U.S. Go Home (France, 1993), an hour long contribution to the fabled French television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was one of the great coups of the Pacific Film Archive’s Claire Denis retrospective, as it has become practically impossible to see (legally), particularly on this side of the Atlantic. And it really is a shame that it is so completely unavailable–there’s a sweetness and charm to it that doesn’t really appear elsewhere in her work (the possible exception being Vendredi Soir, though that’s of a much more of an adult fantasy). A wisp of a narrative co-written by Denis and Anne Wiazemsky and featuring Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin as siblings several years before they would do the same in Nénette et Boni, one the surface the film is a rather overfamiliar sexual coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, but it is elevated by the tenderness of its observation. There’s a wonderful, extended sequence early on involving Colin, where, alone his bedroom, a despondent feeling of restlessness slowly gives way to a spontaneous, ebullient catharsis as he tentatively begins to dance to a record of The Animals’s rollicking “Hey Gyp.” Mumbling along with a few English phrases, epileptically keeping time to the beat, it’s the type of private moment usually experienced alone behind locked doors, which makes it all the more remarkable to witness on a screen (also, one can’t help but feel the enigmatic conclusion to Beau Travail starting to germinate here).
The bulk of the film, however, takes place during a boozy, dimly lit house party and the drama takes place in fleeting facial expressions and awkward gestures on an impromptu dance floor in a darkened living room which begins to take on larger mental and emotional dimensions as it becomes a site of initiation into adulthood for Houri in particular. And while I’m not exactly sure what the exact circumstances are that have has made this film so completely unavailable, it wouldn’t surprise me if the soundtrack, which is chock full of English language music from the period (not just The Animals, but Nico, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Prince Buster, among others), poses substantial rights issues. Which is unfortunate, because it really is itself an important rite of passage exercise in Denis’s overall filmmaking trajectory; admirable on its own, but even more impressive when considered within the context of her ever-expanding body of work.
I have no idea where such expectations came from, but I’m rather ashamed to admit now that I went into Chocolat (Claire Denis, France/Cameroon, 1988) thinking it was going to be a rather conventional film, a solid if comparatively unexceptional starting point for one of the most interesting directors working today. And while it admittedly doesn’t quite reach the highest points of her career so far, Chocolat is a debut film of remarkable assurance, and establishes Denis as one of those rare directors whose unmistakable aesthetic appears to have emerged fully formed right from the start.
What is truly remarkable, and what confirms a rather formidable confidence for a first-time director, is how relentlessly distanced the film keeps the viewer from the unfolding narrative–at first this simply seems to be indicative of the limited perspective of childhood, but as the film continues it becomes clear that something more rigorous and exacting is being undertaken: the articulation of a very particular (and extremely nuanced) type of post-colonial perspective where the member of the colonizing class subversively identifies with the colonized subject.
This is exactly what happens to young France (the name serving as a a rather uncharacteristically heavy-handed bit of symbolism), the white French girl whose attachment to her family’s dignified servant (Isaach De Bankolé) ends up superseding any feelings of identification with her parents and the comforts of the bureaucratic class that they so clearly enjoy. This inevitably creates a precarious situation, as France is never able to fully own her privilege as a member of the colonizing class nor is able to assimilate into the colonized position, and instead becomes suspended in a ghost-like state between these two clashing worlds.
As it turns out, of course, the entirety of Denis’s subsequent oeuvre has operated within this type of “in-between” space, and while the specific locales change, the thoughtful dedication in exploring the instability, vulnerability and (occasional) pleasures and insights these places afford–both of a physical and psychic type–do not. It is also interesting to note that throughout her career Denis has cinematically returned to Africa with almost an perfect symmetry–Chocolat in 1988, Beau Travail in 1999 and White Material in 2009, itself a fascinating repetition that itself deserves a thoughtful analysis. I hate to admit that my students almost universally disliked it–“it just didn’t go anywhere” became the common refrain–but nearly all grudgingly had to admit there were moments and sequences of remarkable power and resonance. And for me, it was a hypnotic film experience.
As I mentioned in last week’s thread, Jdidaco’s thoughts on Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (Claire Denis, France, 2002) made me want to go home after work and cuddle up with the film—and that’s exactly what I did, staying up half of the night to do so. It’s a particular favorite of mine—always floating somewhere just outside of my top ten—but it had been several years since I’d last seen it. It’s always a bit unnerving revisiting a favorite as there’s the risk that the previous magic has disappeared, but I’m happy to report I still think it is just as wonderful as ever, and even threw me a few surprises along the way (the story is told in a linear, relatively straightforward manner, but the way Denis often moves to the next sequence can be rather bewildering—one feels unmoored, dislodged from linear time for a few moments until we are given a few visual clues and things settles down again).
What’s so special about the film is in the way the central midnight encounter feels so spontaneous and yet so inevitable, and Claire Denis is a magician of sorts in the way she captures each moment as it unfolds—it’s at once both vibrantly real and as intangible as a hallucination. Once while discussing this film Ali invoked Queen Christina’s room and I had that in the back of my head throughout the entire film, but it struck me that idea doesn’t just apply literally to the shadowy, probably shabby hotel room itself; rather, the entire night is Christina’s room, with the gaze Denis and Agnés Godard’s camera lingering on images in the way that mimics the way the human mind processes information, i.e. a bit longer than what is necessary to establish ones placement in space, but not long enough where one is actively observing—it’s just that extra split second where the mind takes a mental snapshot and a memory begins to form. Combine all this with Denis and Godard’s virtually unparalleled ability in capturing a kind of radiance in even the most mundane of objects—human skin, a red blanket, a dusty dashboard, hell, even a condom dispenser—and you have one of the most alive films I’ve ever encountered. And as a bonus, it’s all so soft, almost amorphous that each time I return it feels like I’m witnessing it for the first time all over again… For my money, one of THE great achievements of modern cinema.
I was taken completely by surprise in the way that I responded to Les amants (The Lovers) (Louis Malle, France, 1958), simply because I can’t remember the last time it happened: I had a genuine moral response to the actions of Jeanne Moreau’s character (who, rather confusingly, is also named Jeanne). As she kissed and gently rearranged the sheets over her sleeping daughter before being led to bed by her latest boytoy, I was shocked to find myself outraged that the film was asking the audience to so blithely support Jeanne’s decision to walk away from her parental responsibilities.
Only in retrospect did my opinion take on more nuance: finally it dawned on me how I occupy a very different historical moment, the child of the ideology behind a film like Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, where of course a night of blissful sexual satisfaction can be had and savored and guiltlessly walked away from, aware it will serve as a particularly vibrant memory to help get through the more mundane patches of the everyday life that must necessarily be returned to. It was only then that the ramifications of Jeanne’s actions come painfully into focus, namely the truly great sacrifice and risk involved in her sexual decisions, all the more acute given her (and the film’s) obvious awareness that the new life she embarks on could very well turn out to be as dull and stifling as the one she is so desperately fleeing from.
This reality serves to rupture the glassy, impeccable sheen of Malle’s shimmery black and white visuals, which for the first half of the film I was afraid was going to turn out as aesthetically impressive but emotionally cold as L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). With one overwhelming exception: the several minutes spent on the carnival ride—has emotional and sexual euphoria ever been so economically but buoyantly depicted? It seems so obvious, but watching it it’s one of those stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks sequences stumbled upon only once in a great while. Ultimately, I walked away impressed and more than a bit piqued—multiple viewings seem in order to dissect the onion-like layers lurking beneath this seemingly simplistic story…
Memories of a movie…
You know when you keep chipping at a review and it just never seems to live up to your visions of it? This is one of those, and unfortunately this film deserves much, more more than what I have been able to come up with.
Of all of the festival films I have seen in the last months, it was while experiencing (and yes, I very deliberately avoided the word “watching”) Nina Menkes’s Phantom Love (USA, 2007) at the San Diego Film Festival that I most wished the director was present, preferably sitting next to me, allowing me to ask endless questions. Was that Alain Resnais there in the extended, unflinching opening shot? Because there once again, in luminous black and white, it has been confirmed that whole worlds can be discovered in the sweat droplets that form on a human back during the sexual act… And there, in the sensuous, smoky sleaze of a Koreatown casino, isn’t that the presence of Wong Kar-Wai lingering somewhere just off-frame?
But even though the first reaction while watching Menkes’s film is to connect dots—many claim David Lynch but I’m tempted to proclaim the film the love child of Claire Denis’s image-driven reveries and the jagged, esoteric symbolism of Maya Deren—when the film had concluded I was convinced that I had just been blindsided by an uncompromising, completely unique cinematic talent. Considering that the film floats along on dream logic it’s futile to try and pick out a coherent narrative—I finally just had to give up trying—instead acquiescing to each visually striking sequence which appear one after another after another, all leading deeper and deeper into different states of consciousness. But there’s nothing resembling incoherence anywhere: like Deren in early works like Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land there’s the vague impression that an overriding presence is at work somewhere behind the celluloid curtain, hinting at a story, a scrap of narrative somewhere there, always on the verge of breaking out. Phantom Love brings to mind Shakespeare—“in that sleep of death what dreams may come”—and coming from Menkes, what dreams indeed!
(All images taken from the Phantom Love MySpace page.)