2017 Women's Cinema Festival, Women's Cinema

2017 Women’s Cinema Festival – Day 7: Claire Denis’s Day

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At long last, here’s your coverage of Day 7 of 2018 Women’s Cinema. Day 7 is the day to celebrate Claire Denis. Also, if you look up there in the menu bar, you will see a new section at the corner named…ahem… Directors’ Corner. I intend to go through some certain directors’ filmography after this project so I’ll put those under this new tag. Now, let’s move on to Day 7:

I only had experienced with her through 35 Rhums before, but even then she gave me a solid impression. It’s easy to see why her films have a long-lasting appeal. Her films are as much about sensual and rhythm as narrative, and sometimes the former can become the latter. Her films might appear to be dry as first, but digging into it, and there’s heaps of thematical relevance buried deep underneath. You can also see how much she loves her black characters through the way she shoots them and they way she chooses them as her central characters, from the colonial and racial clash portrayed from the perspective of a female ex-coloniser in her debut Chocolat (1988), to their own perspective in 35 Rhums (2008). It comes as no surprise since Denis herself was raised in the French colonial in Africa and came back to France at the age of 12. Denis’s also a versatile director, having directed horror (Trouble Every Day), sci-fi (the upcoming High Life), period piece, a romantic comedy and drama. About her signature film technique, she prefers still, well-composition shots and long takes. Her films often get shaped in the editing room, where she creates the rhythm that most well-known through her masterpiece Beau Travail (1999). Although widely regarded as one of the best female directors working today, Cannes Festival surprisingly has been sceptical of her works. Only her debut Chocolat (1988) made it to the Main Competition, other films are often sidelined in Un Certain Regard slots.

Other side note is that one of my online friend, Kaiser Eoghan, also contribute his own take on Denis’s debut Chocolat. My deep gratitude to him for doing this with me. Now, if any of you readers want to participate by writing your reviews on these films, I’ll be happy to post it alongside with my reviews.

Chocolat (1988)

“Horizon is a perceived line that vanishes as it is approached”

A sensitive, and complex look at the boundary between racial and colonial relationship in a French-colonial African country. Chocolat tells the story through the memory of now-adult France about her childhood place and the relationship between Protee (Issach Bankolé), a black houseboy with the young France and her mother Aimee (Giulia Boschi). Set in the end of the colonial era in an isolated place where time and space feel as though standing still, the film more than gives you the sense and feel of vast African’s landscape. Denis often uses long, panning shots to convey the boundless silent landscape of nothingness. Chocolat is Denis’s debut, and she credits both Jim Jarmusch on Down By Law (1986) and Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas (1984) (whom she worked as an assistant prior to making her own films) as the influence for the Chocolat’s style. One thing that really stand out in this debut is Denis’s trust for her visual telling. This is a film about all these tensions that can never speak into word, all the social line that cannot see but easily feel, and the colonial relationship that is fragile and vulnerable.

That invisible line of unbalanced connection is examined by the bond between Protee and young France and a sexual tension between him and Aimee. Protee has a powerful presence in his dignified manner and his weathered face. France’s father, Marc, is a captain in the French colonial army and is often away dealing with business and governing the area, leaving Protee to protect his wife and daughter. With France, they share a close relationship. We often see France play together with him and other African maids in their “common” place: either it’s the back of the house or under the car. In the opening, we see Protee offers her a bread with butter and black ants, which she happily eats it. Although as a white French, France is a hybrid between both Westernize culture and West African’s (in the case, Cameroon’s) own culture. But then again, they’re living on a different ground. At one point, she orders Protee to leave, which he hesitantly obeys. That all comes crashing down in the end where Protee purposely gives her a burning scar – a scar that best signifies the ongoing tension between the people in different side of colonial world.

The sexual tension between him and Aimee, likewise, takes a silent and subtle route. It comes gradually, from Aimee’s insecure about the place, to something simple like a bath. For Protee and all the maids, their shower is in public’s space. At one point, we see Aimee and France pass by it, reminding Protee’s own social space. Protee’s action of refusing Aimee’s advance can be seen as his refusal for class’s dominance. As the course of the film, we also see several other white characters and their relationship with the native African servants. One of them flat-out discriminate the native, but hiding his food for his African mistress. The other, Luc, also white boy but behaves like a black. He eats and sleeps together with the African servants. He berates Protee at his own identity before Protee throws him out of the house.

The film is bookended as the adult France visits back her hometown and meet an African-American man named Mungo Park (Emmet Judson Williamson). As we know more about his story, it becomes ambiguous what exactly is a bond of both France and Mungo and this African land. One is white who used to grow up in this land and the other is black but has been living overseas for a long time. Like the scar in her palm which indicates that she’s someone with no pass or future, so does this colonial bond and the search for identity of each character.

Kaiser Eoghan’s review:

Chocolat is a 100 minute drama film directed by Claire Denis, starring Isaac de Bankolé and Giliua Boschi, it focuses on a French woman, who travelling through Africa, reflects upon her past living there.

Generally when racial dramas are brought up, there is always the unfortunate snag that goes along with the genres association with thankless, cheap critic proof cash ins more about winning awards than respecting the subject matter.
So it came much as a welcome with Denis’ film presents a far more earnest look and approach.
Bankolé plays the servant character with respect, and humbleness, free of tokenism or Oscar baiting and he and Denis get across a man who though showing restraint, is clear in his frustration and it’s because of this low key method and slow pace of the film that the only moment he has to cry is in a private moment and when he does snap later on, it registers more because of how much we saw him holding back.
Though in flashbacks, the girl’s relationship with the black man has a charm to it, the girl herself feels like a prop at times, it seems less about her, although she serves as a good, innocent device that Bankolé can take some solace in.
Significantly more interesting is her mother’s relation to the Bankolé black servant character that’s a mix of hot and cold, it’s also like the rest of the film, even the racist outbursts, blatant or casual, are never overdone, maintaining an understated sense. This relation seems to come off as largely implied and is all the better for it dramatically and narratively.
We don’t need infodumps about French military guys or missionaries and Denis keeps it straight to the point with quick scenes showing a priest and a soldier, also notetable is a Queen Victoria picture hiding in the background. There’s a scene later on where a white man takes food to a stashed away black woman, that stands out while being so welcomingly simple.
Cameroon also looks like a kind of pretty place captured by Denis’ camera.
Perhaps this isn’t as emotional a film for me as it is for others and Denis would develop on her Africa narrative much later with White Material, this comfortably sits in the middle of other films I have seen from her, the criminally underrated Trouble everyday that like her other later effort Bastards significantly unsettles.

Verdict4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Beau Travail (1999)

When you want to point out all of Denis’s distinctive touch as an unique voice in cinema, you’ll eventually come across this film. Disregard the conventional narrative, instead relying on editing and voice over to generate its own rhythm. It’s one of those instances (the other two examples that come to mind are 8 ½ and Mulholland Drive) that I can say it’s pure representation of cinema as a medium, in which no other form of medium can convey all the underlying context as completely. Much of Beau Travail is dedicated to the daily exercise and training regimen of the Legionnaires in the desolate mountains and plains of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, taking with little to no actual dialogue. Beau Travail is a film that focuses on the physicality, as we see many extended montages of those soldiers in training, which more or less create a military ballet. Appropriately, this focus speaks well into the main theme of Beau Travail, the dissection of masculine and male identity, and even more suitably, Denis Lavant (who is best known for the physically demanding aspects of the roles he plays) takes up the main leading role.

Much has been said about Lavan’t character Galoup’s self-destructive drives to the new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), many of which involve in homoerotic context (which I don’t see it at all so I’ll refrain from discussing that. It’s a straight text as far as I see). Like in Chocolat, we’re into the story through fragments of memory from Galoup, who is now in Marseille waiting for court order. His jealous intensifies after a heroic action from Sentain. Later, by provoking Sentain to intervene in the mistreatment of another soldier, Galoup turns Sentain’s own good nature against him, in order to be justified in disciplining him. As we learn, Galoup’s increasingly jealousy comes from his own frustration, his fear of his own impotence watching Sentain slowly climbs up the stair. The setting of an isolated area removed from the real world and has its own set of social standards (with all men to boost) further makes Galoup’s sense of rank amongst the team more pressing. Impotence in the name of social change is further articulated in the imagery of near-collapse state of colonial settings.

Apart from a near perfect acting of Lavant, Denis’s sensual touch of editing is what hold everything together. Scenes connected to one another not necessary by the constraint of narrative, instead it moves in its own dance. The same can be said to these training routines, which is now dubbed as military ballet, where there are thirty men with the same appearances practising together. As you might have known before, the famous last scene at the disco doesn’t originally intent to be the film’s final scene. Denis changes it based on the flow of her film. And what we have is the perfect summation of Beau Travail: a near wordless film with one male, looking down and dancing to the beat, completely alone. Ironically, that sequence might be his most joyous moments.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

Right at the beginning of Let the Sunshine in, we see Isabelle (the magnificent Juliette Binoche) lying in bed, naked. She’s making love but she doesn’t enjoy it. Through the rest of duration, we’d see that metaphorically naked Isabelle struggles again and again with finding true love. This film is Claire Denis’s own take on rom-com, without all the natural beats of the genre. Many has compared this work to Nancy Meyer’s brand of romantic comedy, which I consider it as an apt comparison. Sunshine is a film about the relationship life of middle-age single woman Isabelle. We never get a full depiction of her various love affairs, but merely a snapshot of each of her relationship.

The duration of the film depicts romantic encounters with various types of men, most end up miserably for our Isabelle. At first, she engages in a casual relationship with a married man. If that isn’t already bad enough, the guy is a real prick (played wonderfully by Xavier Beauvois, whom you might know as a director of Of Gods and Men (2010). At one time she finds herself in a one-night relationship with another married man, whom chicken out the next day. Or at other time she’s in relationship with a man who is below her status, and that remains fine until she’s influenced by the concerns of her friend. These are painfully honest, and occasionally humorous that make the film mature in a surprising light touch. Juliette Binoche is the main key for this film’s success. She’s always been known as an actress who can manage wide range of emotions, but here she manages to nail the role of women in the middle of her romance crisis, not only vulnerable but also vivid and full of life. She’s the kind of character who struggle to find anything meaningful with her romantic life, but the film shows us in most occasions it’s the result of her bad choice or her being overly harsh on the ones truly love her. But that’s exactly why she feels so true to life.

If the film keeps focusing on Isabelle jumping over many partners, it’d have had a greater score. Instead, the last 10 minutes with the cameo of Depardieu sucks the life out of the film. Not only he literally appears with no context, he feels terribly out of place to the the flow of the film. He says all these pretentious lines that makes his character even more unbearable. I’m never fond of his acting, and here he doesn’t raise my opinion much. Isabella, on the other hand, sucks into his words and it’s one of the rare occasions the we see her smile. She’s pleased because it’s all she wanted to hear and it strongly suggests that this Depardieu character will try his way to hook on her. Being romantic type at heart we know for sure that Isabella never truly gets out of her circle of fruitless love.

And that marks the end of this Denis’s celebration day. Next post we will be back to the Main Competition with 2 of the most distinctive directing voices of this line-up: the chilling thriller You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay, and On Body and Soul by Ildikó Enyed. I’m excited for this one. As for the future of this project, the remaining will be much quicker (that’s a promise!), given I already watched all in competition films but 3, so it’s just a matter of writing up. I’ll keep at least 1 post per week. See ya real soon.

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