The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border
(I. B. Tauris, 2014)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary filmmaker more searching or mercurial than Claire Denis; her films aren’t unclassifiable, exactly, but they inevitably frustrate attempts at description that favor story, character, or identity politics. They are genre-defying collages: of flesh and landscape, concrete and countryside, clear-eyed analysis and flesh-bound fetish. It’s appropriate, then, that the very fine new volume The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border, edited by Marjorie Vecchio, is something of a grab-bag. Vecchio has wisely set critical essays alongside interviews with both Denis and her collaborators, and the result is a welcome addition to the dearth of English-language criticism on Denis. The book examines her work from a multitude of angles without for one moment pretending that she can—or should—be safely pinned down with reference to either other filmmakers or academic/theoretical “movements.”
Vecchio, in her preface, explains that any physical borders the geographically promiscuous Denis concerns herself with are secondary to the “intimate ones […] between children and parents, siblings neighbors, strangers, old friends and lovers.” Denis’s protagonists form a multivalent collection of individuals in close battle “who are always encircled by larger [. . .] borders such as class, race, country, gender, politics, and land.” Recall the boundaries set for the the French legionnaires in Beau Travail, defined by the state and their “work”—which includes border enforcement—and then recall what we actually remember about that film: the intimate grapplings of bodies and souls, the ultimate transcendence in the crossing of the line between life on earth and whatever ecstatic nightclub purgatory comes next.
Denis’s films, then, are attempts to both acknowledge the presence of these various borders and to ultimately reconfigure them; her work, writes Vecchio, “constantly pushes the concept of personal agency against the boundaries of unquestioned allegiance, nationalism, stupidity, innocence, and multi-culturalism.” The inclusion of that last “boundary” may come as a shock to certain progressive readers not used to hearing multiculturalism described as a site surrounded by a fence, but Vecchio is here referring to analytical frameworks that would attempt to comfortably shoehorn Denis, who spent some of her formative years in several French colonies of Africa, into a comfortable position of post-colonial protest art.
Indeed, as both the interviews with Denis and the book’s best essays make clear, definitive identification is anathema to this filmmaker. In the words of James S. Williams, “Identity for Denis can only ever be an experience of exile or marginality,” and family is only ever provisional, always diasporic. It is no accident that the best work here examines Denis’s slippery—and, I think, ultimately radical—notion of a conception of others (or the Other, if you like) that is necessarily outside of prescribed bonds of family and nation, and which Denis renders accordingly: as fractured, disorienting, frequently violent, and, just as frequently (and sometimes in the same breath) heart-stoppingly beautiful. Williams and Sam Ishii-Gonzales, in two of the book’s centerpiece essays, navigate different facets of what Ishii-Gonzales terms Denis’s “non-relational relations” in prose that is both fleet and relatively free of theoretical jargon.
Rounding out the book are the aforementioned conversations with Denis; interviews with current and former collaborators (including members of Tindersticks, Denis’s in-house band); individual examinations of thorny masterworks such as Trouble Every Day and The Intruder; and a wonderful concluding piece by Adam Nayman and Andrew Tracy which discusses Denis’s bloody-minded relationship to the horror-centric, and at one time academically fashionable, “New French Extremity” movement. There will no doubt be more English-language books about Claire Denis, but it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive and sensitive one than this. In the meantime, we can await the borders drawn—and penetrated—in her forthcoming film, reportedly written by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird. It’s set in outer space.