This month the Gene Siskel Film Center is hosting a retrospective devoted to French director Claire Denis, a singular filmmaker whose movies practically comprise their own genre. While clearly rooted in narrative, Denis’s films often breach pure abstraction in their innovative soundtracks, camera movements, and editing. Each one offers such an immersive experience, in fact, that it can be difficult to think about her filmography as a whole. One valuable thing about this retrospective is that it offers spectators an opportunity to do just that.
Noting in 2005 certain formal similarities between the films of Denis, Chantal Akerman, and Argentinian directors Lucrecia Martel and Ana Poliak, critic Kent Jones pondered:
Is there a difference between male and female approaches to filmmaking? To explore the question or to deny it in the name of parity? A quandary, perhaps best left to the talk show circuit or to cinema studies departments. Or some hitherto unforeseen merger between the two—”Welcome back to Oprah. Our guest today is professor Laura Mulvey . . .”
Nonetheless, it is striking to consider that a number of current, otherwise disparate narrative films directed by women operate according to their own stubbornly private rules, logic, timing, and spatial organization . . . Where a [Terrence] Malick, for instance, builds a master narrative and theme and then fills it with poetic and intuitive connections and flights, such abstractions form both the actual connective tissue as well as the substance of [The Intruder], Denis’s brooding meditation on spiritual displacement.
With Jones’s observations in mind, I’ll be revisiting the films in this series with local female critics, artists, and academics. We’ll discuss what (if anything) distinguishes Denis as a female filmmaker, along with various themes and stylistic devices she explores from film to film. This past Sunday, I spoke with local critic Marliyn Ferdinand (coauthor of the blog Ferdy on Films) to discuss the first two works screened in the series: Chocolat (1988), the director’s autobiographical first film, set in the 1950s on a French plantation in Cameroon; and White Material (2009), another African-set film starring Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-plantation owner caught in the middle of a civil war. (We were joined by Ferdinand’s partner, Shane Truax, who interjected at a few points in the conversation.) The first of these screens again on Thursday at 8:30 PM; the second screens again tonight at 8 PM.
Ben Sachs: I know this will sound reductive, but I’d say the women I know tend to be more intuitive than men. They’ll often “feel” their way through a problem before tackling it in a step-by-step manner. I thought about this while rewatching White Material. The movie, like many by Denis, asks you to intuit the characters’ relationships from impressions of environment and physical behavior. For instance, it’s not until about one-third into the movie that we realize that Huppert’s and Christopher Lambert’s characters are divorced. We’re inclined to assume they’re married because they live on the plantation together and share so many possessions.
Marilyn Ferdinand: There’s a sense of just wanting things to unfold. In my experience, women can be more patient. They’re not as quick to try to figure things out. Again, to be reductive, when a woman has a problem, she’ll talk it out, where a man would go in and solve it. For me, at least, [the female approach] offers a more satisfying way of seeing a film—in particular these films, which give you space to experience them.
As for the movie’s sense of place, I felt a woman’s perspective there too—the feeling that having a “home and hearth” is more important than going out into the world. Huppert’s character [Maria] says in the film that she couldn’t just stay home in France—she needed to go out and assert herself. But she just took these bourgeois values [from France] and brought them into Africa with her. She still pays attention to being fashionable and wearing lipstick and nail polish. There’s a sense of “nesting.”
In White Material, we know from the beginning that a catastrophe is going to happen. We don’t know which of the main characters will die, but we do know that Huppert and Lambert’s plantation is going to be besieged, that they’ll be left in this dire position. One of the first things we see is Huppert begging like a refugee to be taken onto a crowded van.
I felt there that she was part of the society. If I came into the film completely blind, I wouldn’t know what to make of her. She’s a white person in Africa, there’s definitely unrest going on around her, but who is she? What’s she doing? It took time for the film to show exactly how she fits in. I was just intrigued to find out why she wanted to get back to this plantation. And then, of course, you do find out that it’s her plantation and she’s trying to downplay how serious the situation is. To me, that created a certain amount of suspense, and so did those first images of the Boxer [the revolutionary played by Isaach de Bankolé]. You don’t know how he fits into all this either.
One of my favorite images of the movie is the shot where Huppert moves her hand through this basket of recently harvested coffee beans and finds this bloody goat’s head. It seems to sum up the movie’s narrative structure—just keep shifting details around and sooner or later you’ll find this shocking revelation. Of course, it also reminds us how the violence underlying this social order was never far from the surface.
That provides a link with Chocolat, which deals with plantations in high colonial mode. White Material shows that system on the edge of extinction. There are portents in the first film. The seduction of the [French] governor’s young bride [by an English guest] engenders this anger in their servant [also played by de Bankolé]. That anger’s going to erupt eventually . . .
You remember in Chocolat, Denis has that horrible coffee grower slapping servants around and yelling at them? I thought that could have been [Huppert’s] father-in-law in White Material, way back when.
I’m glad we got to see these two films back-to-back. They’re connected in quite a few ways.
I felt [Denis] was taking a different sort of elliptical approach in Chocolat. It’s a real memory film—it conveys nostalgia for her childhood in Africa. There’s a certain beauty, yet it’s mixed in with the sense that there was a cruelty there as well. I don’t think she really wanted to look at the cruelty [in that film]—she wanted to emphasize the remembrance.
She’s trying to represent what she experienced as a little girl.
But coming from the perspective of an older woman. She knows this is just her fantasy . . .
All over the world, aboriginals have been displaced by colonial powers. . . . All of us in the first world have blood on our hands, so to speak. And that’s hard to face. I think for the French in particular, the end of colonialism meant losing an aspect of cultural identity, this idea that they were benevolent, enlightened colonialists.
That seems to be a major theme in cinema today. Did you see Miguel Gomes’s Tabu when it came to town earlier this year? That touches on the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.
No, but I saw a Brazilian film at the Chicago International Film Festival, The Invisible Collection, that dealt with Portuguese colonialism. And again, in that one, there were these women [in the present day] who were holding down a plantation by the skin of their teeth.
I think one of the central insights of Chocolat is that European women may have recognized the cruelty of colonialism before men did because they weren’t active participants in it. The white women in the film are kept on the sidelines—they have all this time to observe how everything works. I thought of Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud 9, which connects a critique of colonialism to a feminist critique of patriarchy.
Caryl Churchill is extremely political. I don’t see the same kind of engagement in Denis’s films. Her art is more personal—you’re right up in people’s faces. Churchill, at least in that play, uses these Brechtian tableaux where characters are declaiming rather than showing.
Although there are some tableau shots in Chocolat that are unlike anything in Denis’s later work. Like there’s one shot that looks like something out of an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie, where the three men are sitting across a table—one of them stone drunk—a servant’s standing behind them, and [the] camera is completely still.
It certainly isn’t like the shooting style of White Material. I actually found Chocolat to be quite funny at times.
The humor in that film recalls Jim Jarmusch, whom Denis assisted on Down by Law.
The moments she picks to showcase—I’m thinking of the three airport workers in the final shot of Chocolat—they’re not always serious.
For me, the final shots of both Chocolat and White Material point to the “stubbornly private” quality that Kent Jones mentions. In each, we’re looking at people the movie hasn’t shown us before. Yet we’ve been so immersed in a distinct way of seeing that the narrative can drift to a new character without disrupting the emotional continuity.
I do think there’s continuity in that last scene of Chocolat. It harkens back to that early shot of the governor and Protée [de Bankolé’s character] peeing together. In that image, the men are side by side but they’re not equals. In the last shot, which takes place in the present, you have three men who are all working for themselves—they’re employees rather than servants. They experience a real equality. It creates a sense of hope for what’s going on in Africa.
I was in South Africa in 2000, so about ten years after the fall of apartheid. While there was still visible inequity, I could feel this buoyancy, a sense that things were really changing. Chocolat was made when many African progressive movements were in full force. In South Africa, that was a time when there was plenty of optimism—and, at the same time, a lot of pessimism from the white population, who thought the country was going to hell in a handbasket. By that point it was their country too.
They’d rooted themselves there. That’s another common theme between these two films. In both, the white heroines feel they’re in “their” countries, even though most outside observers wouldn’t agree. A poignant aspect of Chocolat is that Protée is the African character to whom the Denis stand-in feels closest, and he had been raised by whites. He’s a misfit too.
Protée ends up breaking off their friendship when he burns his own hand to trick the girl into burning hers.
Shane Truax: So she won’t trust him anymore.
I don’t know. The action is ambiguous.
It also suggests a sort of “blood brothers” ritual, because afterwards they both have the same scar.
Shane Truax: But before then, Protée had taken France under his wing. This was the first time he pushed her away.
I think we’re both right about this, actually.
That’s what I’m saying—it’s very ambiguous. And maybe, for me, that’s part of what makes it more of a “feminine” film. It encourages these different interpretations that are all correct.
Yet there’s an authority to the image. Again, it’s emotionally direct even though it isn’t clear in a narrative sense. But that’s not to say Denis’s images are abstract. She isn’t an experimental filmmaker.
She’s not. In fact, there are some images in White Material I find a little obvious, like when Huppert’s son, Manuel, shaves his head and joins the rebel children soldiers. I also didn’t buy Huppert’s desperation to get back to the plantation because her son was helpless without her. I believed that her grandiosity would bring her back to the plantation, but concern seemed inconsistent with what we saw of her up till then. Maybe that’s a reflection of what a bad mother she was. [laughs]
When we were emailing about this series, you brought up a book about the legacy of colonialism as reflected in modern French cinema . . .
Landscapes of Loss [by Naomi Greene].
Did you find that the book provides a useful frame for Denis’s work?
The book itself deals with certain notions the French have of themselves. Like, the image of the brave resistance fighter of World War II became a sort of myth under De Gaulle, who used it to try to bring the country together at a time of internecine strife—much of which had to do with the betrayals of the Vichy government. The Algerian War was another blow to French identity and unity. It meant the French had to come to terms with their colonial past, specifically in regards to the use of torture. That’s the focus of Alain Resnais’s Muriel (1963), and I thought of that film while watching Denis’s films today.
The narrative structure of Muriel also could be described as circling around a core idea—in that case, an unacknowledged trauma. The movie moves a bit forward, it moves a bit back, it jumps over to a subplot, but it doesn’t reveal who Muriel is until close to the end.
Another thing Landscapes of Loss discusses is a common desire to cloud over French history in Africa. Muriel is about that desire; so is Chocolat. The heroine, who was born and raised in Africa, has this love and nostalgia for Cameroon, even though she’s the daughter of colonialists. It’s like how Huppert’s character in White Material says, “This is a beautiful country. The white people don’t deserve it!” As though she herself wasn’t white.
The French born in Africa were really people without a country after colonialism ended. The French didn’t want them. They used to call the colonialists born in Algeria “Pieds-Noirs” [“black feet”], which is a derogatory term. . . . The protagonist of White Material knows that she won’t make it anywhere else, which is why she clings to that plantation, even if it means losing her life.
I suspect that the transient feeling that characterizes much of Denis’s work has a lot to do with her experience of growing up in Africa—to have come of age knowing you’re always out of place. Earlier I brought up the connection between Denis and Jarmusch. Like many of Jarmusch’s films, Chocolat often acknowledges the presence of other languages, other cultures. There’s always another way of seeing.
In Chocolat, there are layers of colonial influence. So, you have Enoch the chef who can cook only English dishes and doesn’t know French cuisine. To have all these languages and traditions, you feel they’re pushing you around. I personally feel that national boundaries are kind of silly.
They’re seeming sillier all the time, as multinational corporations exert so much influence over global affairs.
But there are still people who cling to the idea of “me and mine.”
In pretty much every First World nation, there have been outbreaks of nationalist sentiments in recent years.
I think the formation of the European Union has something to do with that. People felt like they were losing aspects of their identity when they had to conform to continental currency and laws. Landscape of Loss, which was written in 1999, talks about this gradual loss of identity. I think that Denis, who’s basically a director of two countries, is particularly tuned into this issue—this question of “What do we latch on to?”
This need to latch onto something, I think that’s the guiding force in many of Denis’s movies. It’s what makes them exhilarating and also a little scary.
She’s really channeling the zeitgeist.