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The Perfect and Perfectly Inexplicable Genius of Claire Denis

On the work of the French filmmaker as she releases her most high-profile film yet, the beguiling, Robert Pattinson–starring sci-fi story ‘High Life’

Getty Images/A24/Ringer illustration

Lionel, a middle-aged man, is dancing closely with his friendly neighbor Gabrielle in a restaurant; his daughter, Joséphine, is watching him and smiles back, shyly. Noé, their neighbor, is hanging around Joséphine but she won’t dance with him. Lionel soons gets her on the dance floor, however, and after a few steps with dad, the teenage girl finally lets Noé dance with her. A father watches anxiously as his child becomes a woman. Joséphine pulls away after kissing Noé, but keeps him near her. Amazingly, her difficult step forward and away from the protective arms of her father seems to push Lionel too: He tenderly grabs the hand of a waitress and dances sensually with her, to Gabrielle’s chagrin. Together, both father and daughter learn to grow apart and let their curiosity guide them through the unknown.

Writing about movies can feel clumsy. If a director could have put a feeling into words, maybe she would have invested a few bucks on paper and a pencil, instead of spending millions on cameras, actors, and crew to craft images that most people may not understand or even see. Often, reading or writing about the work of French art filmmaker Claire Denis makes me consider these questions of language, written and otherwise. How do you communicate, with words, the beauty of the delicate dance of attraction, fear, shame, courage, and thrill in this scene from her 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum? The first paragraph of this piece was me trying my best. Perhaps the point of film writing, especially in Denis’s case, is simply to offer an introduction for unfamiliar viewers—to appeal to their curiosity and hint at the greatness waiting to be found.

Denis is 72 years old with three decades of work to her name, yet she is only now receiving mainstream attention, with the most-extensive-ever U.S. retrospective of her work showing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music until April 9, and a series at London’s British Film Institute later this year. Her first English-language film is being released this week via the influential distributor A24, which has made hits out of challenging, stylish films like Good Time and Moonlight. It features Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André “3000” Benjamin. High Life—cowritten with Denis’s frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox—is a movie about space travel, and thus Denis’s first foray into the science-fiction genre. The reactions at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered, were a good omen: Some people loved it (like me), others walked out, and many were baffled (again, like me). It seems every serious director tries her hand at the space movie: Some come out with a 2001: A Space Odyssey, others with a First Man. High Life—a movie about the last man—echoes 2001 in places but is unique; like Kubrick’s film, as well as 35 Shots of Rum, it often defies spoken language. You wouldn’t get much out of High Life from its bewildering plot synopsis: The film is the story of Monte (Pattinson), a convict raising an infant daughter light years from Earth. Just as the key to Kubrick’s classic is the machine HAL 9000, but also modernity at large, which has been guiding our evolution from bone-throwing apes to space travelers, in High Life and all of Denis’s work, it is the body. If Kubrick was the ruthless mechanic of man’s unrelenting automation, Denis is the attentive doctor focusing on where the machine is straining our muscles and our spirits.

Looking at how Denis pays attention to the human form—how it absorbs or suffers the blows of the world—opens up her films to understanding. Already in her Palme d’Or–nominated debut feature, Chocolat (1988), which she directed at 41 years old after a decade shadowing auteurs like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch as an assistant director, people’s gestures tell the real story—the one that impacts the viewer most, right in the heart. France (Mireille Perrier) is a French woman returning to liberated Cameroon, where she grew up in a colonial outpost—much like Denis, whose father was a colonial administrator. The core of the film presents her childhood there, during which her only friend was Protée (frequent Denis collaborator Isaach De Bankolé), who worked for her family as a servant. A serious man, Protée calmly obeys his employers, particularly France’s mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi), who takes care of the house while her husband (François Cluzet) is away. Yet the tension boiling below the surface of this mutual respect and understanding can’t help but emerge. Protée stands tall and doesn’t speak much, as though in quiet defiance, and when white people order him around, his composure reigns supreme. He is so certain of the impossibility to change these people’s minds that he won’t even try. He is also convinced that no relationship between him and a colonizer like Aimée (a name that translates to ‘beloved’ in French) could ever make any sense. When Aimée, sitting on her bedroom floor one night, softly grabs his leg in yearning, Protée suddenly carries her up by her shoulders and gets her to stand, stares into her eyes like a father admonishing his disobedient child, and walks out. Without a word, he has exposed the hypocrisy of her desire; he has no choice but to give her his labor, but he won’t give up his soul.

Putting words in such an eloquent scene would cheapen it: Were Protée to speak, his gesture and Aimée’s reaction would be robbed of their evocative power. In Protée’s barely contained resentment, one can see his exasperation with the virus of colonialism infecting every interaction. But in his tight grasp, his affection for Aimée shows too. He doesn’t just reject her; he wants her to understand why. She is stunned by his boldness, but also by his consideration.

Denis’s thoughtful reluctance to put words in her characters’ mouths plays out near the end of her second feature, No Fear, No Die (1990). Jocelyn (Alex Descas, another Denis favorite), who has come from Benin to France to earn money from illegal cockfighting matches, finally snaps at the racist treatment of his ex-stepfather and now employer, Pierre Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy). He jumps into the ring where his rooster is about to lose a bloody battle, takes the animal in his arms, and starts behaving like an aggressive rooster himself, jumping around and menacing the audience with the bird’s small ankle blade. The effect is both embarrassing and captivating—you want to look away, but you can’t stop watching. This is what it feels like when unspoken injustice is finally expressed—when a taboo is addressed at last. It’s uncomfortable and liberating at the same time.

Taboo is Denis’s favorite target—it’s the first word spoken in High Life—which explains why she employs bodies and their movement as cinematic language. Words are too finite and blunt to go to these places that we keep buried but are always fully aware of. In Chocolat, she shows how living under (post)colonialism requires a degree of denial of (past) divisions —a topic she directly revisits in White Material (2009), where Isabelle Huppert plays a white woman stubbornly fighting to keep her coffee plantation despite the evidently growing hostility of the locals amid armed conflict. Similarly in No Fear, No Die, racism comes in the form of hypocrisy. In her third feature, I Can’t Sleep (1994)—her entry into the multiple-connected-destinies genre banalized into babble by Babel—Denis tackles the vague but omnipresent illusion that society is a haven of security. Safety and danger take different forms for each character. Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva), a beautiful young Lithuanian woman, hides from a stalker in a cinema, buying a ticket to whatever is playing. The film turns out to be a ludicrous softcore movie. Surrounded by prying middle-aged cinemagoers, Daiga suddenly bursts out laughing, making all the men turn their gaze away from her in embarrassment. Her uncontrollable laugh is a form of soft protest through the body, a defense mechanism by her lungs against their stiflement.

Like misogyny itself, all the forced silences that Denis explores are degenerated products of society’s arbitrary regulation of its peoples. Each taboo is evidence that the system is sick. In Nénette and Boni (1996), the young Boni (Grégoire Colin) writes gross poetry about how much he wishes to sleep with and even rape the local boulangère, the words nevertheless offering no relief from this urge. The boulangère caters to others’ needs and has lead Boni to expect more from her—a motif that returns in Denis’s horror masterpiece Trouble Every Day, where a hotel maid appears as a path to sexual release to the frustrated Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo), and in 35 Shots of Rum with the alluring waitress that Lionel hits on. But when Boni has coffee with the boulangère (played with perfect awkward enthusiasm by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), he can’t say a word, and she finds herself talking painstakingly about pheromones, the particles that explain sexual attraction across species. Language once again proves a poor communication tool, especially to discuss the chemical work of the body. The irony is delicious and helps Boni see the boulangère as a person equally as confused as he is about the possibility of connection across societal boundaries.

It is therefore interesting that Denis’s film following Nénette and Boni (perhaps her most beloved by cinephiles) should have voice-over narration. Beau Travail, undeniably one of the greatest movies from 1999 (whether the Ringer staff agrees or not) follows Galoup (Denis Lavant), a French Foreign Legion officer recounting his time in an obsolete outpost in Djibouti, where he was content to follow his routine of training until a new young recruit called Sentain (Colin) arrived and stirred feelings of jealousy in him (the plot is loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.) Despite Galoup’s poetic ramblings and Lavant’s brilliant delivery, I couldn’t tell you a single word he utters. That’s because Denis’s achievement here was a departure: She found the truth about Galoup’s loss of identity in the interstitial space between his useless words and the troop’s equally beautiful but superfluous bodies. Since even his movements have been stolen from him by the army, first through training, then combat and now aimless routine, Galoup struggles for most of the film to employ his body to express himself and his frustrations. Words become necessary, however unsatisfactory they may remain; yet to share them with his fellow soldiers would destroy the world he has come to feel safe within. He can’t break the taboo of the military’s pointless, anachronistic alien presence in this foreign and liberated land.

Denis’s careful, even erotic attention to the toned and tanned bodies of the soldiers in Beau Travail lets the audience experience them vicariously. She goes even further in what I’ll call her “sex films,” for what is more taboo and difficult to describe than sex and all the little negotiations it involves? In Trouble Every Day, Shane can’t have sex with the woman he has just married for the same reason that Léo (Descas) keeps his wife, Coré (Béatrice Dalle), locked in her room: The newlywed and the prisoner have been infected with a virus that makes them crave human blood, especially so when sexually aroused. I remember vividly sitting in my university’s classroom and closing my eyes and ears as best as I could while the lecturer played a clip from the film, when Coré has sex with and then devours a young man. The very thought of this betrayal of trust—first, the trust that the other person would never bite into your flesh under any circumstances, and secondly, that they won’t hurt you during sex—was and remains almost unbearable to me. The brutal ending of the film, however, left me more sad than repulsed, entwining terror with disillusionment. With her focus on amorous bodies transgressing the fine line between pleasure and pain, Denis highlights the fragility of trust essential to consensual sex.

Denis’s follow-up to Trouble Every Day seems to aim at restoring spectators’ faith in the possibilities offered by sex—and succeeds. Friday Night (2002) is the Claire Denis film with the simplest, plot: Laure (Valérie Lemercier) has a tender one-night stand with Jean (the ever-sexy and manly Vincent Lindon), a stranger she meets during a traffic jam, the night before she is to move in with her fiancé. Simple, but Denis’s complete devotion to the free sensations of these characters makes it one of my favorites films ever. The camera—handled by Denis’s frequent genius cinematographer Agnès Godard—captures headlights reflecting off of immobile cars, the hands waiting to be held, the cigarettes hanging from mouths, and the skin longing to be touched. Laure’s life won’t be changed by the brief encounter, but she has let herself chase the forbidden and the risky one final time, before coming into the fold of respectable society on Saturday morning.

Denis forever remains undecided about her outlook on sex, however. It’s not a spoiler to say that High Life has its fair share of bad sex; her two films preceding this one did too, albeit to different degrees. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Bastards (2013) is Denis’s version of a gritty neo-noir à la Chinatown. If the intricate plot makes Denis occasionally lose some of her trademark ambiguity, she compensates with her attention to the human side of the story—the casualness of attraction, whether of the twisted type between a daughter and her deranged father, or more innocent, as when our antihero Marco (Lindon) fixes the bike of Raphaëlle’s (Chiara Mastroianni) son, and her eyes settle on his muscular back beneath his crisp shirt. Many collaborators of Denis describe her relationships with actors as romantic, and the way she has filmed Lindon’s strong hands both here and in Friday Night is a case in point. Her vision of Juliette Binoche in her superb sort-of romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In (2017), too, is loving. Binoche plays Isabelle, a divorced, middle-aged painter jumping from disappointing relationship to disappointing relationship. But Isabelle rejects loneliness and doesn’t give up on her romantic dreams. She strives to understand the men she meets and herself: Even as she embraces the sensations of love, she also confronts her lovers with words. Given her interests, it makes perfect sense that Denis would try to loosely adapt Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a text about the unspoken gestures and indescribable feelings that a person in the thralls of passion experiences. Agnès Godard’s camera sways between Isabelle and her interlocutor, as though their conversation were a perilous high-wire walk that the woman was undertaking, and she could fall into disappointment at the first wrong turn of phrase (in the opening scene, tender sex ends in tears because the man starts criticizing Isabelle’s performance). Words are never satisfying—until they are openly ambiguous, in the film’s hilarious, hopeful yet open-ended final scene.

If Let the Sunshine In is about a lonely person dreaming and Denis’s most straightforward film, her 2004 feature The Intruder is a dream about a lonely person, and her most baffling effort; it divided critics, although some believe it to be her masterpiece. Based on an autobiographical novel by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the film follows—but fleetingly—Louis Trebor (Michel Subor, another Denis favorite), a 50-something man who buys himself a heart transplant on the black market and embarks on a trip to find his long lost son, passing through Switzerland, Korea, and Tahiti, although in what order remains hard to figure out due to a boldly achronological structure. Denis paints solitude in wide landscapes, which are beautiful but feel empty because Louis’s heart has been vacant for so long. Absent from his own life, he only skips through it, people seeming distant and interchangeable. Dialogue is sparse because this tough man’s sad existence is too depressing for words—the taboo of a life badly lived and perhaps unsalvageable. In the film’s most transcendent scene, Louis’s other son, Sidney (Colin), stares into the wide eyes of his baby son for what feels like an eternity, trying perhaps to consolidate their connection—to avoid the break that his own father never tried to prevent between them.

It is through her portrayal of children that Denis locates a way out of the suffocating grip of society’s taboos. In Chocolat, it was the perspective of a child that offered a clear look at the awkward silences between colonizer and colonized. Nénette and Boni are both on the cusp of adulthood, but still not fitted to society’s mold. Denis’s attention to the baby girl Willow in High Life recalls The Intruder, but also her close-up on Lola Créton’s face in Bastards, as the young woman walks a dark street fully naked in stiletto heels, clearly traumatized by what is later revealed to be a quasi-incestuous encounter; these children are vulnerable, but also uncritical observers of the world around them. By focusing on children—even adult children like Joséphine in 35 Shots of Rum, so closely yoked to her father—Denis asks us to take off the lenses that adult life in the modern world has forced us to wear.

It’s an injustice therefore that Denis doesn’t get mentioned in discussions of the coming-of-age genre, especially with its current resurgence (see Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, and soon Booksmart, to cite just a few). Her contributions may have been few, but they are among the best. U.S. Go Home, Denis’s TV film from 1994, is for me the greatest example of the coming-of-age genre because of how it doubles down on tactility and instinct. Martine (Alice Houri, also in Nénette and Boni) and Marlène (Jessica Tharaud) are two teenage girls in 1960s France eager to grow up and lose their virginity; they end up at a dance party for older young people where couples have sex. What ensues is far more puzzling and realistic than you’d expect: Martine negotiates her desires against the sensations she feels and realizes how much more complicated—and fulfilling—it is to find a good partner.

It isn’t a coincidence that both of these coming-of-age films have music at their center. For Denis, dance is a special form of release, allowing even adults to let go of the need for rules and even meaning. Dancing is a way to connect to others, but first and foremost to oneself—to finally let one’s body move freely in order to express one’s true feelings. Galoup in Beau Travail liberates himself from pointless words and calculated movements in only the film’s indelible final scene (which some perceive as a dream or a metaphor for the freedom he found in death): In a deserted nightclub, Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” is playing, and Galoup, seen in full length, starts dancing in a trance, rolling over the walls and the floor in spasms. Jocelyn in No Fear, No Die slow-dances with his beloved rooster to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” when he starts losing faith in the purpose of the cockfights. Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In also finds a similar freedom—from her search for love—when she sways alone to Etta James’s “At Last,” until a stranger joins her in an ecstasy of pure instinctual connection.

It remains frustrating to try to write about movies, especially Claire Denis’s, but perhaps that’s OK. None of her characters can get rid of the taboos that tie their tongues and tighten their muscles. But they dance anyway, and each momentary release brings them back to themselves—and how lucky we are for getting to look on, feeling their chills in our own bones.