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Claire Denis - Biography

Claire Denis (b. April 21, 1948, Paris) is a Paris-based filmmaker and one of the major artistic voices of contemporary French cinema. After a disappointing experience of studying economics, Claire Denis enrolled in the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (now École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l'Image et du Son) where she graduated in 1971. At the beginning of her film career, she worked as an assistant director to Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. Claire Denis made her film debut in 1988 with Chocolat, a luminous depiction of malaise of the post-colonial world.

Claire Denis has developed a highly individualistic style, favoring visual and sound elements over dialogue, and her editing technique has been compared to jazz improvisation for its rhythmic quality. At the same time, she refuses the conformity to narrative and structures of classical cinema, as well as psychological realism and scenic continuity, sometimes blurring the border between dreams and reality. Her films are made on the basis of nonsubjective memories and intertextual references to literature and other films. On the level of content, Claire Denis' films show deep affection and solidarity with marginalized characters usually absent from mainstream cinema (immigrants, exiles, alienated individuals, sexual transgressives), simultaneously questioning prejudices of the dominant white European culture and its myth of progress. One of the main characters in her films became the accompanying music, her particular use of pop songs and musical themes created in collaboration with, most often, Abdullah Ibrahim and British cult group Tindersticks. Claire Denis is also considered to be one of the representatives of the New French Extremity, a term coined by James Quandt to designate transgressive films made by French directors at the turn of the 21st century.

Born in Paris, Claire Denis spent her childhood and formative years traveling across Africa, due to the wish of her father, a colonial administrator, to teach his children the importance of geography. This experience was a basis for her interest in national identity and the legacy of French colonialism, which was translated into her first film Chocolat, a non-biographical account of post-colonialism. The film starts with a white French woman in her late twenties, France, returning to Cameroon to visit her childhood home. During a car ride she is offered by two strangers, Mungo Park and his son, the film goes back to her childhood in the colonial outpost. Here, we are introduced to Protée, an African native patiently ministering to demands of her and her parents, as well as their ill-mannered guests from the continent. The film relies on the visual rather than the verbal to explain interracial tensions and conflicts, simultaneously showing the intermingled nature of power relations and relations of desire. The house depicted is charged with desire and sexual yearning, while the complicity of relations becomes clear through the exposure of the process of internalization of inferiority the inhabitants of former colonies were affected by. The film ends with Mungo's failed attempt to read the future from France's palm with burn scars, as well as his rejection to have a drink with her, following the pattern of interracial relations established in the flashback. According to this ending, Claire Denis seems to suggest that not much has changed in Cameroon.

After her debut, Claire Denis made a documentary about a Cameroon band Les Têtes Brulées on their first tour in France, entitled Man No Run (1989). She continued to explore post-colonial attitudes in the modern metropolis in her next feature, S'en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990). This claustrophobic and grainy film, tells a story about two men, one from Benin and one from Caribbean, living on the margins of French society. They become involved in an illegal cock-fighting ring, and the experience depicted is one of cultural displacement and racial conflict. The same themes Denis further explored in J'ai Pas Sommeil / I Can't Sleep (1994), introducing the cultural as well as familial tensions at work among various immigrants, in the moment when their fates become additionally effected by a serial killer.

Claire Denis deepened her discussion on the topic of family relations in Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996), a film about a lovelorn brother and his pregnant teenage sister after the suicide of their mother. This coming-of-age drama received a vast international reception and become one of Claire Denis' most successful works. Nevertheless, it was her next film Beau Travail / Good Work (1998) that brought her international praise, based loosely on Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor. The story focuses on French legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, following their male-bonding routines and codes of repression in a homosocial militarized environment. The height of eroticism is to be seen in the extremely antagonistic relationship between a sergeant Galoup and a new legionnaire recruit Gilles. The film's sensual focus is fixed upon the male body and its movements and gestures, and many critics underlined Claire Denis' talent in replacing Melville's verbosity with a silence that speaks more than words.

In 2001, Claire Denis shocked Cannes audiences with her Trouble Every Day, her elaboration of violent poetics of desire, with Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle as carriers of a blood-hungry virus released by erotic stimulation. We follow a routine of a young American couple spending their honeymoon in Paris, with the husband secretly on trial in a new experiment of an unorthodox doctor. Although considered to be a film in which Claire Denis came closest to making a horror film, it simultaneously blurred the border between high and low genres. The scenes of sexual cannibalism examine the contemporary violence of desire as well as the existing anxieties directed toward scientific inquiry and its ethics.

With her Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002), Claire Denis will tell a different story about intimate relation between two strangers who met during a public-transport strike. A man and a woman engage in a passionate one-night stand, where the communication between the two happens through a mere glance. The result is a sensual, ravishing visual experience told through a series of nonvoyeristic images of their bodies.

L'Intrus / The Intruder (2004) was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Film Festival and represents, according to many, the most mysterious and invigorating work Claire Denis had made. The film takes inspiration from R.L. Stevenson, Paul Gauguin's paintings, as well as a memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, from whom she borrowed the title and the motif of heart transplant. Namely, the story follows an enigmatic man in his late sixties traveling in the South Seas in an attempt to find a son he never met and a new heart. Claire Denis gives us a poetic, dreamlike experience shared with this 'heartless' man and his new equally mysterious Russian woman, during their search for signs of home in the borderlands inhabited by aliens and natives, intruders and guests.

According to Claire Denis, the inspiration for the story of her most recent film, 35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008) came from the relationship her mother had with her own Brazilian father, while on its formal level represents an homage to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The film takes place during a period when a widowed father and his daughter are supposed to start a new life, during her coming of age and becoming able to start her own family. The film seems to be in flow, relying mostly on faces and bodies to depict feelings impossible to verbalize. Its focus is on the integrity of a small family of two, surrounded by the network of others whining to get in. In its crucial moment, the solution comes through the decision to act instead of being a passive participant in the flow, the agency taken by the daughter.

Claire Denis' latest film, Matériel Blanc / White Material (2009), scripted by the novelist Marie NDiaye, takes place in present-day Cameroon. It depicts the members of a white family surrounded by unrest and rebellion, trying to save their coffee plantation and seemingly blind to the new constellation of power established in the outside world.

Claire Denis is a professor of film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar.