Though she didn’t become an established director until the age of 40, Claire Denis quickly solidified her status as one of France’s most important contemporary auteurs. Her films are known for their combination of shocking realism and sparsely gorgeous stylistics, treating postcolonial themes of estrangement, immigration, violence, and the exploitation of those living on French society’s margins. Having grown up in French colonial Africa, she brings an authentic outsider’s perspective to the realities of postcolonial France, fleshing out their complexities through a unique and subtle visual style.
Denis enrolled at the IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques) and afterward worked as an assistant director to Robert Enrico, Costa-Gavras, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch. It was Wenders, who had worked with Denis on Wings of Desire, who urged her to embark on her own film career. Her debut feature, Chocolat (1988), is filtered through her childhood memories of growing up in Cameroon and of the illicit passion that developed between her mother and their Cameroonian houseboy Protée. A minimalist melodrama about the realities of racism and class division in colonial Africa, Chocolat is impressive for its authenticity, its visual sensibility, and the tension it creates between the gaze of the older Denis, as she revisits her roots, and the gaze of Denis as a young girl, always hovering on the edge of the frame.
The following year, Denis tried her hand at documentary filmmaking, tracing the rise to popularity of the Cameroonian band Les Têtes Brûlées and the origins and history of Bikutsi music. Following this success, her third film ventured into a more daring and uncomfortable subject: the brutal struggle for survival among Paris’s clandestine immigrant community. No Fear, No Die (1990) follows two men from the Caribbean, Jocelyn and Dah, who organize illegal cockfights in the Parisian suburbs – Dah developing a strong emotional bond with one of the champion roosters, whom he nicknames “No Fear, No Die.” The stripped-down visuals give it a quasi-documentary feel, and with most of the scenes shot in the restaurant basement where the cockfights take place, Denis evokes a dense atmosphere of darkness, precarity and inescapability, underscoring her characters’ degrading condition by having them identify with the roosters they send into the ring to die.
If mood and visuals are perfect mirrors of each other in No Fear, No Die, the opposite can be said of Denis’s equally stunning film, Beau Travail (1999), where the glimmering beach of Dijouti is belied by dark undercurrents and violent homoerotic tensions among a group of French Foreign Legion officials. Denis is known for foregrounding physicality in her films, and Beau Travail epitomizes her instinct for using cinema to capture the body in movement, filming scenes of the Legion officials training on the beach, their sun-bleached choreography nearly hypnotic. Alongside Denis Lavant, Beau Travail stars Michel Subor, the same actor in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat who plays a deserter of the Legion, making it an interesting sequel to Godard’s highly censored film about the violence and disturbing moral ambiguities lurking beneath France’s colonial mission.
In White Material (2010), Denis returned to shoot in her native Cameroon, though the story itself is set in an unnamed African country during the postcolonial period. In the midst of an escalating civil war and attacks on ex-colonists, coffee planter Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), refuses to depart, though the rest of the pied noir community has already fled. White Material is one of Denis’s most complex works, its atmosphere of doom fueled by Maria’s almost delusional defiance vis-à-vis the country’s political realities. Her blind and reckless obstinacy is a clear allegory for the mentality of colonial France as its empire was beginning to collapse, while the plot itself is a commentary on the nihilism and absurdity into which all political violence degenerates.
Given her engagement with bleak, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking subject matter, it seems odd that Denis’s latest film, Let the Sunshine In (2017), is an offbeat rom-com starring Juliette Binoche, who plays Isabelle, a divorced painter holding out hope for true love as she self-destructively dates and separates with a series of hopeless or narcissistic men. As in all of her work, Denis never allows her heroine to play the victim, and Let the Sunshine In seems, more than anything, to be an examination of how Isabelle avoids responsibility for her happiness through repeated attempts at romantic escape. Based on Roland Barthes’ intellectual compilation A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), Denis takes his material and makes it relatable without ever simplifying its themes. Quietly complex is the best way to describe the cinema of Claire Denis.