Born in Paris but having grown up in Africa, Denis explores in her films the legacies of French colonialism and the complex relationships between sexuality, gender, and race. From the adult woman who observes her past as a child in Cameroon to the Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Paris and watches a serial killer to the disgraced French Foreign Legionnaire attempting to make sense of his past, the subjects of Denis's films continually revisit themes of watching, bearing witness, and making contact, as well as displacement, masculinity, and the migratory subject.
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By Judith Mayne
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Judith Mayne
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Chapter OneSeeing Others
One of the distinctive features of Claire Denis's cinema is the attention paid to the periphery, to the seemingly insignificant detail. All of Denis's films have plots, and they certainly have characters. But the plots of her films never lead in a single direction, and they are often fragmented. The characters in Denis's films are fully present on screen, yet even when they are driven by what appears to be the weight of the past (or the present), we are never given anything resembling psychological portraits. In the opening moments of most of Denis's films, there is a wealth of visual information, and while every detail matters, it isn't always clear how. A great pleasure, as well as challenge, of Denis's cinema, is paying attention, engaging fully with the range of images and sounds presented on screen (as Elana del Rio  puts it, Denis's films take "on the project of seducing us away from our 'proper' customary conduct as viewers"). It is common to describe Denis as a filmmaker "of the image," that is, a filmmaker devoted to formal innovation and aesthetic beauty rather than a story. This is a misleading description, since it suggests that filmmakers (and audiences) have to choose between the two. There is unquestionable cinematic beauty in Denis'sfilms, but never does beauty function in some isolated realm of cinematic purity. Claire Denis's cinema is a cinema fully engaged with a complex world.
Since Chocolat, the 1988 film that was her feature film debut, Denis has directed seven additional narrative feature films, two feature-length documentaries, and numerous short films. Her narrative features are her best-known films, and these films will be examined later in some detail. In order to introduce and situate Claire Denis's cinema, I turn to what might be considered the "periphery" of her own career, the two feature-length documentaries that are far less well known than her fiction films. These are the only documentary films that Denis has completed, and together they give an intriguing sense of Claire Denis's approach to the art of filmmaking. Additionally, the films, while quite different in subject matter-one follows a Cameroonian musical group on its first concert tour in France; the other is a portrait of veteran filmmaker Jacques Rivette-stand together as indications of the primary themes that Claire Denis has explored in her work. And as coincidence would have it, these are the only two films in which the director makes a visible appearance.
Man No Run (1989) appeared immediately after Chocolat, and the film had a fairly limited release. It follows the first concert trip to France of the Cameroonian musical group Les Têtes Brûlées (the group's name means "heads on fire," which, one of the musicians explains in the film, was a risky name for an African group but one that seemed totally appropriate). The group became enormously popular in Cameroon in 1987, and Denis met the group while she was shooting Chocolat. The group's music is bikutsi, a traditional form of music of the Beti, an ethnic and linguistic group who are associated with the forests and villages of Cameroon, but who have also migrated to the urban center of Yaoundé (see Fuller, Fuller, and Ahanda ). The Têtes Brûlées's form of bikutsi could be described as hybrid, to the extent that they use electric guitars instead of traditional African instruments. But the notion of hybridity can be misleading, implying as it does a fusion of Western and African influences. The Têtes Brûlées adapt their instruments-by, say, placing a piece of foam underneath the guitar strings-to better create the sounds of traditional African instruments, that is, to preserve bikutsi music, not to "Westernize" it.
Denis was so taken with the music of the Têtes Brûlées (she even referred to herself as a groupie [Colmant 1989: 18]) that she originally thought of having France, the female protagonist of Chocolat, visit a club to hear their music near the end of the film. "I kept in touch with them as I was editing Chocolat, and they wrote me a letter and told me they were coming to France for a tour, their first tour outside of Cameroon. So I managed to find a camera and some film stock and there we were. I didn't foresee my career. Things happen" (Romney 2000).
The title of Man No Run refers both to a song by the Têtes Brûlées and a slang expression, as one of the musicians explains in the film, for someone who sticks around, who stays with his comrades. Denis's film is a "concert film" only in the sense that she follows the group on their first tour to France. Equally if not more interesting is the fact that except for Jean-Marie Ahanda, the founder of the group, it was the musicians' first trip to France. Thus the film becomes a record of their impressions of France, some of which are funny, some poignant, some both. At the beginning of the film, we see the Têtes Brûlées in concert, but most of the film moves back and forth from their different concert venues-in clubs, at what appears to be a music festival, at a large amphitheater-to observations of the group when they are socializing, or resting, or seeing France for the first time. Increasingly, in the course of the film, an obvious intimacy develops, not just between the spectator and the group, but also between the musicians and Claire Denis herself.
Early in the film, the musicians arrive at Orly airport near Paris, greeted by Ahanda and Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, a French university professor who has written extensively on the Beti of southern Cameroon, and who has taught at the University of Cameroon. The voice-over (by an unidentified member of the group) refers to Laburthe-Tolra as a "white Beti," a "toasted" white person who has become one of them. When the musicians get off the plane, introductions are made all around, in a spirit of excitement and laughter. One of the musicians looks at the camera and says "Hi Claire!" We then see the group in a café, and the musicians tell of their difficulties in securing passports. The Têtes Brûlées have a very distinctive style in their appearance as well as their music. On stage they wear bright costumes, featuring knee pads and colorful backpacks. Their bodies are painted with white stripes and dots (the film shows us the lengthy preparations required for the body-painting), and they wear sunglasses with radio antennae attached. Their heads are shaved with strategically placed tufts of hair remaining. The hair-or lack of it-is what caused the Cameroonian officials to hesitate in issuing their passports. The reason?-the officials thought the group would be an embarrassment to Africa. Eventually the group wore wigs for their passport photographs, and they were able to travel to France.
When the musicians tell the story, Laburthe-Tolra laughs and comments that the tale is "très drôle" (very amusing). Laburthe-Tolra doesn't appear in the film after this scene. While the professor is obviously considered a friend by the Têtes Brûlées, he also seems a bit out of place, perhaps less because he is white than because he doesn't really seem to belong to the world of music. Laburthe-Tolra looks like a conventional, average French middle-aged professional, and even though the Têtes Brûlées are not in costume, their distinct hair styles are visible (and are called attention to by the story of the passports). The professor might well appear as the first instance, in the film, of the group's encounter with French people, but he is just as interesting for what his presence suggests about a white observer, one both connected to yet obviously different from the members of the group. In this sense, the professor is a stand-in for Denis herself, and his brief presence suggests that while the film traces a narrative of Africans observing France, it also traces how a white observer watches, negotiates, and engages with that very narrative.
Approximately halfway through the film, we get a sense of how the concert tour is as exhausting as it is exhilarating when we move from a concert to the dressing room, where the musicians, still in their stage costumes, are unwinding immediately afterward. But whereas previous conversations among, and individual interviews with, the musicians have a friendly and intimate tone, here there are signs of conflict. One musician is criticized for responding in French when he has been spoken to in Beti, and for being rude to elders, and there is discussion about the possibilities the musicians have, or have not had, for meeting women. Now we have been aware of Denis as an observer in the film, particularly during the interviews, but this is the only occasion where she actually makes an appearance. We see Denis's head reflected in a mirror in the room, and the composition of the shot puts the mirror in the center, between two musicians who are seated. She is standing next to the door, through which someone leaves. We do not see her filming or speaking; she is simply present. Then she moves forward, as if moving toward the discussion taking place, but as she moves, we cut to a shot of the musicians seated against the wall. She has disappeared from the frame.
If Professor Laburthe-Tolra is a visible sign of the bridge between France and Cameroon, the role that Denis acquires is different, for she observes, patiently and quietly, out of frame. This doesn't mean that she is invisible, but rather that the mode of observation that she brings to the musicians and their music and their perceptions of France is quietly discrete, out of frame but never out of sight.
A year after the appearance of Man No Run, Claire Denis directed a documentary about Jacques Rivette, Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (Jacques Rivette, Watchman) for the television series Cinéma de notre temps (Cinema of Our Time). The film consists of extended interviews with Rivette by film critic Serge Daney, along with clips from Rivette's films and interview segments with Bulle Ogier, one of Rivette's preferred actors. Again, approximately halfway through the film, Claire Denis makes a brief appearance. She is seated at a table outdoors with Daney and Rivette, and the conversation has turned to Pierre Corneille's last play, Suréna. Rivette speaks of a famous passage in the play when Suréna contemplates the fleeting nature of life, as well as the importance of single (even if isolated) moments of happiness. After we see Denis with the two men, the camera moves to capture Rivette, but we are aware of Denis's presence, to Rivette's left, as well as Daney's, to Rivette's right, since Rivette continues to speak to both of them.
When Daney tells Rivette that he sees a connection between Corneille's play and Rivette's approach to cinema, the conversation turns to the role of curiosity. The conversation is reframed as it occurs exclusively between Daney and Rivette; Denis seems to have slipped out of the frame. But during a pause in the conversation, we hear Claire Denis's distinctive voice (somewhat hoarse, somewhat raspy) suggest that Scheherazade might well be an appropriate figure to insert into this discussion of curiosity. The camera then moves to the right to frame Denis, her hand partially covering her face, as she laughs; Daney tells Rivette that they (Daney and Denis) have a theory about the "Scheherazade syndrome." Daney explains, as the camera moves away from Denis: "Scheherazade tells stories to delay two things: her death as well as an overly intimate relationship with her commander." As curiosity again becomes the subject of conversation, the camera moves from Daney to Rivette; Denis has once again disappeared from the frame. Rivette acknowledges her with a look and a knowing shrug one more time, when he says that Scheherazade is their "patron saint." The conversation between Daney and Rivette continues, and we do not see Claire Denis again in the film.
There is something almost self-effacing about Denis's appearance in the film-she covers her face, she speaks very little, and the camera shows her only very briefly. But the fact that Denis appears at all is striking. Unlike the very brief appearances we have of the director in Man No Run, where her presence is more identified with the felt presence of the camera as it observes from a variety of perspectives, here Denis seems to step out from her role as filmmaker for a moment, to participate in a conversation that obviously is of vital interest to her own work as a filmmaker, but to do so in front of the camera. Janet Bergstrom describes how this brief scene "makes explicit how she had been there since the beginning, a narrator hidden from view, but with her own, independent look and intellectual position, absent from the frame but director of the discussion." Specifically, Bergstrom sees this scene as indicative of numerous aspects of Denis's cinema, including the "doubling or triangulation of vision" (2003: 72). Perhaps most strikingly, this brief interlude about Corneille and Scheherazade is also a moment of decentering, of revealing, as Bergstrom suggests, the scaffolding, the infrastructure, that makes the dialogue between two men possible. Yet in the decentering, there is also a strong identification between Denis and Rivette. The discussion of time and waiting, of curiosity, of the "contract" between the actor and the director (Rivette describes the "fiction" that takes place during the actual making of the film, a fiction that involves the bond between actor and director)-all of these elements had already been central to Denis's own work as a filmmaker, and they would become increasingly important in her career.
Claire Denis thus makes literal appearances in two documentary films that, together, suggest the broad outlines of her work as a filmmaker. On the one hand, Denis is a filmmaker whose life and art have been shaped by the ways in which Africa and France have lived complicated histories of domination and resistance, of hate and love, of dependence and autonomy. Denis's love of Africa, and of various aspects of African culture, is evident in her films, but she is also attuned to the problematic ways in which white people have shown their love for Africa. Man No Run could easily have become a romanticized portrait of the "exotic." But because the film is so focused on how France is a strange country, and on how the musicians narrate their own way through the country, it is, rather, a thoughtful and beautiful portrait of the music as well as of the very nature of observation itself. Jacques Rivette, le veilleur is obviously an homage to the director, and it is shot in such a way as to draw attention to the very process of cinematic imagination. Rivette and Daney's discussions are sometimes rambling, and often they follow several ideas at once, but they are always provocative.
Excerpted from Claire Denis by Judith Mayne Copyright © 2005 by Judith Mayne. Excerpted by permission.
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