Claire Denis marches to the beat of her own drum. That’s a claim every filmmaker makes, whether overtly or implicitly, but the French director behind Chocolat, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, White Material and Bastards has spent her entire career putting it into practice.
Indeed, while her filmography speaks volumes about defying categorisation and carving out one’s own path — both in each feature’s individual narrative and in their combined existence as an eclectic whole — it’s her actions that positively scream with evidence of her trailblazing nature. In her case, chasing her dreams in her own way first involved seeking out experience with others at the top of their game, working as an assistant director on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. Then, at the age of 42, she made her feature debut with Chocolat, which drew upon her own childhood in French colonial Africa in a distinctive and inimitable way.
From there, Denis has flit between genres with ease, never losing the ability to surprise. Her latest effort, the Juliette Binoche-starring Let the Sunshine In, sees her step into rom-com terrain, following a fiftysomething divorcee’s romantic entanglements. Next up: a jaunt into space in sci-fi film High Life, with Binoche again plus Robert Pattinson.
Before you watch Vice’s dive into Denis’s work, we run through the intriguing filmmaker's career.
The Denis essentials
When Isabelle Huppert talks about Claire Denis, her words paint an evocative picture. “She has a secret, a kind of enigma, which she reveals a bit with each film,” the White Material star offers. About Denis’s noted fascination with the darker side of human nature — whether exploring the effects of colonialism, the savagery of love or the complications of revenge — the actress explains: "She’s drawn to the more troubling, incomprehensible aspects of being a human being.”
It’s a description that has proved to be true since Denis’s 1988 debut, Chocolat, and has echoed louder with each subsequent effort. When she isn’t taking inspiration from her own life to dissect prejudice and its continuing presence, she’s stripping military machismo down to its physical elements in Beau Travail or turning the bliss of new nuptials into a carnivorous frenzy in Trouble Every Day. Across genres and narratives, Denis is drawn to the motivations that drive us — including, as seen in Bastards’ film noir revenge thriller, confronting situations and the complicated responses they inspire. From 35 Shots of Rum’s exploration of immigrants in Paris to White Material’s clinging tale of a coffee plantation owner refusing to leave her home during civil war, hers is a filmography concerned with identity in its many forms, what shapes it and what we do to preserve it.
Perhaps that’s why Denis’s most recent feature, the Cannes Directors Fortnight winner Let the Sunshine In, strikes such a chord. While its lighter tone makes it seem a departure from her previous efforts, the film both epitomises her chameleonic handling of styles and proves the natural next step in a career that has always refused to meet expectations. As newly divorced artist Isabelle, Juliette Binoche flirts — with many a man, with the role she’s supposed to play in her new romantic situation, and with discovering who she wants to be through sex, dating and soul-searching. The result is rich, complex, multifaceted and cannot be constrained, like Denis and her career, of course.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Despite her widespread acclaim as one of France’s most important filmmaking voices, she has only received one nomination from the Césars, the country’s cinema awards. In 1989, she was nominated for Best Debut for Chocolat.
- Also on Denis’s resume is 1990 French TV documentary Jacques Rivette, le veilleur, about the legendary filmmaker.
- Fond of recurring collaborations, Denis has worked with Tindersticks on the scores for seven of her films, while cinematographer Agnès Godard has shot nine of them.
Five films you really need to see
Chocolat: Starting with what she knows, Denis’s debut walks through French colonial Africa with an eye for its striking sights and an understanding of the unspoken struggle that lingers in its midst.
Beau Travail: A ballet of bodies in the most unexpected and exceptional way, Beau Travail turned its military-set tale into an operatic exploration of machismo, complete with a memorable instance of Corona’s "The Rhythm of the Night".
Trouble Every Day: Blood splatter is just the beginning in this smart cannibalistic love story, which proved Denis’s talents in erotic horror, while reportedly also inspiring fainting among the audience at Cannes.
White Material: Under Denis’s direction, Isabelle Huppert is at her reliable — but still astonishing — best as the director journeys back to Africa for a tale of internal and external conflict.
Let the Sunshine In: Denis’s latest film, and her lightest, offers the closest she might ever come to a romantic comedy, following the busy love life of Juliette Binoche’s divorcee artist.
Who’s sharing the Denis love?
Claire Denis: “The first film is something terrifying, but yet you cannot be defeated. You’re so strong in the first film,” offers the filmmaker herself, as she chats about her career.
Olivier Assayas: Asked to pick his favourite films for Criterion, the Irma Vep, Summer Hours and Personal Shopper director selected Denis’s White Material in third spot.
Isabelle Huppert: The acclaimed French actress starred in Denis’s White Material, playing a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country during a civil war.
William Nadylam: Another White Material alum, the French actor will next be seen in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Kim Gordon: The Sonic Youth bassist, guitarist and vocalist worked with Denis in 2006, when the filmmaker directed five music videos for songs from the band’s Rather Ripped album.
Aliza Ma: Ma is the head of programming at New York’s Metrograph cinema.
What should I watch next?
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