All you need do is watch an interview with Claire Denis to understand how sure of herself she is, and how opinionated. She's an artist completely in control of her medium, and even when she makes what I would deem (as a critic) a mistake, I often have to admit that these “mistakes” seem calculated and deliberate. Which, frustratingly, can serve to convince me that maybe I'm the one who's mistaken. Moreover, it's particularly difficult to review her films, because it seems everyone reads a little more (or less) into them. Denis, on the other hand, has a very specific intent of what her films mean, and what they represent, which makes trying to articulate my own understanding and interpretation especially difficult.
The title of this essay is "Claire Denis's Cinema of the Skin" — all of this artist's work involves the skin in one way or another — whether it be the leathery, rugged skin of Michel Subor's aged body in The Intruder, which Denis examines in leisurely takes; or the role racial power struggles play in both the director's debut, Chocolat, and her best film, Beau Travail; or, in the strangest instance, the way that skin serves as a titillation in Denis's vampiric horror film, Trouble Every Day. In each case, the beauty found in the frames of a Denis picture is natural, and imperfect, and skin is often her medium. It's the blemishes on Tricia Vessy's skin in Trouble Every Day, and the moles and warts on the back of Subor, that give Denis's images texture — she would have no interest in the "clean and clear and under control" skin that some advertisements promise. In this sense, the types of skin which Denis (and her cinematographer of choice, Agnes Godard) chooses to film could be seen as symbolic of this artist's belief in the natural as opposed to the synthetic. Her films reflect this, as all of them tell stories that, even when they skirt the line of fantasy, are grounded in real emotions and natural characterizations.
This approach unifies every film in Denis's canon, and makes her an "auteur" in the classic sense, as does her decision to reuse actors; only seldom will you see a new face in a Denis film. She has a fondness for striking French men: Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, and the legendary Subor; and slightly awkward or abrasive looking women: Beatrice Dalle (who has a giant gap between her teeth), Florence Loiret-Caille, and the creepy Katia Golubeva (the latter of whom is probably best known for her role in Bruno Dumont's chilling Twentynine Palms). Some could say that the filmmaker favors women less, in fact I've even heard accusations that Denis is misogynist (a claims which I find laughable).
Consider Claire Denis to be the inverse of someone like Pedro Almodovar — a male director who "loves woman," as he has claimed, and who often casts men in supporting, less-defined roles (Volver, for example). Similarly, I think it can be accurately said that Denis loves men. Take Beau Travail, which finds the director spending long passages to watch the men in her film exercise (an act wherein she keenly observes the homoerotic undertones). But what I think is fascinating about Denis is that her sexually charged sequences never come off like an artist fawning over her subjects. I wouldn't say her films are clinical, just that Denis never judges or presents an opinion of what is on screen — her presence is removed from our viewing experience. It's her job to give us images, and it's our job to interpret them — if we detect a homoerotic undertone in Beau Travail, that detection is neither right nor wrong.
Even the most straightforward films of the director's career have often had a deep-seated meaning that's difficult to suss out. The mystery/procedural/slice-of-life entertainment that is I Can't Sleep, based on the "Granny Killer" murders in France during the 1980s, is probably Denis's most character/plot-driven work, but it refuses to be taken at face value, or to conform to the expectations of what we think the movie would be about. The central character in I Can't Sleep is a Lithuanian woman, come to Paris of her own accord, who just happens to get involved with the murderer. Even here, in a film based on real events (the closest to non-fiction Denis has ever gotten in her narrative work), themes that permeate her most avant-garde films emerge.
In I Can't Sleep, the murderer is a gay, black immigrant who never seems as lethal as he apparently is. He's involved in an affair with his accomplice, an older white man, who seems infinitely more sure of his actions. It may be a bit of a stretch to say that, like in Chocolat and Beau Travail, the black character is being exploited by the white. However, all three of these films have a very common theme: that of cultural alienation. In Beau Travail, it's a Russian legionnaire who arrives at a French outpost in South Africa, and who doesn't understand the conflict he becomes involved in. In Chocolat, it's a young girl who moves to South Africa with her mother and father to live on a plantation, and who doesn't understand the conflict between her mother and their black servant.
In I Can't Sleep, there are two foreigners at odds with their surroundings. Daiga, the Lithuanian woman, does not understand the announcement on her radio that warns of the "Granny Killer" (she knows very little French, as we learn soon after). And so it can reasonably be assumed that Camille (the killer himself), whose life collides with Daiga, and who's also an immigrant, may not comprehend the ramifications of his own actions (the film certainly implies that he is not very educated). And if Denis is suggesting this, then she may also be alluding to — in a subtle sort of way that one may only pick up on if they consider the larger scope and thematic concerns of this director's work — the discreet exploitation of Camille's circumstances, by his white lover.
It's also worth note that this theme is one that is hard-wired into Denis. Chocolat, the director's most personal film, is relatively autobiographical (Denis had similar experiences when she was a child, growing up in South Africa). The feelings of cultural alienation felt by her characters take on a greater resonance when one considers that the filmmaker probably draws from her own experiences to render her subjects and their motivations. This goes a long way towards explaining how Denis is able to create such in-depth and believable characterizations.
However, above all else — above even her incites as an explorer of human emotions — Denis is an artist, and a great filmmaker. Her cinema is defined by moody atmospherics in such a way that makes each work (even her least successful) feel cohesive and complete. Her signature tone is established through patient and intelligent pacing, Godard's crisp and compelling visuals, and Tindersticks' Stuart Staples' idiosyncratic scores, which burrow into your head and echo for weeks on end (the reverberating cacophony of The Intruder's musical accompaniment still haunts me). It's all of these elements which make her such a unique and valuable voice in modern cinema. And, it's the strength of each individual work she has crafted, and the daring topics she tackles with each new project, that make her truly incomparable.