Claire Denis’ personal history as the oldest child of a colonial official stationed throughout outposts in French equatorial Africa is a biographical detail that is often only referenced within the context of her debut feature, Chocolat – a domestic situation that mirrored the filmmaker’s young life (that, as author Judith Mayne accurately points out, often incorrectly trivializes the film as largely an autobiographical reconstruction of her memories of a colonial African childhood) – a seemingly anecdotal reference whose residual influence remains largely invisible and unexplored within critical analyses of her subsequent films. However, as Mayne argues in the Contemporary Film Directors series book, Claire Denis, this first-hand experience of living as a privileged European settler during the waning days of colonialism would continue to permeate throughout Denis’ work. Specifically, Denis’ upbringing was shaped by her parents’ own acute awareness of the “perversity” of the inequitable relationship between their role as colonizers and the African natives (Denis describes her parents as adventure-seeking travelers rather than bureaucrats who staked their careers and fortunes on the continuity of colonial exploitation). Moreover, as a French-born colonist whose childhood was spent predominantly in Africa, Denis would experience early on, not only the ephemeral and indefinable notions of race, nationality, and identity, but also instilled a sentiment of perpetual transience that the author defines as the theme of “vagabondage” that would pervade Denis’ work, an aesthetic tendency “to move around rather than towards” the subject of her gaze:
My father was a colonial functionary, so I knew that I was passing through. I didn’t lose my country because I knew it never belonged to me. Nothing belonged to us…I belonged to a country – France – that I knew nothing about.
To this end, Mayne proposes that Denis’ first three feature films, Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, and I Can’t Sleep can be thematically correlated to her later films Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, and Friday Night (the author similarly pairs Nenette and Boni with the ARTE telefilm episode U.S. Go Home, from Tous les Garçons et les filles de leur âge, as expositions on sibling intimacy) in their expositions on colonialism, immigration, and integration in order to illustrate a natural evolution that reflects Denis’ own early life experience from colonist, to repatriate, to “assimilated” transplant in her native, yet foreign homeland (note the prefiguring themes of assimilation and transplantation in Denis’ subsequent film, L’Intrus).
In Chocolat, the introductory sequence subverts the notion of race and identity in the images of a young white woman who turns out to be African juxtaposed against the image of a black father and son on the beach who turn out to be vacationing Americans. Inspired by the novel Une vie de boy by Cameroonian author Ferdinand Oyono, Chocolat eschews the romanticism and exoticization often associated with a nostalgia for an irretrievable colonial past. Instead, Denis provides a certain transparency of gaze through the heroine France that is at once native and estranged, knowing and curious – a suspended existential state that Mayne describes as the “desire to see coupled with the inevitable colonization of the look”. Mayne subsequently parallels France’s modern-day status as a displaced “native” with the legionnaires of Beau Travail who are, logistically, also without nationality – foreign soldiers without citizenship in the country they serve. In addition to the Herman Melville novel Billy Budd on which the film was based, Mayne also underscores the influence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit soldat in the film, specifically, in actor Michel Subor reprising his role as Bruno Forestier from the Godard film, an ideological warrior in perpetual search for the next political agitation.
Like Chocolat, Denis’ second feature No Fear, No Die is also inspired by literature, in this case, Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks on the psychic toll of colonialism. Centered on two African immigrants who train cocks for a French club owner running illegal cockfighting tournaments, the sport becomes a metaphor for the colonial encounter in which native tradition is exoticized, removed from its cultural context, and exploited for profit by people in positions of power, and in the process of commodification, stripping the underlying art innate in the cultural sport. As Mayne incisively comments, Denis’ films do not present a fetishized view of black people or African culture but rather, “because Denis’ own desires as a filmmaker entail questions concerning race and racial boundaries, her work is inevitably seen in relationship to cultural anxieties about the relationship between black people and white people.” Similarly, Trouble Every Day can also be seen through the prism of cultural anxieties, in this case, between sexuality and violence, and the underlying anxiety of foreignness introduced by migration and transplantation. Originally scripted as part of an envisioned triptych of films centered on the common theme of hotels with filmmakers Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) and Atom Egoyan (unfilmed), the film revolves around the parallel premise of a sexual aberration that afflicts both Coré (Beatrice Dalle) and Shane (Vincent Gallo) (perhaps contracted through an implied past sexual relationship between the two while Shane and Coré’s husband Léo performed scientific research at a Guyana facility). In this case, the sickness serves as a metaphor for the unknown and unreconciled legacy of colonialism, where the desire for profit (Shane’s theft of Léo’s clinical studies) results in the unleashing of a destructive and consuming epidemic.
Diverging from the literary basis of her earlier films, Denis’ third film, I Can’t Sleep is inspired by the real-life case of Thierry Paulin that, as Mayne points out, was sensationalized in the media by salaciously focusing on his private life as a gay mulatto, drag queen, and drug addict rather than the actual atrocity of the murders he committed:
How, then, could one make a film inspired by the Paulin case without indulging the racism and homophobia that were part and parcel of the coverage of his case? Denis’ decision was to “evacuate” from the film any notion of “political correctness”, that is, to refuse to engage with the question of what can or cannot be deemed an acceptable representation of race or sexuality. ‘Political correctness’, said Denis, ‘is a corollary of racism’.
As a result, Denis structures the film through the tangentially intersecting lives of three cultural outsiders living in a state of literal and figurative transience in Paris – the drag queen Camille (Richard Courcet), his brother Théo (Alex Descas) who believes that returning to Martinique with his estranged wife (Beatrice Dalle) will set his life right again, and Lithuanian immigrant Daïga (Yekaterina Golubeva) who has traveled to the city to pursue an illusory acting career – in order to illustrate the inherent failure of assimilation as it manifests in the pervasive social and cultural otherness of language, race, and sexuality. Similarly, Friday Night can also be seen as a snapshot of a woman in a state of transition (she is literally trapped in her car by the gridlock caused by a transit strike) before the advent of assimilation (her transition from single life to a live-in relationship).
Lastly, a film inspired by Marcel Pagnol’s La Femme du boulanger, Mayne cites a seemingly ordinary, yet insightful encounter between Boni (Grégoire Colin) and the baker’s wife (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) on the effect of pheromones in Nenette and Boni as a fitting encapsulation for Denis’ textural approach to cinema:
The woman is certainly visible in terms of the competing claims between the maternal and the sexual, but there is a definite movement beyond the dichotomy in this scene in which her discussion of ‘invisible fluids’ summarizes beautifully the film’s occupation with flow – with water, with movement, with transformation.
Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]