Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Claire Denis: À propos de Denis

  • Retrospective: April 2–25, 1998
  • Regional Premiere: Nénette et Boni

Parisians in Africa, Africans in rural France, Lithuanians in Paris. Director Claire Denis specializes in displaced characters who transport their cultural rhythms to new environments. In the way that artists mine the global soundscape to make world music, Denis makes world movies.

These include her feature debut, Chocolat (1988), about a French girl growing up in colonial Africa during the 1950s; Man No Run (1989), the saga of a band from Cameroon on a concert tour in France; and her latest, Nenette and Boni (1996), a tale of sibling revelry, rivalry, and unexpected resolution among natives and immigrants to Marseilles.

A petite blond who resembles a university student, Denis looks—and acts—much younger than her 50 years. Her basic-black boho uniform contributes to this impression, of course. But the swathlike stride, the encyclopedic knowledge of happening music, the eyes that absorb everything in sight, complete a picture of youthful enthusiasm.

You might think that her early life as a bureaucratic nomad—her father was a civil servant in Cameroon and Senegal—made Denis uniquely sensitive to new environments, for she hears music that others treat as audio wallpaper and sees ballet in the mundane. Many eat pizza, but few find eroticism in its creation, as Denis does in Nenette and Boni, where pizza-man Boni caresses the dough as though it were the flesh of the woman he loves.

And you might also think that a childhood spent as a culture-jumper made Denis something of an expert in the arbitrariness of geographic borders. Certainly, her movies deal with displacement of the geographical and emotional kind and how citizens of the world transcend political boundaries.

Wary of being romanticized, Denis dismisses such interpretations of her work. “It’s very poetic to imagine that I’m different because I grew up in Africa,” she reflected last year. “But to think that growing up among other cultures made me more aware or more full of compassion is probably not true.”

Denis is a chronicler of explorers who discover new worlds. Is it because her characters are the new kids in town that they have a heightened sensitivity to their environment? Denis conveys this with uncommon lyricism and palpable texture. In a Denis film, landscapes vibrate. Music shimmers. Pastry trembles.

Yet nothing in her movies is as important as her characters, because like all great filmmakers, Denis know that the face is the most erotic and supercharged of images, the window of the heart. Although she does not work with “name” actors, the performers in her films are more memorable than most superstars. They don’t so much act roles as they register their feelings. Like the late François Truffant, she likes working with the same actors again and again, such as Isaach de Bankolé, who was in Chocolat and No Fear, No Die, and Grégoire Colin, who is in U.S. Go Home and Nenette and Boni.

It might be said of Denis that she makes road movies where the destination is the human face.

─Carrie Rickey

Carrie Rickey is a film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has also contributed to a variety of publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Film Comment, The Village Voice, The New York Times, New Woman, and Mademoiselle.

Claire Denis

Photo courtesy of the artist