableau of the three teenagers (the girls and Alain), separate and frozen in the dawn, unable to look at each other, having all ‘gone through the motions’, almost like automatons, of losing their innocence in the night, but now ‘out of phase’ with themselves, unable to process what they have done or learnt or who they now are.

The third phase of Denis’ cinema of the body is focused on desire – not so much, this time, as a social phenomenon of crystallisation, but as an intimate, animal drive. Of all her films, Trouble Every Day is, in this respect, the least political – even its discussion of medical and scientific ethics seems to be only pretext (standard in the horror genre) for a metaphor: erotic lust devours the desired one like a vampire’s kiss, reduces the body of the Other to something less than a ‘human personality’, and yet something more than an everyday lover. Denis’ films are switched on to the sensual chemistry or alchemy of two bodies in proximity. At the heart of Denis’ cinema, and of her stories, is the mystery of two bodies sharing the same space, the chemical attraction of two ‘flesh landscapes’ in the flash of desire. This is a frisson that frequently derails reason and convention, bringing trouble, disquiet, perversity: Boni finds himself fondling the hair of his sister Nénette, who has shown up as if in a dream; the same actors, again as brother and sister, share an ambiguous, lingering sibling embrace, somewhere between love and aggression, after the boy has seduced the girl’s best friend in U.S. Go Home; Dalle finds herself gleefully, childishly biting off the flesh of her random lovers/victims in Trouble Every Day; Laure (Valérie Lemercier) finds herself suddenly, inexplicably turned off by the gruff touch of last night’s accomplice near the end of Friday Night. In its less heated or violent moments, in brush and breath of its quotidian sensuality, Denis’ style evokes that of Philippe Garrel, who once defined (in a richly suggestive formulation) his kind of cinema as “manual work with the unconscious”.[7] Her most Garrelian film in this respect is undoubtedly Friday Night which, on one level, is devoted to the heightened experience of time, place, colour and a person’s intimate ‘otherness’ that is opened up by the unforeseen amorous encounter of Laure and Jean (Vincent Lindon).

Within these stories of desire, age – and the process of ageing – forms an important thread in Denis’ films. Deleuze suggested that the “daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, time into the body, the body as a revealer of the deadline.”[8] Denis’ cinema is certainly a revealer of time, as she tracks actors (Colin, Houri, Descas, Dommartin) through the years (often in parts that seem to continue or echo a previous role: see Houri’s spooky cameo on a train, gazed at hungrily by Vincent Gallo, in Trouble Every Day), and as she confronts certain of them – especially Subor – with the youthful images of himself forty years previously (the constant allusions in Beau travail to his role as Bruno in Godard’s Le petit soldat [1960], and the colourful Polynesian footage from an unfinished early ’60s film by Paul Gégauff used in L’intrus). Yet isn’t it striking, contra Deleuze (and so much cinema of the body, especially the pitiless Pialat), that in Denis’ films her characters so often seem to skip, escape or outfox the ‘deadline’ with which time curses the human body? The characters in Trouble Every Day turn the body into a laboratory (will these vampires ever get older, will they remain immortal like Christopher Walken in Ferrara’s The Addiction [1995]?); Subor cheats destiny by fitting himself with a new heart in L’intrus; Galoup escapes into fantasy at the end of Beau travail; Laure’s run down the street at dawn metamorphoses into the eternal elation of slow-motion in the final frames of Friday Night. Indeed, we might well imagine that all those Denis characters who end up, in the final scene, with a ‘ticket to ride’, have found a way of circumventing physical destiny and starting over, free to re-invent themselves.

The fourth phase of Denis’ œuvre relates to a philosophy of community. Beginning from those haunting family relationships (siblings, parent-child) that I have mentioned, Denis probes what her friend Jean-Luc Nancy (who figures in the flesh in the short Vers Nancy [2002] and Vers Mathilde, and as the author of the autobiographical source material that inspired L’intrus) calls the ‘inoperative community’.[9] This signifies the difficult community in which people struggle to find and ground just what it is they have in common (beyond a useless ‘common humanity’), what they can share, and what is then still left over for each person’s solitude. Beyond being a Garrelian story of interpersonal desire – of a chance meeting that fulfills a woman’s crucial need at a suspended, liminal moment in her life (as she is about to move in with her boyfriend and surrender her independence) – Friday Night is also an unexpected allegory of community. A gentle voice on Laure’s car radio urges drivers to be kind to one of the many people who are on foot in the streets during Paris’ traffic crisis. She is at first reluctant and fearful of strangers, but eventually she opens her private, interior space to Jean, whom she has never met. The entire drama of the film unfolds from this single, simple but monumental act of reaching out to an unknown Other – a reflection and embodiment, in Denis’ terms, of what could inaugurate Maurice Blanchot’s ‘unavowable’ or Nancy’s ‘inoperative’ community, or Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘unconditional hospitality’, in a world where ‘fear of the stranger’ jostles with an ever-growing crisis of refugees, dispossessed from their homeland and seeking shelter elsewhere.[10]

L’Intrus returns, in another key, to these themes: like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and many subsequent thrillers, it is formed from a triple ‘transgression at the border’, where the border is all at once the geographical border of nations (crossed by refugees and criminals), the limits of a house (the invasion and occupation of Subor’s home) and a body in flux (the heart operation). Must every entity expel what is foreign to it, or can it incorporate the difference of the Other? L’intrus probes these philosophical questions in a free, poetic way.


[Robert] Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined. When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or milk turning blue … it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that. (Bob Dylan, Chronicles (2004)) [11]

Saad Chakali defines that oceanic quality in Denis’ work as arising from the unusual relation of the images to the narrative – in particular, which is to be the support, bedrock or ‘archipelago’ for the other:

Here the shots come first, are the ‘original’ material, and from there the narrative arrives in Denis, never the reverse: in her work, the diegesis does not pre-exist the shots, it is produced in a strictly cinematic way. [12]

It is precisely in this aleatoric, moment-to-moment inventiveness of Denis’ style – its sense of constantly building, dismantling and rebuilding figures, a world, a story – that we identify its lyricism. Denis is noticeably a post-Nouvelle Vague filmmaker; as if to declare her debt to that lineage, she occasionally appropriates herself the same marks of freedom that once announced the first films of Godard and François Truffaut: characters will suddenly look into the camera, accusingly or defiantly, full of wonderment or love; the action will stop for an actor to read aloud from a book or a diary (Grégoire Colin in both U.S. Go Home and Nénette and Boni); or voices will suddenly appear on the soundtrack at any point of the story or a scene – voices speaking private thoughts, reading letters, or singing out-of-sync with their visible bodies.

Denis, however, replaces the gleeful breaking-apart characteristic of the Nouvelle Vague films (Godard’s especially) with something more fluid, a ceaseless interweaving and mutual dissolution of elements into one another. This is a process that involves the intricate materiality of her filmic style as much as it does the broad themes of the work. Listen, for example, to the work on the voice in No Fear, No Die, which is so close to the aural explorations of Terrence Malick (and isn’t Beau travail, on one level, a ‘war film’ in dialogue with The Thin Red Line [1998], not least in their common mining of Herman Melville?): de Bankolé’s voice-over narration is fragmented, whispered, slipped in between lines of dialogue, mixed without the usual ‘wall’ separating the two kinds of filmic speech – thus creating a rich zone of ambiguity for the ear, a floating between thought and talk, which enables powerful moments where the characters seem both inside and outside the events that crush and expel them (such as when Descas enters the cockfighting club for the fateful, final night).

While acknowledging the pertinence of Chakali’s analysis, I would also argue that plot – or rather, plotting – is not an insignificant matter for Denis. Her films strike us with their spare but strong moments of fiction – a murder, a fateful encounter, a confrontation, an escape – and also with the half-buried network of fictional connections that gives the films their tremulous ‘inner life’ (that ‘inside picture’ of which Dylan speaks), their aura of mystery (the same kind of buried treasure we find in Víctor Erice or Marco Bellocchio). Denis has often stated that, in the initial, writing phase of making a film, she and her regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau work out this basic network or diagram of relations in the story: what does each character see, whom do they look at; what are the lines of desire, or hatred; who tells which part of the story; significant backstory elements connecting the characters in their shared or overlapping pasts; the real or imaginary status of each event. Yet, once this template, with its logic, is in place, Denis’ work as an artist seems to involve a process of complicating that network, confounding it, punching holes in it, making it mysterious. She too (like bluesman Robert Johnson) deliberately creates “too many missing terms and too much dual existence” for us to grasp entirely.

Some of this work is already happening in the evolution of the script: crucial ellipses are chosen as structuring absences (like Subor’s heart transplant operation in L’intrus); plot mysteries are planted (like the fate of Grégoire Colin in the same film); certain transitions between reality and dream are anticipated to be surprising or ambiguous – just like in Hollywood movies, where some dream scenes only announce themselves retroactively, when someone suddenly wakes up and screams.

But the true artistry of Denis begins elsewhere, once the script, duly internalised as a support, is left behind. More than many contemporary directors, she creates the ‘thickly described’ events in her films from a complex, ever-shifting interplay of several elements: the scene staged between the actors, inside their fictional world, for the camera (look at the tense choreography of commander and soldiers in Beau travail); the precise distance (frequently variable in its mobility) that the camera takes, moment by moment, in relation to this action, what French critics call the regard of the auteur (observe the truly noble, respectful distance from which she films de Bankolé carrying Descas’ dead body down the stairs in No Fear, No Die); and the relations of logic (or of implication, as Jean Mitry proposed in his theory of cinema)[13] that pertain from one shot to the next, undergoing constant revision.

Is not every film – good, bad or indifferent – shaped by this same, three-way interplay of scene, camera and editing? The characteristic richness – the signature, almost – of the cinema of Claire Denis comes from the way she seems to enlarge the interval between these familiar stylistic elements; and from her uncanny knack of making each of these elements, and their conventional strategies, newly strange, porous, held in a state of suspension or self-questioning. This is a cinema of doubt, as Jonathan Rosenbaum once said of Dreyer, Rossellini, Rivette, Preminger, Godard and Cassavetes, where “a shot is often a question rather than an answer, a hypothesis rather than a fact”.[14]  And it also makes us aware of that peculiar aesthetic quality of the film medium which never ceases to astonish critic and filmmaker Alain Bergala: “The relationship between bodies takes place in the very space of the representation, since (…) it is the same space, visible on screen, which is worked by the interval between the body-figures and the physical and impulsional interval between the creator and the body-creatures”[15] – that is to say, the same gesture of filming inscribes at once both the distance between characters and the distance between the camera and the event it records. Which in Denis is always such a charged distance, charged with affects of erotic attraction, social repulsion …

The particular tonality of Denis’ cinema, created by the unique shot-to-shot linking and unlinking of its connective threads, is set out, fully formed, in the opening three minutes (in nine shots) of Chocolat. Some of the work on linkage can be seen in the frames – in the seeming transitions from a viewer to his or her point-of-view – but much of it can only be felt in the unfolding of the moment-to-moment temporal duration of shots, and the hard-to-define pressure this duration places on the nominal connections between units. (It must also be heard, in an aesthetic process difficult to tabulate here, in the very subtle shot-to-shot modulations of the ambient sound mix.) To put it simply, the longer a given shot stays on screen – whether it records an instance of ‘regarder’ or ‘regarded’ in the whole context of a scene – the connective tissue establishable between the preceding and subsequent shots seems to loosen, to drift, to give away … once again creating a very unusual, desubjectified lyricism that Denis’ films share with those of Hou Hsiao-hsien.[16] And yet there is nothing mechanical about this process, because no rule or logic dictates in advance what length any individual shot should be in order to bind and maintain its linking property or potential.[17]

It is as if, in editing (with her collaborators such as, for Chocolat, Claudine Merlin), Denis must rigorously, intensively find the ‘centre of gravity’ of each and every shot – what it gives to the narrative, to the overall sense of the scene or the film as a whole – and then also discover and master another rhythm, a counter-rhythm which will at once destabilise the synchronic internal scene linkages (but not so much so that the narrative loses all moment-to-moment sense or direction), while opening the shots up to freer, diachronic relations across the entire film (hence the concept of a film’s ‘inner life’, not tied to its strictly linear unfolding).

Chocolat begins, during the opening credits, with the typically ‘objective’ establishing shot of the sea. Finally – in a surprising but not entirely unconventional step – the camera pans to show, but only in the distance, the leading character of France (Mireille Perrier). In this shot of almost two minutes’ duration, the camera lingers at all phases: on the water, then on her. Finally, there is cut into a mid-shot of France, and her captivated look, and its unambiguous direction, gives a strong, conventional (one might almost say Hitchcockian) cue for a point-of-view shot to follow. Such shots are always ‘switchers’ or way-stations in narrative cinema: they mark a passage, a mid-way between the ‘objective’, narrational camera view (shot 1) and the ‘subjective’ view attributable to a character (such shots also have the crucial function of ‘getting the fiction going’, marking the beginning of an intrigue). However, the third shot violates the usual axis of a ‘suturing’ POV shot: it is in close, and positioned overhead, on a black child in the water. This shot inaugurates a descriptive (rather than narrative) parenthesis typical of Denis: three shots (the boy, an adult hand in the water, finally a wider reveal of father and child), running respectively for eleven, four and nine seconds.

After this parenthesis, the return to the gazer France, in exactly the same camera set-up as shot 2, registers oddly: the ‘current’ that joins regarder to regarded in classical cinema is usually less ambiguous, more economical. Then, after another odd, brief step ‘backwards’ in the progression of the shot-plan – four seconds of the beach as seen in the first part of shot 1 – we cut to a still stranger, even less moored shot than any that have preceded it: a foot (presumably France’s), and a hand entering frame to rub it. What is this shot exactly, what (or whose) regard does it record? It is not strongly marked as the character’s view of herself (the axis, again, is clearly ‘off’), but nor does it register as an ‘objective’ shot like shot 1. It is like so many shots of bodily parts in Denis: charged with an ‘investment’, an element of fascination or even fetishisation, but left to float free of the intersubjective web (of gazes, desires …) drawn between and around the characters.

The next shot offers the kind of ambiguous jolt typical of temporal and spatial leaps in Denis’ work: it is a pan that eventually shows France walking away, back to camera, down a road, far away. There is a slight shift in the ambient sound (now birds have been added) to mark an ellipse, but we are unable to see, except vaguely, how much time has passed or how the space of this road and its trees relates to the patch of beach on which France sat. That is the final shot of the first scene of Chocolat. The next shot – to France still walking, on another but clearly distinct patch of road, with a quite different, beach-less sound ambience – unambiguously marks a new scene, but the floating, internal, micro-connections and relations between the previous nine shots tend to render even scene transitions ambiguous or ‘defamiliarised’. This is an aesthetic property, on the macro level of scene order and placement, that Denis will exploit for maximum ambiguity as surely as do David Cronenberg or Luis Buñuel: how can we ever hope to reconstitute, as viewers, the yawning gaps between scene-units, and what reality (or dream) status does each of these units possess, or declare?

Such waverings of status impact upon certain, often prominent narrative interludes in Denis’ films. A sudden, unexpected, excessive passage in Nénette and Boni is devoted to the mini-love-story, set in a cake shop, between Vincent Gallo and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. As often in Denis’ work, the scene begins from an almost magical, hitherto unannounced or unprepared metamorphosis of roles in the story: from being seen, to this point, purely as a chef hovering around the back of the shop and behind the counter, Gallo now ‘takes off’, revealed as a soldier heading off to duty with his military mates – a kind of mythic, movie-fed vision seemingly quoted from a Jacques Demy musical like The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967). The sequence seems extremely compressed and elliptical, like certain passages in Garrel – and, as in Garrel, it takes the melancholic form of a ‘long farewell’.

Again, the time relations in this scene are impossible to nail down: when exactly was the shift in the chef’s destiny set in motion, how much time has passed between the previous scene and this one? And as we watch this sequence of shots – culminating in a heartbreaking vision, held on screen for an extremely long time (an entire minute, in which Bruni-Tedeschi manifests a dazzling range of emotions on her face and in her body) – we must wonder: is this even happening? Is it a dream belonging to a character (but which one, exactly?), or a ‘speculative’ scene, a virtual conjecture or imagining, emanating from the film itself (or its maker)? Beau travail proposes many ‘undecidable’ scenes of this kind, which appear to slip between the different time-frames of the narrative (certain costumes, changing or surreally persisting, provide clues to this slippage).

Another sort of excess, outbreak or lyrical flight in Denis’ work is provided by a certain kind of spectacle-shot which follows the same principle as the sight of France’s foot in the opening of Chocolat: shots that insist as powerful and crucial, but that seem to sit right outside the chain of actions and characters that constitute the fiction and its world, or are radically loosened from the web of points-of-view already mentioned. Ashish Rajadhyaksha calls such images, as they appear in Hou’s films, eruptions of the Pure Symbolic, because they correspond, in the Lacanian triad, neither to the Real of objective narration nor the Imaginary of intersubjective relations, but some (as it were) higher power dictating the fiction and its logic (on both form and content levels).[18] In some genres (such as Indian melodrama or Soviet-era propaganda), such eruptions of the Pure Symbolic express the Law – such as the Law of God or the Law of Society – but in the atheistic or agnostic universe of Denis, they express more a Law of Desire. Beginnings and endings – sometimes shifted from the spot where, at script level, Denis and Fargeau envisaged they would occur – often have this ‘unhinged’ impact in her films: the passionate kiss between characters (whom we never again see) at the start of Trouble Every Day, the fiction that ‘gives away’ to the everyday description of men hanging out in the final shots of Chocolat, the dance at the close of Beau travail, the wild ride of Dalle and her snow dogs that explodes as an inexplicable postscript to L’intrus.

In Denis’ films, the fictional world gradually ‘gets away’ from the control of its characters – the causal chain of ‘sight, insight and power’ posited by Thierry Kuntzel as constitutive of classical cinema[19] comes undone, leading to the proliferation of what feel like Purely Symbolic moments, apparitions and events. As it gathers in lyrical force, Friday Night reaches the apogee of such poetic undoing: not only do objects engage in a ‘magic realism’ of animated activity (a lamp reassembles itself, a heater turns itself on), but (in a reinvention of the French cinematic Impressionism of the ’20s) the technical device or ‘touch’ of the visual dissolve detaches itself altogether, finally, from marking a transition in either time or space, to deliver us entirely over to purely desubjectified moments that nonetheless resonate with Laure’s subjective rapture.

A ‘cinema of the body’ is of course, not the essence of cinema, nor the only significant kind of cinema. It is one strand, one impulse in the history of cinema and its forms. In the mid ’70s, encountering Wenders’ magnificent Kings of the Road (Im lauf der zeit, 1976) for the first time, future screenwriter and director Pascal Bonitzer wrote in Cahiers du cinéma: “To find the new, it’s always to the body that one appeals.”[20] A decade later, Gilles Deleuze saw the bigger picture and its pattern: the cry of ‘give me a body, then’ is invariably answered, down the track, by another swing of the cultural pendulum: “‘Give me a brain’ would be the other figure of the modern cinema … an intellectual cinema, as distinct from the physical cinema.”[21] Certain filmmakers (such as those mentioned above) will push the possibilities of the body and its figuration; while others (like Alain Resnais, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Stanley Kubrick, Chris Marker, Straub-Huillet or Peter Greenaway) will propose more cerebral constructions. But it is ultimately not, as Deleuze and (after him) Raymond Bellour have made clear, a matter of taking sides, for the body or for the brain. Neither one will ‘save’ the cinema on its own; we need both, integrated, or at least in a dialectical dialogue.

Raymond Bellour has sounded this cautionary note: “If I really had to, I would take de Oliveira over Cassavetes, civilisation and its malaise over the body and its desires. Because the body remains at the heart of civilisation – it can’t help it – but the inverse is not so.”[22] A further, more unitary response comes from the critical, theoretical and historical work of Nicole Brenez: for her, the cinema of body is finally just one more path (among other paths) to the formation of what she calls (after Deleuze) mental images in cinema: a powerful conceptual apparatus that bridges sensation and intellection, the real and the virtual, the intimate and the political.[23]

And it is toward the realm of the mental image, both body and brain, that the cinema of Claire Denis (like that of Chantal Akerman) more and more rides. L’intrus is, to date, the pinnacle of this quest in her work: a philosophy of community, of nations, of ‘multi-ethnic and cross-cultural environments’, of oceanic currents and exchanges (of love, hate, need, money), of the local and the foreign, spins out from this simple but devastating image borrowed from the story of Jean-Luc Nancy – a man with the heart of a stranger in his chest. “What belongs to anybody?” asked Rivette of Daney in Denis’ The Watchman fourteen years earlier. “Outside of our own skin, and even then, are we really sure it belongs to us?” The films of Claire Denis will no doubt continue to plunge us deeper into the questions of what belongs to us – and to what, or to whom, we in turn belong.

Part of this text first appeared, in Spanish translation, in Alvaro Arroba (ed.), Claire Denis: fusion fria (Gijon International Film Festival, 2005), pp. 69-80.

[1]  Giorgio Agamben (trans. K. Attell), The Open: Man and Animal (California: Stanford University Press, 2004), 16.
[2] Saad Chakali, “À corps ouvert(s)”, www.cahiersducinema.com (accessed 22 April 2005, my translation).
[3]Cf. Adrian Martin, “Notorious”, in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Unexplored Hitchcock (London: Cameron & Hollis, forthcoming).
[4] For an in-depth political and cultural discussion of the films, cf. Martine Beugnet, Claire Denis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004); Judith Mayne, Claire Denis (Illinois: Illinois University Press, 2005); and the special issue of Kinoeye (Steven Jay Schneider, ed.), Vol 3 No 7 (2003), “Passion without words: the cinema of Claire Denis”, http://www.kinoeye.org/index_03_07.php.
[5] Henri Tincq, Le monde interview with René Girard (November 2001),http://theol.uibk.ac.at/cover/girard_le_monde_interview.html.
[6] Gilles Deleuze (trans. H. Tomlinson & R. Galeta), Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 189.
[7] Philippe Garrel & Serge Daney, “Dialogue”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/444 (May 1991): 59.
[8] Deleuze, Cinema 2, 189.
[9] Cf. Jean-Luc Nancy (trans. P. Connor), The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
[10] Cf. Maurice Blanchot (trans. P. Joris), The Unavowable Community (New York: Station Hill Press, 1988); Patton & Smith (eds.), Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction Engaged (Sydney: Power Publications, 2001), 93-104.
[11] Bob Dylan, Chronicles, volume one (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 284.
[12] Chakali, “À corps ouvert(s)”.
[13] Cf. Jean Mitry (trans. C. King), The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema (London: Athlone Press, 1998).
[14] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Raging messiah”, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1988): 281.
[15] Alain Bergala, “De l’impureté ontologique des creatures de cinéma”, Trafic, no. 50 (Summer 2004): 23 (my translation).
[16] Cf. Adrian Martin “What’s happening? Story, scene and sound in Hou Hsiao-hsien”, forthcoming in Chen Kuan-Hsing, Wei Ti & Paul Willemen (eds.), Asia’s Hou Hsiao-hsien: Cinema, History and Culture (Singapore University Press).
[17] On the linking and unlinking of filmic elements, cf. Jacques Rancière, “Godard, Hitchcock, and the cinematographic image”, in Michael Temple, James Williams & Michael Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Press, 2004), 214-231.
[18] Cf. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “Reconsidering Asian melodrama”, in Chen, Ti & Wilemen (eds.), Asia’s Hou Hsiao-hsien.
[19] Thierry Kuntzel, “Sight, insight, and power: allegory of a cave”, Camera obscura, no. 6 (1980): 91-110.
[20] Pascal Bonitzer quoted in T.L. French, “La semaine des cahiers”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977): 58.
[21] Deleuze, Cinema 2, 204.
[22]Raymond Bellour, “Letters from and to some children of 1960”, in Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds.), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003), 32.
[23] Cf. Nicole Brenez (trans. A. Martin), Abel Ferrara (Illinois: Illinois University Press, 2007).

Created on: Monday, 27 November 2006 | Last Updated: 1-Dec-06

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is http://www.filmcritic.com.au.View all posts by Adrian Martin →