Claire Denis is an artist that, like anyone working at the highest level in any medium, is able to compress and magnify and supercollide reality so that, depending on the angle you’re viewing it from, it can be totally unrecognizable, or as startling and mundane as the actual thing.
She’s directed music videos for Sonic Youth, one of the great dance documentaries, and 14 films that have won awards and invited hate and everything in between.
And yet, when High Life, her latest, opened in Vancouver earlier this year, it was something of an anomaly.
Not only was it her first fully-English-language film—a project kicked back to life by a late-night email Robert Pattinson sent after catching Denis’s White Material on TV—but it was distributed in hundreds of theatres, exposing her work to people outside the festival and arthouse circuit.
It isn’t nothing to know a film of Denis’s is guaranteed distribution—good luck finding her unparalleled run of films from the ‘90s at Black Dog Video, let alone streaming—and now this moment of success has sparked retrospectives across the continent.
A selection of eight features, most of them screening on 35mm, starts at the Cinematheque on Thursday (June 6).
“It's been kind of overdue,” says Shaun Inouye, the Cinematheque’s programming associate.
The last time a series was attempted, at the start of 2014, rights and cost issues prevented the theatre from showing more than a trio of Denis’s films.
“We kind of had the feeling that we’ve under-represented such an important filmmaker, so we’ve been looking for an opportunity.”
This opportunity isn’t perfect, of course: Beau Travail, part of many a series celebrating 1999 as a year-of-all-years in cinematic history, isn’t available.
Janus, the company behind the Criterion Collection, is all but confirmed to be behind a new restoration release that’s months away. While that keeps a key title out of what’s meant to be a thorough retrospective, it also opens things up to anyone who’s serious about looking at Denis’s artistic range.
“I think for a long time [Denis] was a really underestimated filmmaker, for a number of decades, even,” Inouye says. “And it was kind of seen that Beau Travail was her masterpiece. And I think now is the perfect opportunity, especially with the exclusion of Beau Travail, to look at her whole body of work and be, like, ‘No, she’s produced a number of masterpieces.’”
Critics have linked the sex-and-death-and-survival-driven High Life to films that do show up here, including Trouble Every Day, L’intrus, and Bastards, but the series starts with 35 Shots of Rum, a film with a different, more personal kind of origin.
“It is a stronger film than I originally remembered it being,” Inouye says.
High Life, in some ways a film about a state of depression, was edited in the wake of Denis’s mother’s passing. And it was her mother’s relationship with Denis’s grandfather that inspired the main relationship in the earlier film (starring Alex Descas and Mati Diop, who a month ago won the Grand Prix at Cannes for her debut directorial feature).
“I think it’s her warmest, maybe her most humanistic, most tender film,” Inouye adds.
The film, which is modelled partly on Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, began with an idea she’d been thinking about for a long time before making it.
Fifteen years earlier, she provided a sketch of her grandfather, who was Brazilian, in an interview: when she thinks of him in her memory, he always wore light-coloured shirts and a cloth hat, and he had a thin moustache.
“When I first saw Ozu’s picture,” she said, gesturing toward a photo of him, with all those same characteristics, “I had a feeling that perhaps he could be...” She trails off, and resumes talking about the film.
“There was nothing foreign about it.”
Denis remains connected to Brazil: she’s been credited as a mentor to filmmaker Alice Furtado, the editor of festival favourite The Human Surge and director of Sem Seu Sangue, which just premiered in Cannes’s Director’s Fortnight.
But that’s normal: Denis has found a way to stay connected with almost every stop along her career, never forgetting what she saw growing up first in West Africa, then Paris, and keeping close to loyal collaborators, whether that’s cinematographer Agnes Godard or Nottingham-based chamber pop band Tindersticks, the moody eye and ear-filling members of her team.
Perhaps it’s this deep commitment to giving creative power to the people she works with that makes her films so hard to pin down.
From one film to the next, Denis’s films are possessed by unpredictable energies.
It doesn’t matter whether she’s adapting Barthes or Kurosawa: something else breaks loose.
Across the eight films in the Cinematheque’s series, you can see that energy grow, mutate, and, in moments, achieve some kind of freedom.