Carnal Terror: The Films of Claire Denis
Take me to the very heart of you
Tonight I wanna touch the stars
Tonight I wanna be in heaven”
—Tindersticks, “Put Your Love In Me”
A young girl walks barefoot down the street, as stoical as a somnambulist, enshrouded by night; lights gleam off the rain-slick asphalt, and a rivulet of blood pours from between her legs. Questions arise: Who is she? Why is she walking down the street alone? What happened to her? The answers, the epiphanies, come slowly, and they are painful. As with many of Denis’ films, viewers have to wait until the very last shot to understand what they’ve just watched. Denis revels in ambiguity, in the unseen and unuttered. This enigmatic scene, as dreamy as it is disturbing, with its insinuations of cruelty and carnality, occurs near the beginning of her 2013 film Bastards, and is emblematic of Claire Denis’ style of filmmaking. Images from Denis’ sibylline films become lodged in the consciousness, like splinters you can’t exhume. Denis deals in implication, telling characters’ histories through casual gestures. Her narratives — cryptic, unfettered visions of lives in tumult — are like shattered panes of glass, and she makes the viewers shift the shards, piecing the story together. She eschews expository dialogue, and withholds crucial information, though one wonders how crucial these narrative details really are, if Denis’ films are so hypnotic without them.
Denis has a devoted, fervent following, and is a regular at the New York Film Festival, but her films, with their deviant salaciousness and unrepentant violence, have never attracted a mainstream audience. High Life (2018), her first big-budget project, and the first that could be described in an elevator pitch (“Robert Pattinson has sex in space,” maybe), will likely change that. Not that the film is tamer than her previous efforts: it features a room the director calls “The Fuckbox,” and Juliette Binoche plays a mad scientist who, in one of the most indelible scenes of Denis’ career, straps herself into a metal dildo chair and masturbates ferociously, as if her life depended on an orgasm. It’s insoluble, a story of sexual annihilation and love (platonic, venereal) in the face of obliteration. Those who traipse in expecting Star Wars will leave traumatized.
High Life looks like nothing else Denis has directed. Yorick Le Saux replaces usual cinematographer Agnès Godard, whose penchant for dreamy, drifting handheld shots are so vital to Denis’ atmosphere of enigma and angst. Here, the camera is often static, the compositions assiduous. It harkens back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), of course, as all serious science-fiction films tend to do, but in its brutality, it is a film only Denis could have made. It’s a disturbing film, with its prolonged, visceral scenes of sexual violence, but it’s also a sometimes disturbingly sexy film; Binoche’s writhing, thrashing masturbation scene, with its inky shadows and torrents of bodily fluids, will arouse some and appall others. It is, like many of Denis’ films, concerned with the ineluctable human urge to fuck.
Denis has never done a big-budget project before, but her films are all thematically ambitious undertakings. Consider Beau Travail, her 1999 breakthrough, one of the great literary adaptations of the 20th century. Though John Huston’s unremarkable 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick remains the most well-known adaptation of a Herman Melville novel (it stars a vociferous Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, and jettisons all the cetology of the novel in favor of old fashioned Hollywood spectacle), it was Denis who figured out how to adapt Melville. Her adaptation of Billy Budd transliterates the story to modern day Djibouti, where the French Foreign Legion is stationed. Denis extrapolates the unspoken longing of Melville’s crestfallen characters: Chief Adjutant Galoup (Denis Lavant), a straight-laced, stony-faced leader, becomes beguiled by a new soldier (Grégoire Colin), an affable man of alluring beauty. Galoup is at once enthralled by this man, and envious of him; he feels ardor and ire as he tries to keep his feelings suppressed. Galoup is a man bifurcated. Here, as with Denis’ other films, secret desire corrodes from the inside. From Melville’s novella:
Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did anybody ever seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime. And not only does everybody disown it, but the better sort are inclined to incredulity when it is in earnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since it’s lodgement is in the heart and not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it.
The film is, unlike Denis’ subsequent endeavors, splashed with sunlight. James Wood once wrote that any good writer can describe the desert beautifully because its extreme aesthetic lends itself to description. The same can be said about filmmakers; here, Denis and her longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard avoid the tropes of the desert and create an intimate portrait of Djibouti, letting the camera gaze at the sweat-glazed bodies glinting in the sun. The sky, pale and parched, hangs over a vast swath of sand. To one side of the soldiers, a writhing sea; in the distance, mountains loom. It feels like a paradise purged of joy.
The film ends with Galoup lying in bed, a gun in his hand. In his final moments the film jumps backward to the phlegmatic, Janus-faced Galoup smoking a cigarette on the periphery of a dance floor. He is, for the first time, dressed casually, yet it’s clear that he put effort in the attire. After several moments of reluctant swaying, he succumbs to the music (Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night”), his limbs flailing, his body moving with unfeigned and unalloyed rapture, leaping, spinning, rolling on the floor. It is the one time when we see Galoup drop his facade and be himself. But it’s too late. Melville wrestled with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man; Denis finds the rot inherent in both.
After Beau Travail, Denis’ films become even more cryptic, slipping deeper into the shadows. Her films are sexual but not necessarily sexy; she looks at the human body as a curio, as something that corrupts and can be corrupted, not with the scopophilic longing of most directors. Consider the lugubrious Trouble Every Day (2001), or the cruel and unbidden revelations at the end of Bastards, a film so dark it’s nearly aphotic — these are films that do not compromise, that offer no condolences. Trouble Every Day, reviled when it first came out before obtaining belated acclaim, stars Vincent Gallo as Shane, a recently married man who is looking for someone, for some reason. Who and why are questions whose answers are ascertained slowly, through insinuation and disturbing epiphany. Shane is laconic, distant, an impenetrable man whose tortured soul seems to be seeping out of those agonized eyes. His face is wrought with lust and loathing. Trouble Every Day is about love and sex, about the fervor and fear they engender, about the damage they do. It is a libidinous and merciless film; in its vicious venereally, its oneiric atmosphere, it seeks truths that go deeper than flesh — it captures the raw, unadulterated power of passion. Shane is looking, purportedly, for a cure for a grisly sexually transmitted disease, of sorts, one that turns the infected ravenous and cannibalistic, with an insatiable need for sex. Maybe the most upsetting scene in Denis’ body of work (and it is a body of work rife with upsetting scenes) depicts Shane seducing a young, naive hotel maid, then eating her face; if Hannibal Lector dines on people, then the cannibals of Trouble Every Day eat as though they were starving. Her agonized howling is heard by no one except for Shane and the viewers, who are spared no details of his frenzied ingurgitation.
The film, Denis’ most saturnine and sensuous, also marks the auteur’s second collaboration with Stuart Staples, frontman of Tindersticks. Staples’ inextricable music is as vital to Denis’ films as Agnès Godard’s photography. This is the first time Staples recorded a vocal theme track — their previous soundtrack, Nenette et Boni (1996), was all instrumental, and included the song “Tiny Tears” from Tindersticks’ second album. From the title song (the credits are, somewhat notoriously, in Comic Sans MS), the music sets a certain sad and salacious mood, the swoony strings, that sanguine voice cooing “Look into my eyes / You see trouble every day / It’s on the inside of me / So don’t try to understand.” His sultry, sleazy music permeates each of Denis’ subsequent films, music as apt for sex as it is a nightmare.
Bastards is similarly pitiless, but rather than depict sex merely as a violent and inexorable need (which, in Denis’ worldview, it is), it depicts it also as a form of power, as something to fear. The film reveals itself with the same deft control as Trouble Every Day, and has a similar kind of grotesque reverence for genre; if Trouble Every Day is a rumination on love in the guise of a horror film, then Bastards is the same, except as a neo-noir. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis steeps the film in a grimy ugliness, imbues it with a bone-deep sense of hopelessness. From the opening moments, rain pelting a building and a man staring vacuously out a window (he will kill himself by the next scene, the scene of the somnambular girl trundling down the street), Bastards is brutal and mysterious. Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sailor, returns to his estranged family after his brother-in-law kills himself. Marco becomes something of an avenging angel, seeking out the man, a creditor (Michel Subor), whose relentless business practices drove the man to suicide. The plot, which is thematically redolent of William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary, (the writer’s commercial breakthrough work, written for profit after the financial failures of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying), slowly transmutes into a rape-revenge story. It’s Denis’ most visually anguished film, and the Tindersticks score, mostly electronic, is enveloped with a severe and disquieting air.
But Bastards is, for all its despondency and ambiguities, still a fairly straightforward story compared to The Intruder (2004), a Delphic and dour diegesis about a man (Michel Subor) in search of a heart transplant, and one of the most befuddling (and, for some viewers, vexing) narrative films to ever appear on the big screen. One almost wants to resist The Intruder, its dissonance, its insolence for narrative normalcy, the way it laces boredom with fear like so much arsenic. The plot is piebald with holes, into which one can sink if one lingers too long on any specific point, and the narrative is fragmented, shattered, as we gaze into the lacuna between pieces. It’s a film you succumb to. Denis conjures ineluctable images of bodies — of course in Trouble Every Day, with its fetishization of flesh, but also the shirtless legionnaires in Beau Travail, Friday Night (2002), in which a girl bathes in profile on her final night of being single, and Let the Sunshine In (2017), in which Juliette Binoche seeks solace in sex, and I Can’t Sleep (1994), her first masterpiece, in which a serial killer and his lover target elderly women. In The Intruder, Subor’s reticent man is in possession of a body that is breaking down. Based on a memoir by Jean-Luc Nancy, the film is a series of external observations whose meaning must be excavated by discerning viewers. If Ernest Hemingway likened his fiction to an iceberg, whose tip is above the surface, then Denis’ film is a frozen pond, under which the entire narrative is submerged.
The film, like many of Denis’, continues to flummox viewers 15 years later: At a post-screening Q&A at Lincoln Center in 2018, an audience member asked Agnès Godard to elucidate and explain the film. She said she didn’t know either.
Claire Denis’ High Life had its US premiere on April 12 and is now playing in select theaters.