The TIFF Lightbox is currently showing a season of films by Claire Denis, one of the most thrilling of current filmmakers. In the program notes, Brad Deane ably evokes the unique impact of her work: “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.”
Perhaps the work that most pushes this approach to the extreme is The Intruder, one of the few films in recent years that I watched again within days of my first viewing. Even the second time round, it doesn’t come close to being “explicable” in the normal sense – some elements are surely fantasy, or else expressions of an inner state, but they’re not easily coded as such; Denis holds inner and outer geographies in stunning, almost humbling alignment. Others of her films, like Vendredi soir and 35 Rhums, are easier to absorb, but no less impressive for how she illuminates a small, unremarkable piece of the world and makes it thrillingly sensuous, without any sense of force or excess.
Her 2001 film Trouble Every Day illustrated how Denis’ methods might as effectively be applied to explore a heart of darkness. It’s a tale of two people afflicted by a kind of contemporary vampirism, as alert as ever to alternate possibilities and pathways, but in this case using that sensitivity to intensify the trauma at its centre. The title hints at her audacity – it’s almost offhand, as if bemoaning one’s everyday lot (the irritating days, for instance, when one gets covered in blood from tearing one’s victim apart): it’s the quotidian resonance that makes the film so disturbing and powerful.
Her latest film Bastards, also playing at the Lightbox, returns to bleak material: it’s a contemporary film noir, constructed from classic raw materials. The opening stretch alone encompasses heavy rain; a man lying dead; a young girl walking naked in the street; a tough sea captain who comes home to sort out the mess; a desolately beautiful woman who becomes his lover, although she’s already linked to the powerful man who’s somehow in the background of all this mayhem. Many reviewers found the film overly confusing and obscure, but a few secondary plot points aside, I didn’t find it so; actually, if anything, I might judge it to be too tightly wound to carry the impact of Denis’ very greatest works.
Having said that, it’s another indelible creation: certainly one of the most fascinating and spiritually gripping films I’ve seen this year. Denis cites William Faulkner’s book Sanctuary as a major influence: I’m not familiar with that material, but I kept thinking in various ways (as did others) of Polanski’s Chinatown, another story of local politics (although in Bastards it’s personal and commercial – focusing on a bankrupt family business – rather than municipal) and of sexual transgression that crosses the ultimate taboos, with another protagonist in a dangerous liaison; another story too where the nature and capacity of the power at the centre only gradually reveals itself.
It’s a loose comparison though, and one of the major points of difference lies in contrasting Jack Nicholson’s scrappy Gittes to Vincent Lindon’s Marco, the returning voyager in Bastards. In very short order, Marco leaves his job, sells most of his possessions, cashes in his life insurance, seemingly following an intuitive journey toward self-immolation, even as the details of what and why he’s doing remain unclear to him. Lindon has all the craggy resonance of a classic outsider, but Denis doesn’t overplay the character’s existential momentum – he isn’t a quasi-ethereal figure like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, but a man who admits to numerous limitations, and who gets snapped at by the daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Likewise, his lover Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) seems perpetually weighed down and haunted by the compromises that have defined her life. As always with Denis, the film is enormously ventilated by the keenness of her observations – even if in this case they’re as often horrifying (day to day items put to grotesque use) as they are illuminating (details of bankruptcy law, or the extremely precise inventorying of Marco’s possessions – his expensive white shirts, his watch, his classic car, his smartphone).
In that same essay, Deane says: “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”. That last point is explicit in the movie, when Raphaelle explicitly tells Marco she doesn’t judge his actions (implicitly asking for a similar courtesy), and film writers in general often hold up such reticence to “pass judgment” as a sublime virtue among artists, but I’m not sure why that’s the case: aren’t there plenty of situations, personal as well as political, where principled, informed opposition should count for more than a wholly-headed tolerance?
In any event, the last scene of Bastards poses an extreme test of our ability to withhold judgment, and of this reading of her work, as Denis forces us up close against the events at the centre of the plot, destroying any capacity we might have had to regard these matters as abstractions. We’ve earlier seen that one of the men involved is capable of loving his son, but that’s merely the indulgence you find even in monsters; maybe even the way they reassure themselves that the evil they commit elsewhere is justified in the grand calculus. It seems appropriate and even necessary to judge, but at the same time, to Deane’s point, Denis all but dares us not to fantasize ourselves into that scene, and thus to indict ourselves.
There’s a similar provocation in one of the film’s most shocking moments, when the camera travels down the naked girl’s body, an image that travels in seconds from being potentially or actually erotic to traumatic, as we register the damage done to her. Moments like these sum up Denis’ immense power as a filmmaker – forcing us into contradictory impressions and reactions, into constantly reassessing what’s before us and thus in some way ourselves. It would be remarkable enough if she confined her power to a single genre or a narrow line of enquiry, but her interests and affinities seem almost boundless. Only for one of the greatest of filmmakers would a film as richly controlled and allusive as Bastards seem like a relatively second-level work.