Ahead of her experimental sci-fi movie starring Robert Pattinson in 2019, get into the essential works of the pioneering French filmmaker
Is it too early to name our favourite film of 2019? In Claire Denis’s High Life, Robert Pattinson finds himself flung into outer space on an expedition to investigate black holes. However, the trip’s real purpose, he learns, is to force passengers into years of sexual experiments. He and his fellow guinea pigs, including André 3000 and Mia Goth, have no escape, except for death. The existential sci-fi was saluted by the Guardian as “orgasmic brilliance in deepest space with Robert Pattinson”. It also proved gnarly enough to prompt mass walk-outs during its TIFF premiere. One viewer tweeted: “I left about halfway through the film and threw up in the loos and saw about 20 people walk out – one crying, many shaking.” So if you don’t adore it wholeheartedly, at least you’ll make a new friend with whoever holds your hair as you spew half-digested popcorn into a nearby bathroom. Either way, two words alone sold it for us: Claire Denis. Wherever the fearless French filmmaker goes, we will follow – especially if it’s a million miles away from this horrible planet we call home.
High Life marks Denis’s 14th feature film, and to be honest, you can’t go wrong with any of them. In her early days, she operated as an assistant director on arthouse hits such as Wings of Desire, Down by Law and Paris, Texas. But in 1988, an eclectic filmography was born: Denis made her proper debut with Chocolat, a memory piece about her childhood in Africa. Since then, Denis has hired regular collaborators (Tindersticks for music, Agnès Godard for cinematography) and established thematic obsessions (sex, death, colonialism), but without resorting to repetition or compromising her vision. She’s influenced countless others; right now, Barry Jenkins’ Twitter bio proudly states that he is a “Claire Denis stan”, and Greta Gerwig credits Beau Travail as “the movie that had the biggest impact on me”. How can you not trust Frances Halliday herself?
In the meantime, as we all look to the skies and await a cinema release date for High Life, it’s a perfect opportunity to visit, or revisit, Denis’s impeccable back catalogue. So here’s a selection of firm favourites to seek out first: a mix of poetic romance, poignant family drama, and fucked-up body horror.
BEAU TRAVAIL (1999)
Here it is: Denis’s undisputed masterpiece, the one single film of hers you should prioritise over anything else. Shot on 35mm in a scorching Djibouti desert, Beau Travail is a poetic depiction of fragile masculinity amongst a group of legionnaires. In punishing heat, the male soldiers perform ridiculous exercises, often crawling around like sweaty, half-naked crabs. It’s like an artfully photographed nature documentary: the men’s balletic choreography is steeped in both hypnotic and homoerotic beauty. Then, when the sun goes down, a few of them visit nightclubs to burn off sexual energy; others just bottle up their desires until it has to explode.
The non-chronological timeline mainly follows Denis Lavant, a sergeant who feels challenged and confused by the arrival of Grégoire Colin, a slim, boy-ish man of 22. That the story loosely follows the plot of Billy Budd should give you a hint of Lavant’s motives. However, the dialogue is minimal, and Denis’s storytelling is instead driven by a series of memorable images, the watery flow of the transitions, and the amplified drama of the musical cues. Stick around for the credits: Lavant spinning around to “The Rhythm of the Night”, cigarette in hand, is an all-time moment in cinema. If you live in London, it’s projected on 35mm a few times a year. Essential viewing.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001)
Even the opening credits – in Comic Sans, no less – of Trouble Every Day are polarising. At its Cannes premiere, Denis’s cannibal horror caused three audience members to faint. Presumably they were more adverse to the gore, sexual depravity and violence than the provocative font choice. Vincent Gallo takes centre stage as a scientist whose Parisian honeymoon doubles as an excuse to hunt down a former flame, Béatrice Dalle. Around nearby women, Gallo appears both thirsty and hungry; it’s an unnerving mannerism underpinned by his passive-aggressive speech patterns. But Gallo’s particular kink is matched by Dalle, a literal man-eater who only comes out at night.
Several scenes implant themselves in your memory. Some are more innocent, like Tindersticks’ frontman tenderly crooning, “You see trouble every day…” over rippling rivers. Then there’s Gallo furiously masturbating in a fit of existential despair, or any of Dalle’s messier mealtimes. That said, Denis doesn’t shock for the sake of being shocking. The bizarre love story bleeds with lyrical beauty and visceral unpleasantness that justifies itself. Denis rips out the tropes of a hacky genre, and uncovers the raw concerns at its heart: the fear, drive and shame of one’s own sexual appetite and taste for flesh. By the end, the director strikes such an esoteric tone that, really, Comic Sans is the only way to go.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (2008)
The offbeat tradition referenced by the title of this film is that, on special occasions, you should drink 35 shots of rum. At one point, Alex Descas makes it to 19 at a colleague’s retirement party. But it’s not the right moment yet. That’s the kind of small character detail littered through Denis’s bittersweet family drama, a movie she unabashedly labels as her version of a Yasujirō Ozu picture. Descas lives alone with his loving daughter, played by Mati Diop, but he fears that she, as an adult, will soon find a place of her own. Around him, everyone seems to be moving on or moving out: the Tindersticks score and the long, lonely shots of train tracks underpin the melancholic mood.
Even before Descas’s former co-worker collapses into a deep, suicidal depression, it’s already a movie of profound sadness. That this family truly loves each other is what makes their inevitable separation more sorrowful. The undeniable centre-piece, around the midpoint, is a dance sequence in a restaurant: Descas observes his daughter shimmy closer and closer towards Grégoire Colin, an awkward neighbour with a crush and a firm grip. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming – if your stomach and wallet can afford it, then it’s a movie totally deserving of 35 shots of liquor.
FRIDAY NIGHT (2002)
The sensual pleasures of Denis’s aesthetic manifest to the extreme in Vendredi soir: the afterglow of Parisian lampposts; staccato strings when hearts are suddenly racing; the acute awareness of brushing a stranger’s arm for the first time. Here’s a movie that will ignite your belief in love, or at least love in the movies, even if its minimal plot suggests a more cynical message. On the evening before moving in with her boyfriend, Valérie Lemercier finds herself stuck in traffic; on impulse, she allows Vincent Lindon, a marooned passer-by, into her car, and soon they’re hunting down a hotel room.
The subsequent one-night stand feels like it unfolds in real time. It doesn’t. At a slender 85 minutes (and maybe 85 spoken words), the nocturnal drama flows at a rapid tempo, often hurried along by its swooning score. Such is the heightened romance of this brief encounter, a few CGI flights of fancy even occur: a pizza rearrange its toppings into a smile; the lettering on the side of a Volvo impulsively dances to the radio. It’s one to watch at a 35mm rep screening with a captivated crowd, or at home alone because no one would hang out with you.
US GO HOME (1994)
In 1994, for some reason, a French TV channel commissioned nine directors to shoot their own one-off teen stories. These included Oliver Assayas’s Cold Water, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, and Denis’s semi-autobiographical US Go Home, a dreamy 77-minute coming-of-ager fuelled by a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Plot-wise, it’s Denis doing Dazed and Confused: a 24-hour period in which Alice Houri prepares for, attends, and then escapes from a house party in Paris.
Houri’s mission, though, revolves around losing her virginit. The social gathering itself (“This is a place to get laid,” she declares) comprises a nearly wordless third of the film. However, the camera lingers on Houri’s loneliness.Many will recognise what it’s like to be a third wheel, to hide in the bathroom, and to then slump on the sofa while everyone else hops around. The movie peaks, though, in the final act, when Houri is driven home by Vincent Gallo, a visiting American soldier who “looks like a pervert”. On their journey, each tiny gesture is magnified: the smoking of a cigarette, the pop song on the radio, and the guessing games within their awkward, flirtatious body language.
NO FEAR, NO DIE (1990)
First things first, there’s a message in the end credits: no animals were harmed during the making of this movie. For lengthy periods, Denis’s sophomore feature unfolds in the dingiest corners of Paris, often in a basement, beneath a restaurant, where illegal cock fighting takes place. It stars Isaach De Bankolé and Alex Descas, two of Denis’s regular actors, as a pair of low-paid animal trainers trapped in this nightmarish lifestyle. Both men are black immigrants, their boss is an exploitative white male jerk, and there comes a point when Descas feels compelled to free the creatures from their cages. Don’t worry, that scene is not as Pixar-y as it sounds.
So there is, of course, a metaphor here, but the characters and their tender friendship are fully fleshed out. Descas, in particular, holds his own as a sad figure who’s drawn to alcohol and, later on, a forbidden romance with Solveig Dommartin – one of the actor’s few appearances outside of a Wim Wenders movie. Although the film is harsh and unpleasant where it needs to be, Denis still locates moments of warmth, particularly in how she frames human relationships through subtle, wordless gestures, or how her characters relieve stress by listening to hip-hop.