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Sensuous. Challenging, Mysterious. Dark. Maddening: Le Cinema of Claire Denis

Sensuous. Challenging, Mysterious. Dark. Maddening. Just a few words that have been used to describe the cinema of Claire Denis. Her work is being illustriously shown in the retrospective ‘Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis‘ by TIFF Cinematheque this October.

Grasping for a word to capture her early work, notably Chocolat and I Can’t Sleep, this word would undoubtedly be spellbinding. In Chocolat, Denis’ poised directorial debut, a secondary character notes that the house where most of the proceedings occur has a spell on it, and the same can be said of the film’s bewitched viewers. In this personal and semi-autobiographical work, the film explores themes of colonialism, family relations, and conscious isolation and distance (exhibited in the characters’ relationships to one another, within themselves, and geographically on a much more monumental scale). These themes are oft explored in Denis’ early filmography, and recur in her later White Material.

Her films often make the viewer feel under a hypnotic state, lulled into a stupefying trance. This is the same feeling one procures from watching the waves that Denis often shows her actors lying in at the beginning of her early films. As the characters let the water wash over them, so too does the individual viewer luxuriate in these powerful films of Denis as they cooly wash over them, basking in the sensory flourishes of ambience.

One observes splashes of the works of Makavejev, Wenders, Rivette and Jarmusch, all of whose tutelage she apprenticed under in her early filmmaking days. However to call her derivative would simplify and even denigrate her accomplishments as a unique masterful auteur in her own right. She has taken the spectrum of genres (from horror in Trouble Every Day to one may even say romantic comedy in Friday Night to revenge thriller in her most recent digital work Bastards) and made each film uniquely her own. One can immediately identify a film as uniquely Denis, not only due to her longterm collaborations with actors Vincent Lindon, Beatrice Dalle, and Michel Subor (just to name a few), renowned cinematographer Agnes Godard and the exalted UK band Tindersticks, but primarily due to the beautiful realism each film captures magnetically.

Denis often eroticizes the backs of each of her lead actors, as if telling the viewer to gaze upon aspects of the body and, in turn, to meditate on a world that one would not customarily glance at. Perhaps. One cannot truly say, because each cineaste takes away something very different and subjective from her films. A cynic may note that Denis advocates for the selfishly independent and greedy without any determinable cause. This is seen most prominently in the character of Daiga in I Can’t Sleep, a character of which Hugo’s Thenardiers would be proud. Perhaps this symbolizes Denis’ personal worldview. Perhaps.

The viewer observes and inhibits each of Denis’ films vastly differently, much like the most noted classic works of art. In every one of her films there is an inevitable scene where the lead characters are dancing unhindered and unconsciously to rhythmic diegetic music. To experience a dance with Denis’ films is an unbridled joy worth beholding. The Cinema of Claire Denis runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from October 10-November 11. Bastards (Denis’ first foray in the use of digital) opens on October 11th. TIFF will be receiving the filmmaker for an introduction and Q&A on Friday October 18th at 6:30pm. The day before, Denis will be joined by actress Mati Diop (of 35 Shots of Rum and Simon Killer fame (view our interview) to present the Carte Blanche selection of Diop’s short A Thousand Suns and Djibril Diop Mambety’s acclaimed Touki-Bouki, gloriously restored in 35mm.

Leora Heilbronn is a Toronto-based writer. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Volver), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Dardennes (Lorna's Silence), Haneke (The Piano Teacher), Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times), Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds), Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), von Trier (Melancholia)

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