Now well-established in her career, French director Claire Denis is heralded as one of the most important working filmmakers. And rightly so. She’s bowed at all the major festivals, has been the focus of countless retrospectives (her third at TIFF launches Friday) and the subject of books and academic essays. When it comes to the latter, it’s easy to understand the allure of talking about Denis through an “intellectual” lens: Her films engage with philosophy and, frequently, postcolonial theory. But what makes them resonate is not necessarily their ideas, but the feelings they evoke.
Born in Paris, Denis spent her formative years in the African countries of Burkina Faso, known as Upper Volta until the 1980s, Cameroon, Senegal and what was then known as French Somaliland, as her father was a colonial administrator. Given this, it’s not all that surprising that her work is saturated with racial and sexual politics. Take her 1988 debut that premiered in Cannes, Chocolat, which is read as semi-autobiographical: A young French woman returns to Cameroon and encounters a black father and son, which sparks her memories of growing up in the West African country and her relationship with her family’s “servant,” Protée (Isaach De Bankolé, who would go on to regularly collaborate with Denis).
The film’s frankness in showing how the racial and sexual power structures created by Western imperialism are instilled through colonialism go further than many French films made by white directors. Which isn’t to laud Denis for tackling the topic – when it comes to addressing this, the bar in French cinema and society remains shockingly low – but rather point to how, since her start, Denis’s work has been linked to postcolonialist theory. Two years later, her follow-up feature, No Fear, No Die, was inspired by Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Here De Bankolé returns and is joined by Denis’s other long-time collaborator, Alex Descas, playing new immigrants navigating the banlieues of a Paris that is hostile to them because of the colour of their skin.
The irony of pushing back against academic readings of Denis is that she engages with them herself. She made a short (Vers Nancy) inspired by the work of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and her 2004 feature L’intrus was also inspired by his autobiography. Her first foray into the romantic comedy, 2017′s Let the Sunshine In is based on semiotician Roland Barthes’s treatise A Lover’s Discourse. Here, Juliette Binoche plays a woman trapped in the circularity of romantic longing, and the tragic comedy comes from her (and more broadly all of our) inability to break the cycle being unable to define it.
This limit of language is a fitting subject for Denis, as when it comes to talking about her films, the plot – what actually happens in a Denis movie – doesn’t matter. It’s how she gets to the end, often through employing an elliptical narrative form, dreamy scores (she has worked frequently with British alt-rock band Tindersticks) and disorienting close-ups. The politics, or even philosophy, aren’t laid bare so much as form, so that by the end of the film there’s an accumulation of realization that lingers, stubborn in its reluctance to explain itself.
Take 1999′s Beau Travail, her best-known film, which is about the ambiguous longing between two men in a French Foreign Legion unit based in Djibouti. Considered to be her breakthrough, the film is heralded for its camera work (shot by Denis’s go-to cinematographer Agnès Godard) and the style has been universally called visionary. But the power of this film lies in the feeling after the credits roll. The worlds Denis depicts – from colonial-era Cameroon to the sci-fi horrorscape in space in her recent English-language debut High Life – force us to contemplate through feeling how we live in relation to power structures that we seek to sublimate. Desire, in the world of Denis, isn’t above interrogation, but exactly the site we need to be digging into, because of the discomfort it creates.
Current critical discourse demands having answers and authority immediately, which explains why so many push against this postscreening moment of uncertainty and discomfort. But this sensation is also a fact of life: We never can know everything. It’s this state that Denis seeks to work in: the moment when you’re asked to situate your life in relation to the reflection of the world onscreen and pause to see how you’re implicated in it. It’s easy to dive into an academic explanation of why and how, but harder to sit with a feeling. When we do, however, we’re far richer for it.
Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis runs March 8 to 31 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.
Kiva Reardon is the founder of film and feminism journal cléo, and a programmer for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.