Coolidge Corner Theatre celebrates an iconic arthouse director in its upcoming series 'Claire Denis: Cinéma Courageux'

"White Material" (2009), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy WhyNotProductions/Photofest)
"White Material" (2009), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy WhyNotProductions/Photofest)

There’s a story about Claire Denis that I never get tired of telling. The legendary director came to the Brattle Theatre a few years back for an early screening of her brain-meltingly violent, sci-fi sex odyssey “High Life,” in which a deranged Juliette Binoche chases Robert Pattinson around a prison ship trying to steal his semen. During the Q&A, the discussion turned, as it often does with Denis, to complaints about a lack of positive female role models in her films. “What the f---?” the exasperated filmmaker asked, “I’m not a social worker.”

For fans of her movies, the moment was quintessential Claire Denis: provocative and unconcerned with politesse. She’s made a brilliant career out of challenging audiences and confounding expectations, defiantly delving into taboos regarding race and sexuality while pushing the language of cinema into ever more mysterious, sometimes even inscrutable, ellipses. At 76 years old, Denis shows no signs of slowing down. Last year she released two movies — the doomy, hothouse melodrama “Both Sides of the Blade” and the dreamily erotic political thriller “Stars at Noon” — both captivating, idiosyncratic pictures with nary a positive role model in sight.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre’s “Claire Denis: Cinéma Courageux” spends three weeks in March showcasing six of the filmmaker’s 15 narrative features. (I kind of wish they’d called it “Claire Denis: Not A Social Worker,” but I guess that will have to wait for a complete retrospective.) The chronological series is bookended by “Chocolat” and “White Material,” the director’s two searing examinations of French colonialism in West Africa, inspired by a childhood spent bouncing around the region at the behest of her father’s job as a government administrator. Denis didn’t move to France until she was 12 years old. She came later to filmmaking than a lot of her peers, working her way up through the crew as an assistant director to Jim Jarmusch on “Down by Law” and Wim Wenders on “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire.” In the book “The Films of Claire Denis,” Wenders said, “Claire was more than ready to make her own films. It would have been a waste to let her continue working as an assistant director.”

"Chocolat" (1988), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy Orion Classics/Photofest.)
"Chocolat" (1988), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy Orion Classics/ Photofest.)

Not to be confused with the dismal Johnny Depp movie of the same name, her 1988 debut “Chocolat” begins with a grown woman returning to a liberated Cameroon. The film flashes back to her girlhood at a colonial outpost in the late 1950s, one perhaps not unlike where the director herself may have lived. What the child witness does not yet understand is the intensity of the attraction between her mother (Giulia Boschi) and their quietly anguished house servant (Denis stock company regular, Isaach De Bankolé). The camera is fixed a little further away than it will come to be in her later pictures, but otherwise, this first feature has all the hallmarks of classic Claire Denis, with forbidden desires sublimated into aggression and her knack for capturing the electric charge of bodies in close proximity. The silent sexual tension is almost unbearable, amplified by the uneasy instability of an empire in decline. As an Englishman in the movie wryly notes, “Someday they’re going to kick us out.”

That day comes in “White Material,” Denis’ 2009 film starring Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country who refuses to evacuate after the French government is ousted by an insurgency. It’s a dizzying disaster movie about denial, with Huppert’s magnetically blank visage put to expert use in refusing to acknowledge how much danger she’s really in. De Bankolé shows up again, this time as a guerilla leader, pointedly more powerful as a symbol than as a person. He also appears in Denis’ seldom-screened, unavailable-to-stream 1990 sophomore effort, “No Fear, No Die.” The one film in this series as yet unseen by me, it reunites Denis with “Wings of Desire” star Solveig Dommartin in a presumably less celestial tale about an underground cock-fighting ring.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy New Yorker Films/ Photofest)
Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy New Yorker Films/ Photofest)

Denis’ most acclaimed film, which recently rocketed to seventh place on the BFI Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time list, “Beau Travail,” is a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” transplanted to modern-day French Foreign Legion maneuvers in Djibouti." The film stars Denis Lavant as a military martinet undone by his shameful longings for a new cadet who represents a sculpted model of masculine perfection. I know there’s dialogue, but I’ll be damned if I can remember any, as the story is almost entirely expressed through physicality and movement. Throbbing with barely-repressed homoeroticism, the movie is a mass of engorged muscles and entwined limbs; desire rerouted through conformity and cruelty in the rhythm of the night.

Naturally, Denis followed her most renowned picture with her most divisive and aggressively off-putting. 2001’s “Trouble Every Day” was a landmark of the New French Extremity movement at the turn of the millennium. Like a lot of those titles, it first came to my attention via VHS tapes a friend liked to send me in the mail back then to try and freak me out. It worked. The film stars Vincent Gallo (who else?) as a physician who spends his honeymoon hunting down a vampire cannibal played by Béatrice Dalle. Moody and atmospheric with a cello-scraping score by Denis’ regular house band, Tindersticks, the movie’s ghastly mastication scenes are pure nightmare fuel — sickeningly eroticized yet weirdly romantic. After all, you only hurt the ones you love.

35 Shots of Rum (2008), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy The Cinema Guild/ Photofest)
35 Shots of Rum (2008), directed by Claire Denis. (Courtesy The Cinema Guild/Photofest)

On a significantly lighter note, my favorite film in the series is “35 Shots of Rum,” the director’s altogether lovely 2008 family drama inspired by Yasujirō Ozu’s “Late Spring.” It stars the regally handsome Alex Descas as a widower living in a Paris apartment with his college-aged daughter (Mati Diop, who went on to direct the wonderful “Atlantics”). Upstairs is a single woman with whom he sometimes spends his evenings, while downstairs lives an orphan, of considerable means, in a flat packed with his parents’ possessions and an obese, elderly cat. These four have formed a de facto family over the years, and the film follows some minor yet life-changing occurrences that will require them to go their separate ways.

There’s a scene midway through that might be the most stunning thing Denis has ever directed. Our quartet is soaked and stranded curbside on a rainy night with a broken-down car. A restaurant closed for the evening takes pity and re-opens for them, and there’s an air of enchantment to these after-hours festivities. The characters begin dancing to the Commodores’ achingly gorgeous elegy “Nightshift,” and wordlessly, during the space of this single song, all of their relationships are forever redefined. The scene is an alchemical combination of gesture, performance and camera movement, a triumph of purely cinematic storytelling that takes your breath away. Claire Denis might not be a social worker, but more filmmakers should see her as a role model.

Claire Denis: Cinéma Courageux” runs at the Coolidge Corner Theatre from Tuesday, March 7 through Wednesday, March 22.


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Sean Burns Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.



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