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No Fear, No Die, I Can't Sleep, Nenette and Boni, L'Intrus, Vers Nancy (from Ten Minutes Older: The Cello)
Related Reading: Claire Denis by Judith Mayne.

S'en fout la mort, 1990
[No Fear, No Die]

DescasOn desolate road near the Spanish-French border, a pensive African immigrant from Benin, Dah (Isaach De Bankolé), waits in the darkness for a poultry truck to arrive for an appointed evening rendezvous. Aboard is an old friend, Jocelyn (Alex Descas) who has recruited him to act as an intermediary and handle the business affairs of his entered partnership with an unscrupulous French restaurateur named Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy) and his son, Michel (Christopher Buchholz) to smuggle fight-bred roosters into the country for his plans to operate an illegal discotheque and cockfighting arena out of a condemned business property. Ardennes provides Dah and Jocelyn with a spare room in the basement of a bar operated by his beautiful lover, Toni (Solveig Dommartin), in order to covertly train the cocks in preparation for the club's opening. Jocelyn is a meticulous trainer: prescribing a stringently measured formula diet; conducting repeated exercises to promote strength, speed, and dexterity; subjecting the animals to loud, fast-paced urban music in order to stimulate aggression. One day, Toni intrudes on the training regimen in order to complain of the music volume, but is summarily ignored by Jocelyn and Dah. Jocelyn believes that Toni's presence is detrimental to the training of the roosters, and warns Dah to maintain distance. Nevertheless, despite the note of caution, the seemingly innocuous episode would prove to the first of many unannounced and ambiguously motivated visits by the inscrutable and alluring Toni, as the two friends soon find themselves struggling to maintain their focus on their lucrative enterprise.

Claire Denis creates an intelligently constructed, richly textured, and provocative exploration of human behavior, sexual attraction, and violence in No Fear, No Die. Using correlational episodes on the ritual of cockfighting with the protagonists' increasingly desperate pursuit of money and companionship, Denis provides an allegorical examination of man's often savage and self-destructive instinct for survival: the shot of roosters in training that cuts to the image of Jocelyn and Dah's evening run (as Dah astutely remarks in voice-over, "Men. Cocks. Same thing."); Jocelyn's theory on Toni's disruptive presence in the training area as a rooster's hormonal reaction to a female presence that is reflected in his subsequent erratic behavior as Toni passes by the cage storeroom; Ardennes' self-confessed addiction to his cockfighting experience in the West Indies that chronologically coincides with his obsessive love affair with Jocelyn's mother. In illustrating the protagonists' inextricable immersion into the chaos and brutality of the inhumane bloodsport, Denis reveals the underlying influence of masculine competition and aggression in the everyday conduct of business and human transactions.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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J'ai pas sommeil, 1994
[I Can't Sleep]

Courcet/GolubevaOn her way to Paris, an attractive, young Lithuanian woman named Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva) scans through the local radio stations in search of ambient driving music, distractedly tuning in on a trivialized, inappropriately jovial news broadcast of the latest victim of the elusive "granny killer", before resuming the station's youthful, upbeat music programming. The film then cuts to an unconnected shot of a young man named Camille (Richard Courcet) having a violent quarrel with his lover, and in a subsequent episode, spending the evening at the apartment of his older brother, Théo (Alex Descas) and his young son, Harry. Théo, a pensive violinist struggling with single fatherhood as a result of his French lover, Mona's (Béatrice Dalle) extended absences from home, is determined to emigrate to Martinique, causing further friction on their already strained relationship. Meanwhile, Daiga has arrived in Paris, stops by a coffee shop for a snack, and attempts to make a telephone call to an acquaintance named Sacha (Kamil Tchalaev) in an attempt to contact an opportunistic stage producer, later revealed to have insincerely flattered her with empty promises of acting jobs (undoubtedly in exchange for sexual favors). Returning to her car, she is harassed by two plain clothes officers who follow her from the coffee shop to admonish her for parking illegally, as well as inappropriately flirt with the young, and seemingly naïve, immigrant. Unable to reach her employment contact, Daiga arrives unexpectedly at her aunt's apartment, where, coincidentally, the body of the latest victim has been discovered, and eventually finds work as a cleaning woman for a Latvian hotel owner. Eventually, Daiga's recurring and seemingly fated peripheral connections to the serial murders emerge, despite her own unconcern and oblivion towards the targeted, brutal crimes.

Claire Denis presents a haunting and understatedly compelling meditation on longing, estrangement, and disconnection in I Can't Sleep. Using fragmented, often unresolved episodes, narrative ellipses, and tangential encounters, Denis creates a melancholic and sensual tapestry on cultural division and marginalization (issues that Michael Haneke would similarly explore in a subsequent film, Code Inconnu): Daiga's limited knowledge of French is repeatedly exploited by others for personal gain; the neighbors' continued distrust of Théo after he interrupts an episode of domestic violence; Camille's volatile relationship with his lover that is paralleled in Théo and Mona's unstable relationship; the vulnerable, often solitary existence of the elderly victims. By tracing the aimless, desperate, and isolated lives of social outsiders, I Can't Sleep becomes an evocative, richly textured, and deeply disturbing contemporary ballad on the pervasive nature of violence and the difficulty of assimilation in an increasingly alienating modern society.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Nénette et Boni, 1996
[Nenette and Boni]

Nenette and BoniAn early episode in Nenette and Boni shows a teenaged girl named Antoinette (Alice Houri), wearing an oversized shirt as she blissfully floats in a school gymnasium swimming pool before being summoned out of the water for improper swimming attire by an impatient instructor. Later in the evening, she bids an affectionate farewell to her roommate and sneaks out of a second floor boarding school dormitory window, eventually catching an overnight bus that is heading out of town. Meanwhile, in Marseilles, her older brother Bonifacio (Grégoire Colin) indulges in his own unproductive escapism by observing the sensual and alluring form of the local baker's beautiful wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) as she passes by his vehicle, then later chronicles his graphically lurid sexual fantasies of her (sporting an unexplained, badly bruised eye) in his self-deprecatingly titled diary, Confessions of a Wimp. At nineteen years old, the brash and undereducated young man proudly rules over his personal domain - a modest, rundown home inherited from his late mother, Aline - with a confident and territorial swagger: cruelly chasing away a stray cat by shooting an air rifle, providing his transient, petty criminal friends with a place to stay after stealing a shipment of fishing rods, and idling about the house while boasting of his prerogative to set his own hours as the owner of a mobile pizza food service van [an enterprise that was charitably given to the unemployable Boni by a concerned uncle (Gérard Meylan)]. Spotting Nenette in the vicinity of the house as she attempts to make eye contact, Boni pretends not to see her and instead, leaves for work. In his absence, Nenette strikes up a conversation with Boni's unwitting friend, who is immediately attracted to her, and invites her inside the house. It is a tenuous homecoming for the desperate Nenette, having run away from her (perhaps overly) doting father, Felix (Jacques Nolot) - a decorative light store owner with dubious business alliances - in order to enlist her estranged brother's assistance in an unwanted pregnancy. Faced with the inevitability of his immature and emotionally fractured sister's impending motherhood, Boni's innate capacity for sibling devotion, selflessness, and personal responsibility are awakened.

Nenette and Boni is a highly evocative, hypnotically organic, and exquisitely sensual portrait of connection, intimacy, and surrogate relationships. Claire Denis uses metaphoric and representational bodies, surfaces, and allusive sounds to create tactile and intuitive sensorial manifestations of implicit human behavior and emotions: the serenity of Nenette's swim that alludes to her innate desire for catharsis and return to innocence after realizing her pregnancy; her sentimental, gentle caresses of her late mother's clothing that reflect her unrequited longing and profound grief over their separation and her untimely death; the tongue-in-cheek slow motion shot of generously filled, decadent pastries that switches focus to the baker's seductive wife leaning over the display case to retrieve a fallen raffle ticket; Boni's wordless erotic dream that is discreetly presented through an abstract, pulsing image and the ambient sound of intermittent, forced hot water gurgling through a pre-programmed coffee maker; his amusing, near orgasmic kneading of pizza dough. The theme of substitution and masking of natural instinct is further reflected in a seemingly vacuous conversation between Boni and the baker's wife at a shopping mall as she attempts to fill the void of his enigmatic silence with an explanatory theory on the negational effects of strong-scented perfumes on the body's emission of sexually attractive pheromones. By visually capturing the literal and figurative essence of suppressed and unarticulated emotion, Nenette and Boni serves as a densely voluptuous and sublime textural composition that sophisticatedly and uninhibitedly exposes and lays bare the underlying complexity of human interaction and individual psychology.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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