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Claire Denis

The Look in all its Manifestations

 

Looking at Claire Denis films from the late eighties through to the mid-nineties, we might be surprised at the distance she has from the characters she shows us. Where Martine Beugnet is absolutely right to talk of Denis’s significance for a sensual cinema in both her book on the director, Claire Denis, and in her follow-up Cinema and Sensation, in Chocolat and I Can’t Sleep, the intimate scrutiny of bodies and gestures evident in later films, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, Vendredi Soir and The Intruder. is relatively absent. Chocolat is as much part of the eighties fascination with Africa that incorporated anything from Dust and The Grass is Singing, to Out of Africa and White Mischief, as it is to the work Denis would later offer. Here there is the exotic presented quietly and contemplatively, and if we see it in the tradition of Dust and The Grass is Singing, it lies not least in the admiration Denis has acknowledged for the writers from whom the works were adapted: Coetzee and Lessing. As she says in Senses of Cinema. “The only person I can feel so much is Doris Lessing. Nadine Gordimer is too dictatorial and she has no heart. I prefer [J. M.] Coetzee. Gordimer is forcing something and I can’t stand that.”

Chocolat seems at first to be part of a different problematic than her more recent White Material: a return to Africa but with the emphasis not on the aloof other, but on the sensually overloaded. In White Material Denis cuts across various time frames, and shows Africa as a place of frenetic energy; Chocolat, like Dust and The Grass is Singing, emphasises the slow-burn pace of African life and the sexual thoughts that can come out of such boredom. Yet Denis’ work continues to have this pensive, reflective aspect, as the look between people is often as important as the touch they offer each other and the intimacy with which she films that touch. After all it makes sense to move in close when you want to indicate tactility, but the expression of the gaze requires an element of distance. Denis’ superficial importance may rest on her ability to suggest the tactile, but the ocular is what adds texture to the director’s sense of touch. We can notice this in Chocolat where colonial wife Aimee (Giulia Boschi) asks the house servant Protee (Isaach De Bankole) to help her with her dress. Opening on a Bressonian shot of the door, with Protee behind it asking if he should serve drinks, the film cuts back to Aimee asking him instead to enter the room. As she stands before the mirror we might think that we are witnessing a shot/counter shot as the film cuts to Protee entering, and looking at what would appear to be Aimee. But as Aimee turns and looks, her gaze doesn’t look where the shot/counter shot might lead us to expect, but from another position altogether as Protee enters the room and enters the frame. The film then cuts to a frontal shot as if now in the same position as the mirror, with Protee starting to do up the dress as they both look in the direction of the camera rather than at each other, but where we know of course there would be a mirror. They are looking at each other through the reflection, and it is Aimee who is the first to look down bashfully. The shot captures beautifully Denis’ interest in the tactile and the ocular, but where in this instance she understands that though it would be the gesture of touch that might be deemed violating, it is the complicity of the gaze that reflects each character’s yearning. Often in Denis’s films the look indicates the longing that might lead to the touch but contains within it a world unto itself. If the touch is the sensual manifestation of desire; the look in her work is where much of the mystery resides.

If Protee is someone for whom the idiom of look don’t touch proves relevant no matter the affinity in the gaze, then in Trouble Every Day it becomes again important because the realization of the touch proves fatal. In the film Vincent Gallo is Shane Brown, a research scientist who used to work out in Africa where his dangerous experiments led to picking up a cannibalistic disease that makes his desires very dangerous indeed. He has literally to devour a woman if he happens to have her at all. In a number of sequences we see him looking hungrily at a maid working in the Paris hotel in which he stays, and sometimes the camera adopts a shot that carries within it the full force of point of view no matter Shane’s absence in the given scene. There are moments here where the maid is walking down the hotel corridor and the camera follows her from behind as though at any moment Shane will pounce. Yet this isn’t the horror mainstay where we wonder when someone will jump into the frame; more Denis’ ongoing interest in the problem of looking.  What the shots suggest once again is longing, the omnivorous need of the eye to consume what it sees.

However if the look is constrained by social demand in Chocolat, and initially by the awareness of cannibalistic desire in Trouble Every Day, in Beau travail central character Sergeant Galoup’s look is ontologically impossible. A black man can have an affair with a white woman in colonial Africa, a scientist can eat his human prey in Trouble Every Day, but how could one become another in Beau travail? Galoup’s Foreign Legionnaire’s look is one of fundamental envy, a jealousy so basic that it is as if Galoup (Denis Lavant) would like to morph into the young newcomer, Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup initially assumes that Sentain is the anomaly in their outpost at Djibouti but, in time and after a heroic deed on Sentain’s part, Galoup looks increasingly like the isolated one. It is suggested not only in the look outward as Galoup resentfully gazes at Sentain, seeing his capacity for charming everyone around him, but also in the gaze the film offers on the characters, including Galoup. In one scene Galoup and some of the Legionnaires are on a small boat and Denis cuts from face to face, and there is a harsh contrast between the young Legionnaires and their embittered, pit-scarred sergeant. Often we have no idea where the gaze happens to be coming from, evident in the film’s initial scene, which brilliantly bursts out of the film’s opening credits with a loud kiss as the film shows African women dancing to Tarkan Simarik’s Kiss Kiss. By the end of the film we might see the scene as observed from Galoup’s point of view: a man looking on at a world to which he doesn’t feel he is a part, even if he happens to have a cameo role in the sequence.

But at least early in the film it would be merely an isolated instance of alienation. He might not be a man at home in the Djibouti night life, but he is surely at one with the Legionnaire’s world. However, his inability to know exactly what his yearning look at Sentain means will cost him his job and possibly his life: he is ejected from the Legion and at the end of the film looks as if he will commit suicide when we see him lying in bed with a gun in his hand. If he knew himself well he might have known better what the constant look at Sentain meant. Instead his hate leads to a series of actions based on removing Sentain from the Legion, even from the world. Eventually he banishes Sentain into the desert. It might be for rather less than forty days and forty nights, but it is long enough for Sentain almost to die of thirst and exhaustion.

It is an action that will lead to Galoup’s dismissal from the Legion, and the film shows us Galoup in the present, living, and perhaps preparing to die, in sunny, wintry Marseille.  His voice over tries to explain his behaviour, and we witness a man trying to make sense of a look that he earlier couldn’t control. Though critics have talked about the homoerotic dimension to the film (Julia Cooper in Cleo for example) this suggests that if only Galoup’s look could be matched by an object of desire that would accept him, and if he could accept a sexual desire that is alien to his identity, then all might have been well. But though this would indicate a complex enough approach to character, one feels Denis goes much further still. It is more a question of a properly impossible gaze: impossible in the sense that one cannot find in one’s yearning look what can satisfy that need. If we are proposing in Chocolat and Trouble Every Day there is a means by which the look can find its desire (no matter how violating of the social environment in the first instance, and horrific in the second) how is Galoup to become Sentain? It is one thing to desire another; something else to desire being that other. Envy is often the condition of a properly impossible yearning.

In Vendredi soir, the problem of yearning is not at all presented as an impossibility, but instead as a surprising possibility. Central character Laure (Valerie Lemercier) is moving out of her apartment and ready to move in with her partner, when she gets caught in a traffic jam one Friday night during a transit strike and picks up a stranger, Jean (Vincent Lindon). Later they are separated, and we see Laure driving around in her car in images of visual drift as enigmatic desire: the sequence visually may bring to mind Voyage to Italy, Vertigo and Taxi Driver, as the film scouts the streets of a city. The film cuts back and forth between Laure’s eager and mildly anxious look to images of Paris at night: a person walking in the middle of the street or crossing it, shots of a cafe, cars parked on the road. Dickon Hinchliffe’s music swells gently here, suggesting the wish for passion but not quite its likelihood. A little later when she finds Jean, and the assignation does look likely, the music becomes more evidently passionate as the look becomes more obviously desirous. There is the moment as they pass on the stairs with the glance between them no more than a few centimetres wide. Denis’ achievement here is to explore the look and its recquiting as implausibly plausible. She creates an other-worldly Paris in which to envisage an affair that seems like it will be without consequence. As Denis empties out the city, she fills it with a very private passion. This is a Paris where anything can happen because almost nothing is taking place. The idea of being trapped in the French capital because of the strike is a nightmare that gets turned into a dream. It might seem the height of irresponsibility to take a lover just before moving in with your partner, but Denis presents it as low demand elevated by reverie. By the end of the film we might wonder whether she herself will remember what had taken place the night before, or whether it has taken place at all.

Once again we have Denis interrogating the nature of that overused word in film theory, the gaze, but this needn’t be a Lacanian look that demands psychoanalytic explanation; more a gaze that we can break down into its various manifestations in the director’s work.  Much criticism of the seventies insisted on playing up the look as a problem of the real, with the adult viewer rather like the child who, in Jacques Lacan’s formula, confuses the mirror image with his real self. As Rob White says in The Cinema Book, “Lacan insisted on the element of delusion which structures the act of self-recognition: for the image is only an image, external to the perceiving subject even if it is a replica of the subject. The image appears to be the individual, but is in fact only a representation of the individual.” Cinema was believed often to resemble this false sense of recognition, creating in the viewer a facile and suspect sense of mastery and unity concerning the image, often evident in the notion of identification: the films made it easy for the viewer to identify with characters in an easily locatable screen space that needn’t call either identification or screen space into question. Of course there were always films that weren’t quite playing by these rules. Even mainstream masterpieces like Psycho could pull the rug from under our feet even if they didn’t quite pull the wool from over our eyes. Indeed one reason why there were many Brechtian and Marxist films in the sixties and seventies (from Godard to Jancso) was because an important dimension of radical film lay in removing the wool. However, though Denis’s films aren’t at all self-reflexively Brechtian, neither do they require psychoanalytic and ideological explanation for an all too easy gaze. Denis’ look is rarely so easy, but it is still nevertheless immersive rather than distanciating. Galoup’s gaze on Sentain, Laure’s anxious look as she drives around Paris, and Aimee’s fascination with Protee don’t undermine identification; they confirm it. And yet Denis’s images are not at all complacent.

They are simultaneously intriguing and demanding, no better in evidence than in the aforementioned scene immediately following the credits of Beau travail. As Denis moves from the credit sequence accompanied by Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd (like the film, an adaptation of Melville’s novella), to the scene in the nightclub, the film is both immediate and confusing. There is nothing distancing about this sequence, but there is nothing clarifying about it either. As the African women dance in front of the lens, we might expect a counter shot that will locate us in a Legionnaire’s perspective, but instead Denis keeps us in the dance as the camera moves between various characters within the image. By the end of the sequence could we say what the film is about or who happens to be our leading character? Later in Beau travail we will realize that this scene hints at motivation and suggests a basis for Galoup’s envious attitude towards Sentain, but it hardly sets the film’s narrative in motion. The idea of the look evident in Denis’s film is of course that between the characters, but it is also the look on the film. Denis wants not to tell a story that demands an aesthetic which will give meaning to the images, but wants instead images that will give to the film a look, an observational ambiguity over a narrative certitude. This early scene in Beau travail wants us to look more than it wants us to glean as we cannot extract ready information from the sequence. It isn’t until long afterwards that we can make sense of the characters in the scene and their interrelations, and even then we will be doing so interpretively rather than categorically. What are we to make of Sentain crossing the frame in front of the woman that moments later Galoup will touch before having his hand removed? How, we might wonder, could a filmmaker direct it so that the viewer would have mastery over the sequence?

Now Denis is not a formally confrontational filmmaker in the manner of Godard or Jancso, or the Straubs or Pasolini: she doesn’t want through her images to revolutionise cinema or the world, first and foremost, but chiefly, one feels, to make perception dense. If, taking into account the notion of Lacanian film theory and the submissive spectator, numerous great directors of the sixties and seventies moved towards confrontation, then they also incorporated, like Denis, density of information. One could no longer take for granted a clear sense of what was important within the frame and what was irrelevant. Robert Altman’s films would teem with information in the foreground and the background; Nicolas Roeg’s camera would zoom in on a book or a snake charmer, a children’s red ball or a mother’s hand gesture.  Bernardo Bertolucci would show Brando doing a back flip in Last Tango in Paris, while Scorsese utilised inserts of little more than hand gestures that would have been deemed redundant twenty years earlier: they would not have been forwarding the story.

In explaining Denis’ interest in density two notions come to mind. One is quite conventional and clear; the other troublesome and more obscure. The clear one is David Bordwell’s idea of scenic density, where he talks about the importance of mise-en-scene and how casual details can become prominent elements of the narrative. This might be a splash of water left on the mirror after a fight sequence in The Enforcer, or a chair that a woman leans on while getting questioned in Hangmen Also Die. As Bordwell says, “what interests me in this passage from The Enforcer (1951) is not just what happens in the mirror but also what happens on it. While Rico belabors the cop’s head, we’re given a chance to notice the splash of water that hit the mirror when Rico whirled to the attack. While the action is moving forward, we’re reminded of what had triggered it.” In Fritz Lang’s film he reckons: “This quietly suspenseful scene establishes a bit of furniture as a key prop. Once the faulty back-rest is marked for our notice, we’re expected to remember that it’s a means of intimidation–something that Mrs. Dvorak, in her anxiety about refusing to aid the Nazis, twice forgets. Lang’s shots, simple and uncrowded, makes the chair, like the spattered mirror in The Enforcer, preserve the trace of human activity.” Bordwell sees the latter as more aesthetically evolved than the former, saying: “Yet it’s more acutely integrated into the scene’s drama than the mirror, and remembering how it was used earlier makes us wait tensely to see how it will be used again.” However, the emphasis still resides on pertinent information, as the mirror and the chair cannot but be seen as important by the viewer. They are dramatically utilized details unlike many of the other objects in the bathroom or the Nazi’s office.

In ‘The Written Language of Reality’, Pasolini believed that “we can define all the objects, form, or enduring acts of reality to be found in the film image with the word ‘kinemes’, precisely by analogy with ‘phonemes’. The phonemes in a language are few, approximately twenty, more or less, in the principal European languages. They are obligatory; we do not have other choices…The kinemes have this same characteristic of obligatoriness: we can only choose from among the kinemes that exist, that is, the objects, forms and acts of reality that we perceive with our senses.” Pasolini adds, “as opposed to the phonemes, which are few, however, the kinemes are infinite, or at least innumerable.” While many great filmmakers were calling into question the semiotic code by playing with our suspension of disbelief, what we find in Denis’ films is this equal fascination that many filmmakers of the time had with the innumerable kinemes of cinema, and pushing the problem farther. She is willing to forego many of the questions of self-reflexive form to pursue the complexity of content. If the Straubs in 1972’s History Lessons contrasted scenes of a man driving round contemporary Rome with a besuited figure of the present interviewing people in Roman garb in the past, and thus taking care of the semiotically radical, Denis doesn’t expect us to be removed from the story, but densely involved with its information system. In this she is closer to Altman than to the Straubs, but with a still more demanding sense of observation through an editing structure that we have to pick our way through.

It is in such a proposition that this kinemic density can meet the cinema of sensation, and that Denis’ work is central to this aspect of contemporary film. When Beugnet and Anna Powell talk about the molecular and the molar dimension to contemporary cinema (out of Gilles Deleuze), then we can see the molecular as a version of Pasolini’s innumerable, and that it in this inummerability that sensation can finds its singularity. As Beugnet says, quoting Powell: we can see a shift “from the “molar” politics of representation to the “molecular” materiality of film”, with Beugnet adding, “however, to make films that wilfully engage with the medium not merely as story or discourse, but as an object of perception, and to view them as such, is to run against the long-held belief that valuable experience and knowledge must necessarily come as a process of ‘enlightenment’ that distances us from the unreliable input of sensual perception.” (Cinema and Sensation) If we think back to the examples given by Bordwell, the detail is only as pertinent as the story demands: the molecular serves the molar. The mirror is present in the frame after the act of violence in The Enforcer only because of the water that drips down from it. If the camera had dwelt on the mirror without the water, it could have seemed like an extraneous shot. In a cinema that absorbs the molecular over the molar, then numerous objects come into their own without serving a specific narrative function. Where Bordwell’s notion of scenic density plays up this aspect; a cinema interested in the innumerable assumes no such categorical objects for our attention.

This of course doesn’t mean everything in the frame is of equal significance, but it does dissolve clear cinematic hierarchies: it at least hints at the innumerable, and then often gives the innumerable importance not through narration but sensation. Think of the opening moment in Beau travail, and the amplification given to the kiss that opens the sequence. This is the sort of audio level that might indicate a key narrative element: a gun going off, an explosion, a broken plate or glass. But this isn’t the narratively self-justifying acoustic exaggeration, but instead the small detail given hyperbolized audio form. This is the case also in a rather different example from The Intruder. Here Denis makes us recognize Michel Subor’s character in one scene not by an establishing shot, but by the sound of his breathing.  It is amplified enough for us to work out who the person probably is before we see who it happens to be. In each case we have the sound as the acoustically innumerable. Pasolini may chiefly have been talking of the kineme as an object within the frame, but since cinema is an audio-visual medium, everything within the frame also has potentially an acoustic dimension. Central to the sensational cinema Denis practices is acknowledging this aspect. In her work the feature that might seem all but irrelevant elsewhere becomes curiously vital. We could think of the contrast in skin texture in that opening Beau travail scene where Sentain’s smooth complexion becomes all the more pronounced next to Galoup’s, or the veins in Galoup’s arms and temples that become prominent just before the end of the film where it looks like Galoup will take his own life. Denis at the end shows in close-up the throbbing vein in his arm, a life force that is the rhythm of his existence as Denis cuts to the song that she sees as Galoup’s dance to his possible death: Corona’s The Rhythm of the Night. “In an early draft of the screenplay”, Denis says, “the dance fell before the scene where he takes the revolver, contemplating suicide. But when I was editing I put the dance at the end because I wanted to give the sense that Galoup could escape himself.” (Sight and Sound) Here we see Galoup dancing furiously in the nightclub alone. Much of Denis’ work asks what can introduce us to the sensation; which kinemes release molecular particles that can be rearranged to the detriment of narrative givens. “Filmmaking is an intuition, it’s like a sound, it’s a hint, a color, a movement,” she says in an interview with Nick Pinkerton. “It’s not there to teach people.” (Film Comment)

However, this is not quite the same as saying that Denis has no interest in story. Most of her films can be offered up in synopsis even if the summary would be unfair to the texture of the film. Trouble Every Day is about two scientists whose experiments lead to a cannibalistic sexual condition; Vendredi Soir concerns a one night stand during a transit strike; Beau travail about a jealous sergeant who ends up getting thrown out of the Foreign Legion because of his behaviour. The objects of her gaze are still pressed into storytelling purpose.  “For me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing”, she told Jonathan Romney in the Guardian. “To make blocks of impressions or emotion meet with another block of impression or emotion and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it’s boring. Again, I am not trying to make it difficult but I think, as a spectator, when I see a movie one block leads me to another block of inner emotion, I think that’s cinema. That’s an encounter.” The question isn’t to make stories difficult for the audience “I hate that”, she says in the Guardian interview, but to show cinema as a means of perception, chiefly through montage. The story is still there, but it often becomes evident through ellipsis.

This is more obviously so in some films than in others: in Beau travail, The Intruder and White Material, more than Chocolat, Vendredi soir and Trouble Every Day. But whether the montage rests in time or space, in playing with chronology or creating surprising cuts within a sequence, the purpose is to find a way of telling a story with perceptual distinction. Though Denis talks about her close collaboration with director of photography Agnes Godard, she could also be talking about her relationship with her regular editor, Nelly Quettier. After interviewer Nick Pinkerton asks her about her need to create fresh complications with each film, she says: “This is between Agnès and me. This is not in the script. This is something that Agnès and me will try, we try not to reproduce something that we have been doing because we know that we work together so well, our relationship is so great that we can test things we would never test with another person. But it’s not in the film itself, it’s between Agnès and me. We try never to reproduce an image we have made already.” (Film Comment) The same principal seems to be at work with Quettier as the cuts stall assumption.

In Denis’ most elliptical films – Beau travail, The Intruder and White Material – the cut we might expect is replaced by the cut that confuses. If it is usual for directors to orientate us and for others occasionally to disorientate us, Denis is a fine filmmaker of re-disorienting the viewer. After the nightclub scene in Beau travail, Denis cuts to an official answering the phone in an office in Djibouti, and then to various shots of the African landscape through a train, and then the inhabitants packed on it. Even the next scene that introduces us to the legionnaires absents from it the character we might just about believe to be our central one, Galoup. Present in this shot of Legionnaires in training happens to be the smooth-skinned figure we will later find out to be Sentain, but there is nothing in the scene to suggest he will be a character of importance.

In White Material, the film’s pre-credit sequence shows a house burning down and a man (Isaach de Bankole) lying apparently dead. After the credits we cut to Isabelle Huppert catching a bus, and then cut again from Huppert looking screen right on the bus to her hurtling along on a motorbike screen left. Then after a scene where she gets off the bike and comes across a flipflop and an item of clothing we cut back again to Huppert on the bus, assured that what we must have seen was a flashback, but unsure where we are in relation to the three time frames that have been set up: the burning house, the bus sequence, the motorbike moment.

The Intruder is perhaps her most complex film as the elliptical cutting leaves us as disorientated as in Beau travail. But where Galoup’s voice-over compensated by giving us an anchoring beyond the image as we could link most of the actions however tangentially to Galoup’s memory fragments, The Intruder, while possessing a central character (played by Michel Subor, who was Galoup’s senior officer Forestier in Beau travail) has no non-diegetic focal point. For us to assume the film reflects his thoughts would be to make a leap that is not justified by the diegesis. In Beau travail even if a number of moments couldn’t have been seen through Galoup’s eyes (Sentain’s moments lost in the desert for example), the voice over indicates that the film is generally Galoup’s perspective, however complex the information. Hannah McGill is right to say: “elements of the story hinge on events to which Galoup cannot have borne witness. Does he know, or merely guess, which soldier betrays him to Sentain with the words, “He doesn’t like you. Beware”? Do we see Sentain survive his final ordeal because Galoup did – or because some self-justifying part of Galoup wants to believe that he did, as evinced by the coyly self-justifying aside, “He could easily have crossed the mountains into Ethiopia”?” (Sight and Sound). This is perceptually complicated indeed. However, that the film is viewed from Galoup’s point of view is unequivocal no matter the equivocal nature of many of the film’s images. In The Intruder the disorientation is all the more in evidence as the point of view is removed and the images rely on no overarching linkage. Where shots of Sentain being rescued by nomadic salt gatherers in Beau travail can pass for guilty musings as self justifying reverie, there is no such rationale available for many of the images in The Intruder.

Thus the film possesses a central character but no central consciousness. This is perhaps partly the difference between working from a fictional story (Melville’s Billy Budd) and a philosophical essay (The Intruder is based on Jean-Luc Nancy’s text of the same name). But it resides even more in the problem of anthropocentric envy in the former that is more readily cinematic, however ontologically impossible, with disembodied embodiment in the latter. Nancy’s essay is about the philosopher’s heart operation. As he says, “I have – who?” – this “I” is precisely the question, the old question: what is this enunciating subject?” In Beau travail it is Galoup, but in The Intruder it is as though Denis wants to match Nancy’s essay on identity with the problem of identity in film form. Denis’ belief that cinema is the art of montage keeps asking questions about the nature of the cut, whether it is the horrible scar left after the operation that we see in close-up on Louis Trebor’s body, or the throat slitting when someone invades his home. Cuts can reinvigorate the self as the heart operation does for Louis, or it can end the life of someone else. But the cut in various manifestations in Denis’ work creates a violence that we can call epistemological, as if any representational violence within the story is secondary to the violence of its telling. It is not that the small details no longer become important (let us not exaggerate the collapse of the molar into the molecular). It is that their importance becomes disorienting, and they take on a quality of their own partly through the nature of the edit.

This often nevertheless allows Denis to hold to a perspective that doesn’t quite disintegrate the film’s meaning: Beau travail, Trouble Every Day, Chocolat and most of her other work retain their centres. But in The Intruder the brilliance of the film rests in her insistence that she eradicates the power of the look into the fundamental demands of cutting in all its manifestations. The linkages between shots in The Intruder are weaker than in any of her other films, and we may wonder where certain scenes are taking place, and why, and in relation to whom. This doesn’t make the film incoherent, but instead puts the burden of cohering onto the interpreter. It pushes the formal openness of the montage in, say, Beau travail, into the area of the radically provisional. A story can be still be made out of The Intruder, but our explanation will be much more tentative than in her other work.

However, The Intruder is still a narrative film, and if Denis is a great director of the look in its numerous permutations, it rests in montage that calls into question the molar yet doesn’t quite dissolve into the molecular. Hers is a cinema of sensation in the realm of the senses as manifold. Denis wants us to sense the properties of film: be it narrationally or acoustically, through the editing or through the performance. In relation to the latter, if Denis works with a regular team behind the camera (Godard, Quettier, Tindersticks as her composers, Jean-Pol Fargeau as her scriptwriter), she also works either with a regular team of actors, or an actor she hasn’t worked with in the past, but who for a long time has fascinated her. She then searches out an aspect to the performer that goes beyond ready notions of acting. It is an area of her work which is worth an essay initself, but that we shall discuss only very briefly here. In an online Guardian interview, discussing Isabelle Huppert on White Material, Denis commented on their desire to work together for many years, and of the actress’s fearlessness: “She is curious to find something about herself…she is very strong to take all the risks…and she is not afraid.” On actors generally she has said: “It’s always hard to express in a few words how it is to work with actors or actresses. I think it is different for each person. It is the way I like them, what I like in them. Some are anxious, some are… If I had a scene with Alex Decas and Vincent Lindon, they are both anxious actors, but they don’t express their anxiety the same way. So, even if the scene is together I have to feel a certain way for Alex and a different way for Vincent…I follow the way they work.” Denis adds, “And yet at the same time, trying to grab or to steal exactly what I want. But at the same time, it is something, I’m not sure I can say to an actor, please I’m going to steal that from you. You know, so it’s a sort of process of approaching, reassuring, stealing, maybe. And watching with a sort of love and attraction. Otherwise I think I would be unable to direct.” (Filmmaker)  Sometimes the interest comes from working with an actor on numerous occasions, seeing 35 Shots of Rum as an attempt to search out a quality that she had always found Alex Descas expressed. “I thought it was time for me to make this movie… because Alex Descas is getting older. Ten years ago, he was too young to play this part—now was the right time. And I would not make the film without him. I think that Alex Descas always has a past, don’t you? It’s like he brings an inside story to his characters.” (Reverse Shot)

Actors she has used on more than one occasion include Decas, Michel Subor, Katerina Golubeva, Vincent Gallo, Gregoire Colin and Isaach de Bankole. Denis may be a director fascinated by sensation and montage, but she is also interested in the integrity of the performance as a mode of being in the world, and not merely a Kuleshov effect to be utilized in the cutting room: she has little interest in cutting that means that whatever the actor is doing is secondary to the manner in which the performance is edited.

Perhaps we can talk about Denis as a director not so much interested in the sensation as molecular, but in breaking up the molar for her own ends: to escape a number of givens and expectations of film form. She is still very much a filmmaker interested in both narrative and performance, even ‘stardom’, but wants to find new pockets of sense out of film’s possibilities. The kinemes Pasolini talks about could in Denis’s work be called sensemes, as if she wants to take the innumerable and generate the sensational as units of film form that can be constantly reconfigured. It returns us to the look, which can sometimes be no more than the way characters glance at each other, or it can be no less than the film as a nexus of connections that we try to put together again after the fragmentary editing Denis adopts. This doesn’t mean the glances are categorically meaningful, nor that reconstituting the story Denis tells will arrive at a puzzle solved, but it does indicate the films are still very much narrative works: the molar constantly in conflict with the molecular, without one destroying the other. It is this constantly experimenting (as opposed to experimental) aspect to Denis’s films that creates a certain type of tension. The story is both present and absent, allusive and elusive, and yet never disintegrating into abstraction. The molar is tested, but never quite ‘molecularised’. The cinema of sensation in Denis’ work is also, and this is part of its troubling force, a cinema of ongoing narration: the insistence of its presence and the constant threat of its absence.

 

©Tony McKibbin