Movies are, at their cores, sequences of interrelated images. The French director Claire Denis, whose films range in setting from the streets of Paris to ex-French-colonial Africa, has spent her career reminding us of this fact—a truth so fundamental to the medium that it’s easy to take for granted. Denis’s images are more than storytelling devices, exercises in pure style, or delivery systems for emotions such as fear, pity, or awe. By themselves, they’re packed with subtle movements, atmospheric textures and visual ideas. Taken together, they create the foundation of Denis’s narratives.
Trouble Every Day, an unnerving mix of eroticism, horror and suspense, feels like a direct descendent of the cinema of the 1910s and 1920s. Silence pervades the film and, in most cases, leaves only the image for the audience to ponder; what is not said must be observed. The narrative is built on a series of primal, seemingly disconnected images: an ominous laboratory; zoomed-in ocular expressions; a barren landscape; blood-soaked bodies. Eventually, a story emerges concerning the interwoven lives of a mysterious scientist, his meek new wife, a doctor, a dangerous woman, and a hotel maid. Even so, the driving force of the movie’s events cannot be explained through words: as eventually becomes graphically evident, the scientist and the woman share a condition that corresponds to a kind of extremely lustful vampirism. You leave this film with terrible, disturbing images that cannot easily be shaken off. However, that is the challenge Denis creates for her audience: to understand these characters’ motivations, desires and fears, you have to look.
The images that make up Denis’ 2009 feature White Material—child soldiers with hardened faces; the still bodies of the violently murdered; the desperate eyes of those living in total despair—disturb the audience’s sense of stability and comfort for a different reason: their relative frequency in the world. But White Material is also a film about seeing and the failure to see. Of particular interest is the main character’s figurative blindness to the reality of a civil war that closes in on her life. Maria Vial and her family, who are distinguished from the rest of the characters by the paleness of their European skin, administer a coffee plantation in an African country. Despite the civil war raging around her, Vial refuses to see that her family is in grave danger and decides to continue the harvest. She even ignores the blatant threat of a cow head placed by unknown menaces in her beloved coffee beans. In this case, Denis understands that images can only go so far in advancing the story. The modern history of Africa cannot be understood without knowledge of its recent colonial past, and the relationships between White Material’s characters are not presented without context. Interestingly, Denis does not provide much of the socio-political background that would help her audience better understand the events of the conflict—most conspicuously, the name of the country in question. It’s a bold move, and could be seen as an attempt on Denis’s part to focus on the larger phenomena of civil war and French colonialism. In White Material, Denis mixes a somber look at the images of war with a willingness to play with the concept of perception itself, in both its physical and figurative forms.
Nénette et Boni stands apart from the two other films in themes and visual presentation. Its sensuous visual style exudes ease, instead of the foreboding distress of Trouble Every Day; its contrasts—most strikingly, the use of reds and blues—find a kind of harmony in differences, unlike the turbulent disparities starkly apparent in White Material. At the center of the plot are the eponymous siblings Nénette and Boni, who have been divided spatially and emotionally by their parents’ separation. The pregnant and teenage Nénette, who once lived with their father, runs away from boarding school to stay with her older brother, who lived with their now-deceased mother and lusts after the neighborhood baker’s wife. Feelings of tenderness, quiet melancholy, and lust dominate the film: baker and wife dancing lovingly with their child and then with each other; Nénette idly floating in the swimming pool of the school she will soon leave behind; Boni’s lonely masturbatory fantasies; the visually obvious emotional distance between the siblings even as they share a common space. At the same time, the movie does not escape Denis’ penchant for shocking disruptions: the siblings’ father, involved in illegal activities, is murdered, and soon after, Boni violently kidnaps his newborn nephew from the hospital, an action caused by his newly awakened paternal instincts for the baby. At the core of these scenes is Denis’ desire to present images that correspond to the idea of family itself, in all its love and sadness, triumphs and tribulations.
For Denis, the image is the foundation of plot, a theme to explore and, it seems, the fuel needed for filmmaking itself. Trouble Every Day shows this tendency in its rawest form, while Nénette et Boni and White Material, without sacrificing Denis’ signature style or their own individuality, rely on slightly more straightforward methods of storytelling. Even so, Denis’s plots tend to run more often on sense and intuition than on the strict, cause-and-effect logic common in much filmmaking. Narrative context is almost an afterthought, a product of the images she presents, rather than the driving force that creates them.