What Desire Does: Three Films by Claire Denis

From CHOCOLAT (1988) to BEAU TRAVAIL (1999) through the mind-scrambling L’INTRUS (2005) and beyond the bounds of Earth in HIGH LIFE, the problem of desire troubles each and every one of Claire Denis’s films. It’s a prevalent concern of her filmography, yet she never seems to be restating a set of conclusions she’s arrived at cinematically: each new film provides new arrangements of desire, new ways to frame it, new manners of performing the act of (or the frustration caused by) desiring. Three films by Denis especially mark out new desiring territory, whether by narrative conceit, the means by which form accentuates desire, or by particularities of performance.

In TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001), desire is destructive, but only for the desirer; if it is consummated, then it ruins both participants. Two couples find themselves at the mercy of this equation. Soft-spoken newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June Brown (Tricia Vessey) travel to Paris ostensibly to honeymoon, but the purpose of the visit is quickly revealed to involve Leo (Denis stalwart Alex Descas), whose wife Coré (Beatrice Dalle), exhibits a vampiric affliction: during sex, arousal eventually descends into evisceration, and Coré ends up devouring the flesh of her partner. Shane, nervy and sleepy-eyed, sees a vision of June drenched in blood — he suffers the same disorder.

“In TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001), desire is destructive, but only for the desirer…”

Denis presents this malfunctioning desire at close proximity, the effect of which heightens the already considerable discomfort the film causes. The close-ups of Agnes Godard’s cinematography provide terrible adumbrations: an ensorcelled teenager’s body, attended to closely by the camera and by Coré, begins to look like a canvas she will work upon; at the hotel the Browns stay in, Shane is entranced by a chambermaid, the nape of whose neck his eyes are fixed on.

This conceit is a kind of personal apocalypse. Shane’s ache at having to deny his libido is balanced with his fear of hurting June (intimations of which come in the form of a bite mark on her left arm). Coré and Leo have found a way to keep each other safe, but not unfortunate passersby; each time Coré succumbs, the immediate after effect sees her tremble and mumble to herself in a kind of stupor, like she’s taken a hit of some unknown opioid. But Eratos is dancing too closely with Thanatos here, the sex and the death drives are essentially merged, and Coré begs Leo to let her end her life. Those words of the title (sung in sombre tones by Tindersticks’s Stuart Staples) are not just a present predicament — they’re a warning: trouble now, and every day yet to come. It’s a vision of the end of the characters’ respective worlds.

“VENDREDI SOIR operates in an entirely different mood. Desire in this film is framed as a source of delight…”

Denis’s next film, VENDREDI SOIR (FRIDAY NIGHT, 2002), operates in an entirely different mood. Desire in this film is framed as a source of delight; its scenario, a simple and playful one, centres on Parisian Laure (Valérie Lemercier), who is en-route to move into her boyfriend’s apartment. However, because of a public transport strike she is caught in an excessively slow traffic-jam. She’s characterised as quick (she listens to a radio station traffic-update, advising travellers to carpool for convenience — and immediately she offers a seat to someone on foot), suggesting that the move is ill-advised. The stagnant Laure’s frustration is interrupted by A Dark And Handsome Stranger, Jean (Vincent Lindon), who, after a round of trading glances, knocks on her window, and asks for a seat. She accepts, and the evening only improves from there.

The film is framed as an odd sort of city-symphony: the swelling strings of Dickon Hinchliffe’s score accompany the slow, long takes of Denis’s camera roaming the city, exactly as the stuck passengers cannot. In fact, VENDREDI SOIR would work as a silent film, in a sense. Most of the opening section is taken up either with Paris at a standstill or with coverage of Laure on her own, bored beyond measure, looking for a distraction in the traffic, observing the way, for instance, that cigarette smoke crawls out of a neighbour’s barely open window. When Jean enters her car, their conversations could be conveyed with intertitles: the exchanges are buttressed with articulate gestures, quick looks, curt laughter. This is doubled by Denis’s use of lap-dissolves and superimpositions: when Laure is imagining where she’d rather be, or what she’d rather be doing, it appears on screen as a mirage, intruding upon the reality.

After retiring to a hotel together, the pair go to a late-night Italian restaurant; during dinner, the way Laure looks at Jean prefigures an extraordinary moment in Denis’s brutal neo-noir BASTARDS (2013). In the earlier film, the camera observes the manner in which Jean takes off his jacket before beginning to eat, the shot framed precisely on his shoulders before cutting to Laure’s eyes, registering who’s doing the desiring. In BASTARDS, there’s a moment in which Lindon’s character fixes a bicycle belonging to the son of Chiara Mastroianni’s character: a close-up on her eyes cuts to a tightly framed shot of Lindon’s back, his crisp white shirt constricting to advertise his back muscles. Although VENDREDI SOIR is not the most frequently discussed (or shown, for that matter) of Denis’s films, it’s a formally beautiful expression of themes which she’s returned to in every film, and its closest resemblance in her filmography is found in the most recent feature before HIGH LIFE, LET THE SUNSHINE IN.

In this film, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a Parisian artist, is shown navigating her way around a complex love life. Her relationships, presented successively, are depictions of desire, and the happiness desire can engender, intermingled with vexation. The dispiriting pattern of failure in love makes her think she’s loved her last. This is partially because of the comic ridiculousness of the men she sees: Vicent (Xavier Beauvois), a banker with a commanding presence, who wants to continue his affair with Isabelle, telling her, “You’re charming, but my wife is extraordinary”; the unnamed, disaffected, hard-drinking actor played by Nicolas Duvauchelle, who sleeps with Isabelle after a first date, and then debates the terms of his enjoyment of his night with her; ex-husband Francois (Laurent Grévill), who tries out something in bed which does not pass Isabelle’s unfailing bullshit detector; and Sylvain (Paul Blain), the man who approaches on her the dancefloor during Etta James’s “At Last”, who seems like the most dependable of the bunch.

The film was loosely inspired by Roland Barthes, particularly his FRAGMENTS OF A LOVER’S DISCOURSE (1977), and each of the men who Isabelle involves herself with could be examples of a ‘love-problem’ drawn from this text. The way the men listed above fit into this structure is prosaic enough, but it’s what happens in the final fifteen minutes which really provokes comparison with Barthes, and most aptly represents one of the major problems of A LOVER’S DISCOURSE: that, in love, “the other never waits”.

“LET THE SUNSHINE IN’s closing sequence runs the whole gamut of what desire does: it destroys, it excites, it flattens, it enlivens, it dismays…”

In the final stretch of the film, Isabelle begins seeing Marc (Alex Descas). They are walking together, the camera following, sometimes occasioning buoyant close-ups of the two shyly avoiding the other’s gaze. He suggests that they wait to see if the relationship will work, and to meet again after some time apart. Denis enacts here a Hong Sang-soo type textual disruption, as focus turns to a camera dollying slowly towards a car carrying Gerard Depardieu and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, a couple in the process of breaking up. “How could I have believed in it?”, he asks, a question which pertains to Isabelle in her many scenes of lonely tearfulness. Isabelle meets Depardieu’s character, who appears to be a medium or relationship mystic. She explains her quandary; he offers advice. This final sequence is mesmerising for how it balances the intentions of Depardieu’s character. He aims to reassure her, and his rhetorical strategy is to circle around the same declarations, making sure she understands that her love life is not at an end: which he also tries to prove by outrageously flirting with her, mentioning that one of the men she has spoken of may return, but someone “weightier, sturdier” is coming — referring quite clearly to himself. Here Isabelle’s emotions revolve between despair and a happy hopefulness, a smile traipsing its way across her face when she comes to an encouraging conclusion. The smile is never bigger than when Depardieu tries out this manoeuvre.

This sequence plays out while the credits roll atop of it, and the result is so moving as evidence of the way Denis’s camera communes with her actors; the film is all about Binoche performing the character’s desires and her attendant disappointments. LET THE SUNSHINE IN’s closing sequence (and this stands for Denis’s films as a whole) runs the whole gamut of what desire does: it destroys, it excites, it flattens, it enlivens, it dismays, and — literally in Isabelle’s case, with the golden light from the window streaming on her face — it illuminates.

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