MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Arthouse Redux: Claire Denis: A Little Restraint Goes a Long Way

There are filmmakers who use their medium purely to entertain, or to preach a particular message, or to guide their audience down the path of a particular story, tightly controlling and manipulating their audience’s reactions to what’s on the screen: milking the laughs, exagerrating the conflicts, torquing up both the actions and the reactions of their characters. And then there are those rare and gifted filmmakers who have mastered the art of restraint, who paint their canvases in quiet moments and tiny brushstrokes that allow room for the audience to shape and influence their own response to what they’re seeing. French director Claire Denis is an artist of the highest order when it comes to the use of restraint and realism in filmmaking.

One of my favorite films at Toronto a couple years ago was Denis’ languorous 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum). Like many of Denis’ films, 35 Rhums floats in and around the lives of its characters with minimal use of dialogue and utilizes Denis’ hallmark unstructured narrative style; Denis tends to just drop the audience into her characters’ lives without expending a lot of time or energy setting up the backstory.

35 Rhums allows us to be flies on the wall in the story of African immigrant and train engineer Lionel (Alex Secas) and his bi-racial college student daughter Jospehine (Mati Diop), at a time when the comfortably woven threads of their lives together are beginning to strain and unravel. Josephine feels responsible for her father and thinks he can’t get along without her; Lionel loves his daughter and cannot imagine a life without her, even though he knows he must let her go. A rice cooker, of all things, becomes the symbol for both of them learning to let go.

35 Rhums, like many of Denis’ films since her stunning debut Chocolat in 1988, is a lovely, beautifully drawn film that moves through its moments slowly, languidly, allowing us to simply be witness to this brief period in the characters lives. There are layers of meaning within all of Denis’ films, but rather than overwhelm us with emotional moments or cloying transformations of character, Denis tends to allow her characters, like real people, to simply be, to interact with each other and to react to what’s happening around them in a naturalistic fashion. And as in real life, it’s often the little things, the most subtle bits and pieces that matter most: A territorial reaction to dishes being washed without permission. A flashback to a charming flirtation between a barmaid and the customer who will one day be her adoring husband, set to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” A high-end black market coffee maker, burbling its way into an erotic dream. A rice cooker, stashed away in the closet until the day it will finally be needed.

Denis has a remarkable attention to the little details of things; almost always, she eschews exposition, trusting that her audience is intelligent enough to figure things out on their own. Her films tend to lean heavily on both the music she uses as a part of her storytelling and on abstract visuals — the endless train tracks, leading both somewhere specific and to nowhere in particular in 35 Rhums; the African landscape of Chocolat, its endless horizon surrounding the little French colonial compound, its hidden dangers and foreboding nighttime sounds drawing the colonialist’s wife and the African houseboy together in a tight web of sexual tension they can neither act upon nor escape; what may be, in Nenette et Boni, perhaps the most erotic use of pizza dough in the history of cinema.

With Denis, the way in which the characters interact with their environment tends to be more relevant than what they have to say about it; conversely, because she uses dialogue so sparingly, when someone does have something to say, those words have a great deal more import than they otherwise might. In Nenette et Boni, the contrast between the lustful young Boni reading aloud his “confessions of a wimp” sexual fantasies concerning the baker’s wife and what he says (and, more importantly, the impotence with which he says it) when he is actually confronted with the object of his lust are used to underscore exactly what Boni is: a boy, on the verge of manhood, but not quite there yet and without a role model to guide him.

Boni is yet a boy who longs to be a man, aches for a man’s freedom to define both his own life and his turf; when we see him in his interactions later with the father who abandoned him, all these layers of who Boni is begin to add up into something far more interesting than just a handsomely brooding adolescent lusting after an older woman. It is the untimely arrival of his estranged, unruly sister Nenette (the lovely, mournful Alice Houri, more recently seen in The Secret of the Grain) — 15 years old, seven months pregnant, and running away from boarding school — that sets in motion the events that will force Boni into accepting responsibility and beginning to become a man.

The identity of the unnamed father of Nenette’s unwanted baby is never explictly stated, but Denis drops some clues here and there — particularly with Nenette’s reaction (or lack therof) to their father when he comes to rescue her — and leaves it to the audience to infer what they will. It’s not key to the plot of the film, really, and yet those clues are an inextricable part of understanding Nenette and Boni as characters, and it’s all done so subtly it may take more than one viewing to fully absorb it all.

When I first saw Nenette et Boni, I found the characters, particularly the sullen, seemingly irrational Nenette, to be brooding, spoiled and rather annoying. On a second viewing, and even more so on a third, I caught how richly both Nenette and Boni as characters are, what a masterful job Denis does in exquistely painting this little lost girl-child character and her equally lost brother, who must somehow get past their mutual conflicts and resentments to find their way through Nenette’s problem together.

In Chocolat, Denis shows us what she has to say about issues of race, colonialism, and the domination of one race by another more through the adult African “houseboy” Protée’s (Isaach De Bankolé, most recently seen in Denis’ lastest film, White Material) quiet dignity in the face of his relegation to the role of servant to a French colonialist, his wife and young daughter than through any of the dialogue.

When the colonialist’s young daughter France, through whose eyes the story is shown us, imperialistically commands Protée from atop her donkey to “hurry up, it’s time to go home,” it is not through Protee’s reaction that we feel a glimmer of what it must feel like to be an intelligent adult man commanded about by the whim of a young girl because of the superficiality of the color of his skin, but through the reaction of a group of African schoolchildren who surround Protee, mocking him in his subservience by mimicking the words of his young mistress.

Likewise, in 35 Rhums, there are no big speeches where Lionel takes us by the hand and explains to us how he feels; it is the subtleties of Lionel’s facial expressions, the slump of his tired shoulders, a weary resignation about the eyes and even his smile, that convey to us how he feels about retirement, about growing older, about losing his daughter to adulthood. Meanwhile daughter Josephine, dancing around a friendship that may or may not be more than that with handsome neighbor Noé (Nenette et Boni’s Grégoire Colin), leads the dance of Noe’s attempted courtship, saying as much by what she does not say to him as by what she does say.

With Denis, even the more minor characters are more important than one might think; Boni, for all his lusting after the baker’s wife, is never a threat to her union with her adoring husband (Vincent Gallo, remarkably restrained and, surprisingly, almost touching in this film); their near-silent interactions with each other, both in the flashback scene and in a later scene where they dance in their bakery, underscore the unassailable intimacy of their union — an intimacy which Boni longs for in his own life, perhaps, even more than he longs for the fulfillment of his frequent sexual fantasies.

What I love most about all these films is their restraint, the way in which Denis implies — or at least, leaves the viewer to infer — what this or that might mean in the context of the characters’ stories rather than implictly holding the hand of her audience; Denis assumes her audience is intelligent, and never condescends to overly explain or justify anything in her films. What is in her films, simply is, and how one reacts to the characters and their situations says as much about the viewer as it does about the story itself. This is as true of life inside Denis’ films as it is of life outside them; take any given group of people and show them the same people in the same situation, and what each of them think of it cannot help but be influenced by their own philosophies and life experiences.

Take, for instance, the relationship between Lionel and his daughter in 35 Rhums and view it through different perspectives. A young woman still living at home who longs to leave the safety of the nest and stretch her wings, but feels guilty about those she must leave behind, is likely to react in an emotionally different way to this film than, say, an older woman who gave up her own youth and chance for a husband and family in order to continue caring for an aging, ill, or demanding parent.

Likewise with Nenette et Boni: a woman who was herself once a pregnant teenager might react to the film one way; a woman who had a warm and loving relationship with her own father might react a different way, and a woman who had an abusive father still another. Someone who grew up with a sense of being an outsider (as did the Parisan-born Denis herself, who was raised in colonial Africa) might bring a different perspective to viewing the isolated colonial life potrayed in Chocolat than someone who was born and raised in a small town where everyone knows and always has known everyone else.

The local versus the outsider; the pull-and-tug of the child-parent relationship; the servant and the served — and above all, all these varying perspectives woven together, there for the viewer to observe and react to, are stylistically the hallmarks of Denis as a director and storyteller. The fluidity of Denis’ filmmaking style allows for the viewer to be an active, thinking, and feeling participant in the experience of watching her films, and this makes watching a Denis film a richly fulfilling cinematic experience.

Denis’ characters can be unlikable, frequently uncertain, fumbling and bumbling through their days just as we all do, and Denis doesn’t pull back from showing them as real people with all their flaws and foibles. Denis’ films may not be quite perfect (although all three discussed here quietly achieve many moments of perfection within their frames), but there is nothing of the cloying or false in her work; she creates a canvas and allows her characters and their lives to fill it, and us to take it all in. And in that respect, Denis is master of the cinematic medium, and her films absolute musts for the lover of arthouse cinema with the patience and perspective to go along with her for the ride.

Note: Chocolat, Nenette et Boni, and 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) are all widely available on Region 1 DVD format; if you don’t have a local artsy DVD rental shop nearby, you should be able to rent them (and all of Denis’ films, should you want to make a real weekend of it) through online sources.

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