Claire Denis’ Chemistry
Compounding the norm
At one stage in her book on Claire Denis, Martine Beugnet quotes famous nouveau roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet writing dismissively about 'character'. "A character - everybody knows what it means. It is not just a he, anonymous and transparent, merely the subject of the action expressed by the verb. A character should have a name and a double one if possible: family name and first name. He should have parents, heredity links. A character should have a profession." Robbe-Grillet's lack of respect for the conventions of characterisation is shared by Denis; though, as we shall see, less disdainfully and more quizzically. Denis is less interested in rejecting the character in relation to the social world Robbe-Grillet speaks of, than in finding the character in the shot. As Denis says, "the sequence shot is the necessary time to establish a relation with a character...it is the body of the actor that develops the choreography." As Beugnet says, "Denis' characters may express little as far as the dialogues are concerned, but their bodies, their place in space, and even when sparse or highly stylised, their gestures and movements convey a lot of information." This is surely much more a cinema of physiology than psychology, and thus we have Denis' quizzicality. In her first film, Chocolat, we may ask ourselves what happens when the white wife of a colonial administrator in Cameroon develops an attraction towards a black servant. Or in Beau travail we may wonder how central character Galoup finds the Foreign Legion has moved on and has little need for his warrior instincts. It's as though the physiology in Denis meets with a strangely chemical aspect, as if the very nature of their relationship with the body takes her characters away from the socially oriented sense of behaviour (with its motivations, its moral checks and balances, its social demands) and towards a chemistry of the moment.
Frequently in her films, in Chocolat, in Beau travail, and in Vendredi soir, we see these chemical collisions. In Vendredi soir it manifests itself in a one night stand between two strangers; in Beau Travail in the presence of the young and attractive Sentain and how Galoup is affected by this new legionnaire. We could even say Trouble Every Day is the chemical aspect taken to a certain extreme, as if Denis' adopted the tropes of the cannibal/vampire film to push through a chemical notion of characterization. What happens, she asks, if there are two characters, one French, the other American, who, both affected by the same disease picked up years before in Africa, end up in the same city again? Will these characters inevitably collide, will the chemical collision demand it? Can we not also see it in the sequence in J'ai pas sommeil where Camille and his co-murderer and boyfriend Raphael attend a party with Camille's family, and we see the contrast between the familial on the one hand and the murderously intimate on the other? By the end of the scene we see Camille extricated from the boyfriend, who sits alone in the corner of the room, whatever charisma and power he has over Camille on this occasion weak next to the familial strength, but this moment does not last. Now Denis doesn't want to register this 'failure' on sociological terms - in terms of alienation and the notion that if only there were stronger family ties all would be well - but, again, much more chemically. It is as though our relationships with others aren't the givens of characterization that Robbe-Grillet rejects, but the physiological aspect that pulls us towards certain people in certain environments.
Thus whether we're talking sexual attraction in Chocolat, envy in Beau travail, a physical-emotional connection in Vendredi soir, or rabid lust in Trouble Every Day, we can see the principle of a chemical feeling motivating much of her work. If Robbe-Grillet wants to find a way of escaping psychology by perhaps arriving at a certain emotional aridity, as if in fear of psychology creating feelings that he refuses to trust, Denis, who also wants to reject ready psychology, nonetheless seems interested in heightened, exaggerated feeling, and draws on the emotionally inexplicable rather than the readily psychologically explicable to achieve this effect.
At one stage in her book Beugnet says of Beau travail, "in Galoup's eyes, Sentain's transgression is to fail in reflecting the legion's model and nothing more. The new recruit stands out from the collective. He is picked out of the line-out by the commanding officer and complimented for his exceptional qualities." Now we could say this is psychologically straightforward in some ways, but it's really a case of whether the director illuminates jealousy psychologically, or chooses to keep it in the shadows emotionally. Generally Denis does the latter, and thus retains the quizzicality. If for example Denis had simply shown Sentain as a younger version of Galoup, we could have accepted conventional motives, but what is central to the envy is its immediately unlocatable nature. Galoup can't see that in many ways Sentain's qualities have usurped his own. This isn't just a straightforward example of a younger man possessing all the qualities Galoup used to possess; this is a young man with very different qualities, so that Galoup has to reassess his being, not just feel straightforwardly jealous. This gives the film much of its physiological rather than psychological envy, where cause and effect gives way to a whirl of contradictory and confused feelings in Galoup that Denis tries to capture with the impact of each shot, and the reassemblage of these shots in an emotionally complex way. When Beugnet says "the legion has taken charge of his past, present and future, of his social, professional and emotional life", she's getting at this problem of complex envy, an envy based on not knowing exactly who one is, and not knowing who the other that one is jealous of happens to be either. This is where the chemical aspect can come in, because what Galoup feels first and foremost is a physiological reaction that we can call envy, and that the rest of the film is the quizzical exploration of that state.
We can see the same quizzicality at work in Denis's debut feature, Chocolat, where the mother makes a pass at houseboy Prote as she goes through the film trying to make sense of her feelings in an environment that constantly represses. Of course Denis' dealing with a potentially very tired theme here, with the white woman drawn to a black 'native', but Denis seems to want the tender feelings the mother feels towards Prote to function not just in the environment of a white woman in black Africa, but also in relation to the humanly chemical explosion resulting from a plane crash that leads the mother to entertain a handful of colonials. Where a filmmaker might ask the question what happens to a repressed white woman in colonial Africa when she falls in love, Denis incorporates within this question further variables. As Time Out's critic, Mark Sanderson, suggests, "this idyllic [and non-sexual] existence is shattered...", and that in relation to one of these visitors, it "prompts the mother to make a pass at her servant".
But aren't we just saying that Denis' films need motivating forces just like any other, or are we saying these motivating elements are structured in such a way that she's looking for an impact that is not coming from the psychological but the physiological? Here it might be useful to quote Beugnet on Denis' style. "...the spare use of camera movements, together with the framing and the distance, grant importance to the overall context, to the environment and the unspoken rules that regulate each character's movements." Beugnet goes on to say "the shot/counter shot on the other hand, as the most familiar figure of explanation in cinematic language...is rare, as is conventional dialogue." Now if the motivational was what mattered, the conventional could cover the motivational, but once motive is absent, and thus the quizzicality present, a new style is demanded. As Denis herself said at the time of Beau travail's release, sometimes you have to be abstract to capture somebody's memories, especially when those memories are confused, and you want to search out the emotional confusion and not the cause and effect jealousy.
So what fascinates Denis is a fracturing that can come out of the chemical imbalances she creates. At one moment Beugnet talks of Galoup's senior officer, Forrestier, and how "in the words of Forrestier, the outer elegance of the legionnaire should reflect an inner elegance, becoming a soldier is to become a unified being, leaving no gap between beliefs and attitude." But as Beugnet notes, Denis works within these gaps, focusing on the collapses of self that take place in her characters' being. Sometimes this fracturing proves devastating - as in Galoup's case - but sometimes it can be rewarding, illuminating and replenishing. Especially, perhaps if one sees oneself not as sealed off and whole, but open and neurotic. There's a great passage from a writer she much admires, Doris Lessing's TheGolden Notebook that helps explain both Denis' thematic interests and her technical choices. "I'm going to make the obvious point that perhaps the word neurotic means the condition of being highly conscious and developed. The essence of neurosis is conflict. But the essence of living now, fully, not blocking off to what goes on, is conflict. In fact, I've reached the stage where I look at people and say - he or she, they are whole at all because they've chosen to block off at this stage or that. People stay sane by blocking off, by limiting themselves." Denis is interested in the unblocking, the going insane, the evolutionof neurosis. Now sometime this unblocking will manifest itself in an affair as in Vendredisoir, a complete reconfiguration of one's identity, as in Beau travail, or an unblocking that functions beneath being, courses through the veins as pure disease as in Trouble Every Day. But there is in this shattering process a sense that we cannot trust in the idea of character the way Robbe-Grillet scornfully describes it at the beginning of this piece.
Near the end of the book, Beugnet quotes Emma Wilson not on Denis, but on Catherine Breillat, but suggests that the comment is equally (if not more) relevant to Denis. Wilson says Breillat's work "disrupts the relations of distance and control, on which viewing has been seen to depend, by her emphasis on the tactile. She refuses merely to offer us images of the body's surface, of its integrity and wholeness. She is concerned...to make the viewer question the relation between inside and outside: to make us feel, as much as see, the images displayed." If Denis shares with Lessing an interest in conflict, and with Breillat this refusal to suggest wholeness, it perhaps lies in her realisation of the importance of chemical changes within us, the very chemical charge that transforms. If people are open to this transformation, they can absorb it into their being without fracturing; if they're not, as in Galoup's case, their very refusal of neurosis leaves them in much more danger. They're left in a more psychically risky place than if they're in a low key state of neurosis suggested by Lessing when insisting that neurosis means being highly developed. Is Galoup's problem that he's not attuned to neurotic states, not attuned to the possibilities of transformation into other emotional forms?
Yet if Galoup is to survive at the end of the film as he lies in his hotel room ready to pull the trigger after being ejected from the Foreign Legion, maybe he will do so by becoming neurotic, by becoming the very condition that Denis' style invokes, with its fractured sense of time, and its tactile sense of space. It's as though Denis wants to find a way of putting Galoup back together again, but needs to do so by forcing the character into a state of mental fracture that resembles Lessing's neurotics. Towards the end of her book, Beugnet proposes that Denis is moving towards "a cinema of the senses". What does she mean by this? It is "a cinema that relies, first and foremost, on the sensuous apprehension of the real, on a vivid and tactile combination of sounds and images that expands cinema's primarily visual powers of evocation." If we think in terms not of characterization, of characters as set beings, but of sensual possibilities in the world, we can see that what Denis wants to do is not create an abstract cinema per se, but a cinema of expanding possibilities in being that will demand a degree of abstraction. Thus a person isn't set, but chemically capable, and it's in this chemical capacity transformation can take place. In psychological terms this might be termed neurotic, but in wider ontological ones we can see it as healthily transformative, the way scientists combine certain elements in the lab to arrive at new and fresh compounds.
© Tony McKibbin