Monday, June 15, 2009

On Claire Denis

With a few friends, we used to play a kind of game (game?) where we tried to work out the five albums or songs that changed our life. Those albums or songs that, when you heard them, set you on a different path or cottoned you on to a whole different way of listening or thinking about music. I find it hard to do a similar thing when it comes to film though there is no doubt that the same moments of alteration take place. But there is no doubt that there have been films - L'Avventura, Ivan's Childhood, Masculin Feminin, Amateur - while young; Mouchette, Ratcatcher, Instrument, Il Conformista, Paisa, Battle of Algiers - after the initial love of cinema aged; The River, Gegen die Wand, Rosetta, Festen, Climates; in more recent years - that have blown my mind wide open. Yet, of all the filmmakers whose body of work sustained a continued expansion of how I think about film, the one filmmaker I always think of who has shed the most light on the perfect, unmade films in my mind, is Claire Denis.

For me, a handful of her films are among those films that completely blew my mind open in terms of how film can exist as a unique artform. Often, at the heart of her films is a strong, occasionally genre-based narrative spine, which she, in her extraordinarily precise rendering of narrative moments, becomes an emotional journey told in images and scenes that are distilled to the point of abstraction. There is a sense watching her films that although they often have the languour and detachment of something profoundly 'cool', and although they flirt with horror, or with crime, or with the underworld, or with war or family melodrama, that theirs is a world unlike anything else. It is definitely musical and allows the seductiveness of DOP Agnes Godard's images to guide the rhythm and internal logic of the progression of the film, but is also has the kind of austerity that Bresson became synonymous with. It is just that this austerity has, coursing under it, a musical swagger that is like very few other filmmakers. She is like post rock to rock in my mind. She could, blindfolded and shackled, make the most perfect conventional films but instead she gives us a blistering array of notes in a time signature we've never encountered... Yep. Obsessed and myopic. That would be me.

So, the point of all this? Claire Denis' new film '36 Rhums' is playing Sydney Film Festival this week after premiering at Cannes a few weeks back. Although I narrowly missed seeing it in Sydney, I will be definitely at the front of the queue for it when it comes to Melbourne in July.

So, with that in mind, I had a look at my notebooks and found some things I'd tried to write about Claire Denis in the past. These are unfinished thoughts, possibly best left in a notebook, but I air them here in a blog with a non existent readership in continuity with the great tradition of self indulgence.

#1 Claire Denis/Nenette et Boni/Ornette Coleman

I have never been a musician, though I wish I was, and I can’t remember a time when I haven’t let my life be ruled by a love and admiration for, and loss in, music. So, it is films that play across the emotions in the surprising and emotional ways that the simplest song can do, that tend to be the films I love. And, at this moment, there are few films I love as much as the recent films of French filmmaker Claire Denis, and, at this time, there are none I love as much as her 1996 film Nenette and Boni. This film, which glories in the half awake states of its teenage characters, which lapses effortlessly in and out of dreams and memory, and which is propelled by an urgent energy that simmers in each scene only to arc over into the next, has had me enthralled ever since I first viewed it years ago. However, beyond a few rumbling thoughts, it is a film that keeps me guessing. I feel that it is a strikingly political film but I find it hard to pinpoint why. I feel there is something incredible within the rhythm and structure of this film, even as it indulges in small moments of cute humour and visual indulgence. I feel, most of all, that there is something burning beneath this film that holds the secret of what cinema, in a time of lumbering cinematic giants being chiselled away at by urgent, agile films, might come to be. Something flows through this film and her work in general, that is elusive, energetic and immediate and suggests a new freedom in approaching narrative cinema. Perhaps it is this quality that has had responses to her work reaching outside the realm of cinema to attempt to equate the experience of watching her films.

In the period following the release of Denis’ film Beau Travail, a number of critics, mostly American, compared her to Jazz great Ornette Coleman. This sidenote emerged in the writings of Amy Taubin, Jonathon Rosenbaum and Kent Jones among others, and it seemed that critical responses to Denis’ films required the signpost of this jazz innovator as a way to understand and think about her film. This, of course, can’t help but make one think what it is in her cinema, what is being offered and illuminated, that can be compared to Coleman’s overturning of jazz convention to open up the notion of ‘free jazz’, an altogether new understanding of the possibilities of the form. Coleman is generally seen as the artist who overturned the accepted standards of the dixieland sound in jazz by introducing his ‘harmolodic’ approach to improvisation. For many, he was an impossible listening experience, and fellow musicians and jazz lovers alike avoided his performances. He began to attract, however, a new audience, speaking to the broader artistic and intellectual trends of the time. And there was something about his precise approach, influenced by a fascination with physics and mathematical and colour theories, made manifest in a form so fluid and freed from the accepted forms and language that energised jazz altogether.

#2 Claire Denis/Explanations
"I am not trying to make it hard. I hate that. But I am trying to float on the impression of what a story could be. But for me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing. 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. I think cinema is linked to literature by a lot of social ways. Our brains are full of literature - my brain is. But I think we also have a dream world, the brain is also full of image and songs and I think that making films for me is to get rid of explanation. Because there is, I think, you get explanation by getting rid of explanation. I am sure of that."

#3 Claire Denis/Faces

#4 Claire Denis/Jazz

During the period in which he was directing his first feature film, Shadows, John Cassavetes talked of his love for the jazz musician:
“Jazz musicians are all Raskolnikovs. They have these little tin weapons – they don’t shoot; they don’t go anywhere. The jazz musician doesn’t deal with structure life. He just wants that night, like a kid. I’ve always been able to work with anybody that doesn’t want success. Jazz musicians don’t want success. They want a good time and millions of memories to share of nights locked in.”
It is clear that much of his love for the creation of jazz influenced the energy and improvisation founded on a basis of rigorous story and character development in much of his films. In many ways, the films of Claire Denis embody this spirit with a lyricism and fearlessness combined that is truly unique. It is no coincidence that Denis was likened to the great jazz artist Ornette Coleman following the release of her film Beau Travail. Energising the cinema screen in each one of her films but most identifiably in her later films is the same love of the moment, the sensual energy of the night, of music that courses across the skin of the body during the moment of playing. Another beautiful impression of the act of making jazz comes from James Baldwin in ‘Sonny’s Blues’:
"All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void..."
Denis’ own words emphasise that a part of her process is surrendering to the roar within. This alone makes her films some of the most brave cinema in contemporary film, and her approach not only creates unique work, but defies the cinema machine that seems to churn out so many other films with precision and style, but none of the recklessness to be found in the moment, in that night.

An improvisatory musician has a massive body of knowledge as to how to respond note by note to a particular phrase or chord. Denis’ films give the same sense. Beneath the two perfectly chosen notes, played sharp and loud, as a way to truly express a moment, an interaction, or an emotion, is a vast ocean of possibilities. Yet it happens that it is only those two notes that are right for that moment, in that time, within all the constituent elements that make up the particular atmosphere. The musicality of Denis' films suggest that within all the crazed confines of filmmaking she has been able to find a path toward improvisation and riffing, whether that is through the ruthlessness of her approach to editing (which, she attests, begins in the script:

"Often we do a first draft that has no gaps and then I feel it doesn't sound musical or interesting to me. So then I cut, because I think it's important to cut before [starting in] the editing room. It's important to cut it already in the script. Maybe I'm wrong, but I do it because I think it's more dangerous, in a way. Then everyone is aware – the crew, the actors – that there is a gap, so they don't expect, “Well, in the next scene, I will explain more about myself.” They know there won't be any explanations, so they act differently. "

#5 Claire Denis/Performance

I’m interested in her films as a wholly sensory experience that is played out on the surface of the skin, not the intellect. The characters are often reaching out to touch, repeatedly, mechanically engaging in sensual acts. Dance, embraces, rituals, restrained urges to reach out. I’m thinking of Alex Descas in S'en Fout La Mort grooming and caressing the feathers of the rooster; or Gregoire Colin as Boni stroking his coffeepot, himself, his rabbit; or of Valeria Bruni-Tudeschi touching her pastries, ‘nice and soft’.

#6 Claire Denis/Process

Of course, the process of making cinema, with its over-extension of on screen time into slow logistical processes that equate to weeks and months, is unable to be truly improvisatory. Even in those instances in which a performance is improvised, the later processes of editing and sound design cause a process of selection, analysis and exclusion to neuter the impulses that may have first driven the moment. What is remarkable about Claire Denis’ films is that she is able to sustain the sense of the film being lost in the moment of its own creation.

Cinema is a heavy beast weighed down with the fear of the money that burns through the camera every time action is called. It is weighed down by huge crews, by clashing egos, by the increasing pressures of market performance. These things rob the life from cinema. They rob it of the possibiltiy of recklessness, of anarchic energy, of the teetering feeling of punk, the knowledge that at any minute, things might fall apart. To watch Denis’ films is to see cinema breathe again, to break out and create it's own anxious energy.

The sense of the moment is important in Denis’ films for one additional vital reason: the audience becomes an essential element in setting the film loose from the constraints of the screen. On one occasion, when asked about her approach to directing actors, Denis commented:
“I don’t have a concept for directing actors. In a way, I see it more like choreography. That is to say, for me, directing is something that goes through the body. Directing and acting exist in an organic relation similar to a dance between directors and actors”
(Colonial Observations, interview by Mark A Reid)
A similar dance exists in her films between the audience and the director. Denis is intentionally, though not evasively, elliptical. In her films scenes are pieced together, glorying in their own moments, without the sense of rational constructions of narrative links. Instead scenes unfold with a logic not unlike dream but perhaps better described as occuring on the surface of the skin. They unfold like random thoughts and sensations, like unexpected flushes and tingles, but very much coherent with the system of thought and approach operating beneath. In films like Beau Travail or L'Intrus this feels something like dream, something like memory and something like the ruins of desire and history. In Nenette and Boni, S'en Fout La Mort or US Go Home this feels more like an organic response to heart beats, to physical and emotional responses, that are driven by nerve ending and brain signals that have no manifestation on the surface of things.

1 comment:

Glendyn Ivin said...

Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day starring Vinnie Gallo is my favorite film of hers. I love the way it hovers around 'Horror' as a genre, but you dont feel like you are watching horror.

When I think of that film a whole bunch of images and emotions rush through my head. Like a roulette wheel you can spin it round and your not sure which one your mind will settle on.