Renowned for her sensual, erotic and formally daring cinema, the French auteur receives her first TIFF Cinematheque retrospective in more than a decade.
In the quarter-century that has passed between her feature debut with Chocolat and the release of her new film Bastards, Claire Denis has directed more than twenty short and feature films, creating one of the most singular bodies of work in contemporary world cinema. Though her films have revolved around a recurring constellation of themes — the nature of desire, the representation of race, the depiction of outsiders and the many possible definitions of "family" — Denis' cinema defies easy categorization. Ranging freely across genres, subjects, tones and methods, she has explored an extraordinary range of experience while remaining inimitably herself. As Bastards pushes her work in yet another exciting new direction, this long-awaited series — the first retrospective of Denis' films at TIFF Cinematheque in over a decade — chronicles the ongoing journey of a filmmaker whose boldness, curiosity, and uniquely sensual sense of cinema constantly invite us to see the world in different ways.
Born in Paris as the daughter of a colonial administrator, Denis spent most of her youth in West Africa before returning to France to enter IDHEC, the national film school, where she studied under such luminaries as director Peter Brook and cinematographers Pierre Lhomme, Henri Alekan, and Sacha Vierny. After scoring her first job on a film set as an extra in Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer in 1971, she soon began working as an assistant for Dusan Makavejev (Sweet Movie) and Jacques Rivette (Out 1), and later for Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law). Though Denis displays many affinities with those she apprenticed under (Makavejev's sexual frankness, Rivette's elliptical narratives, Wenders' magisterial tracking camera, Jarmusch's predilection for outsiders) she quickly established her own distinct style and set of preoccupations. (Not to mention a veritable stock company in her almost familial group of collaborators, which includes cinematographer Agnès Godard, writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, acclaimed UK band Tindersticks, and actors Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, Alice Houri, Béatrice Dalle, Isaach De Bankolé, Vincent Lindon and Vincent Gallo.)
Marked by an intimate sensuality that contrasts with her often harsh subject matter, Denis' films are made up of fragments constantly coalescing and dispersing, creating a visceral "in the moment" experience that renders her characters uncannily familiar even as their motives and drives often remain mysterious. The extraordinary proximity Denis creates between her characters and the audience allows us to slowly, almost intuitively understand their struggles, pains, difficulties and desires. No matter our distance from Denis' outsiders, she brings us so close to their experiences that we cannot help but see something of ourselves reflected in them: we feel the alienation and pain of the immigrant brothers who run a brutal cockfighting ring in No Fear, No Die; we become another sibling to the transvestite serial killer of I Can't Sleep; perhaps most disturbingly, we share a frightening complicity with a man struggling to combat a virus that compels him to sexual cannibalism in Trouble Every Day.
Perhaps more than anything else it is fearlessness that defines Denis' cinema,not only in the occasional extremity of her subject matter but in her acceptance that borders — between content and form, insider and outsider, desire that liberates and desire that destroys — are perpetually unclear. The touching closeness of father and daughter in 35 rhums, of uncle and newborn niece in Nénette et Boni, the tender and erotic connection of one-night lovers in Vendredi soir are no stranger to the fatal rivalry of Beau travail or the horrifying deeds of I Can't Sleep and Trouble Every Day. As the increasing unity of our globalized era ironically augments the fracturing of our identities and the fragmenting of our experiences, Denis reminds us of our inescapable nearness to one another through the shared language of the body — a nearness that, whether it be reassuring or unsettling, compels us to confront our own longings and desires, our own personal states of exile, rather than pass judgment on those of others.
— Brad Deane
Thanks to Claire Denis; Claire Le Masne & Sarah Arcache, Consulat General de France à Toronto; Jake Perlin, The Film Desk; Tom Alexander, Mongrel Media; Emmanuelle Castro, Wild Bunch International Sales; David Pendleton, Harvard Film Archive.