In This Article Claire Denis

  • Introduction
  • Book-Length Studies
  • Special Issues
  • Selected Interviews
  • Films on Denis

Cinema and Media Studies Claire Denis
by
Kristin Hole
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0225

Introduction

Claire Denis (b. 1948) is one of the most important directors working in France today. Her unclassifiable body of work touches on many genres and stems from diverse sources of inspiration. Nonetheless, thematically and stylistically, Denis’s auteurist signature is evident in her focus on outsiders and bodies, her use of movement, and elliptical storytelling. Her work is known for its eschewal of dialogue and faith in the image. Before making her acclaimed first film Chocolat (1988), Denis was an assistant to many celebrated filmmakers including Wim Wenders, Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch, and Dušan Makavejev. Chocolat takes place in colonial Cameroon, one of several African countries in which Denis spent the greater part of her own childhood as the child of French colonial administrators. This experience shapes all of her films, whether set in Africa or France. Postcolonial criticism has thus been one of the major scholarly approaches to her work. To date Denis has made eleven feature-length films as well as several documentaries and short films. Her most celebrated film Beau Travail (1999) focuses on relations among three Foreign Legion officers in Djibouti. The film is known for its balletic sequences of male bodies performing mesmerizing choreographed drills in the desert. Music and dance play crucial roles in Denis’s oeuvre. Her films have a rhythmic pacing and often include unforgettable dance sequences. Known as a filmmaker who takes risks, Denis’s output ranges from her controversial film Trouble Every Day (2001), which traces the bloody continuum between desire and destruction, to her elusive and enigmatic adaptation of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing on the body and alterity in The Intruder (2004). Denis herself is an intellectual and has given countless interviews, always commenting on her work in generous, insightful, and articulate ways. In addition to the stylistic and thematic continuities that define her as an auteur, she tends to work with many of the same production/postproduction collaborators, contributing to the continuity of her oeuvre; these include co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, cinematographer Agnès Godard, editor Nelly Quettier, and the British musical group The Tindersticks. Much of Denis’s team has been with her since Chocolat. In the same vein, Denis builds ongoing relationships with actors, using them repeatedly across her oeuvre. Some of her signature actors include Gregoire Colin, Alex Descas, Michel Subor, Isaac de Bankholé, Béatrice Dalle, and Vincent Gallo. This repetition creates an additional intertextual continuity among her challenging and affecting films.

Book-Length Studies

Two excellent monographs on Denis appeared in 2005 (Beugnet 2004, Mayne 2005), both of which deal with Denis’s work up to and including the film Friday Night (2002). Whereas Mayne’s book deals with Denis’s films more or less chronologically, Beugnet’s text is organized thematically. Both provide insight into Denis’s more difficult-to-see short films and documentaries and include useful bibliographies—particularly for additional sources in French—and filmographies on the director (although now slightly dated). David, et al. 2008 is a collection of four essays in French by four different authors addressing multiple facets of Denis’s life and her films. This volume includes an extensive French bibliography as well as a slightly more updated filmography.

  • Beugnet, Martine. Claire Denis. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Part of Manchester Press’s French Film Directors series, Beugnet provides an insightful thematic overview of Denis’s films through topics such as exile, difference, and transgression. Situates Denis thematically and aesthetically in a literary and cinematic tradition of counter-culture.

  • David, Sébastien, Rémi Fontanel, Fabrice Fuentes, and Paul Gibert. Le Cinéma de Claire Denis ou l’énigme des sens. Lyon, France: Aléas, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book features four essays addressing topics relating to Denis and her films, from biographical information to discussions on music and the body.

  • Mayne, Judith. Claire Denis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Part of the University of Illinois Press’s Contemporary Film Directors series, Mayne’s book provides a critical overview of Denis’s work from an auteurist and feminist perspective. Includes an interview with Denis that addresses topics including her short films and a discussion of directorial influences.

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