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Claire Denis and the World Cinema of Refusal

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 1, 2014 (Issue 133)
pp. 96-108 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Economic crisis emerges as a central feature of globalization and, in particular, of the structural instability of transnational capital circulation since the 1970s. The strategies of neoliberalism––deregulation, privatization, and expropriation of wealth toward the richer nations––redoubled the indebtedness of the global South and helped provoke debt crises in nations from Mexico in the 1980s and East Asia in the 1990s to Argentina, Iceland and Greece in the 2000s. Embedded as it almost always is within the global circuits of capitalist culture, cinema has a particularly complex relationship to globalization: these economic shifts affect film funding, modes of production, and the institutions of international distribution, all of which intersect variously with histories of genre, form and representation. In order to address both the textuality and the institutions of contemporary French cinema in relation to crisis, I will focus here on a particular instance of economic language––the notion of default––as a heuristic in the recent films of Claire Denis. The concept of default, I will argue, provides a way to read Denis’s films as resistant to the dominant narratives, forms and circulatory mechanisms of global neoliberalism.

Scholars such as Martin O’Shaughnessy have analyzed French national cinema in the context of neoliberalism, arguing that “[a]ny cartography of resistances to Hollywood domination and to the influence of neoliberalism in the cinematic sphere would inevitably place France somewhere near its center” (328). French opposition to free trade and the broader culture of resistance to neoliberal politics and globalization since the 1990s have formed a particularly rich environment for an engaged film culture. Both O’Shaughnessy and Powrie have suggested that involvement in opposition to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), with the aim of supporting the domestic film industry, might have led French filmmakers toward the more general economic critique that suffuses the new French realisms (O’Shaughnessy 337; Powrie 10-13). This cultural background is undoubtedly significant for understanding Denis, for she was actively involved in political opposition during this period, including her participation in the 1997 campaign in support of the rights of sans-papiers in France. But I will argue that her position as a political filmmaker and the intervention of her films is somewhat different from that of other committed filmmakers such as the Dardenne brothers and Laurent Cantet. Although I will be interested in the representations of labor and power in her films, the concept of default focuses our attention rather on the political implications of an aesthetics of refusal.

Default has a rich semiotic power in this age of financial crisis––an economic power of course, but also a cultural one. For Maurizio Lazzarato, debt underpins contemporary capitalism:

The neoliberal power bloc cannot and does not want to “regulate” the “excesses” of finance because its political program continues to be based on the choices and decisions that brought us the latest crisis. Instead, with its threat of sovereign debt default, it seeks to follow through on a program it has been fantasizing about since the 1970s: reduce wages to a minimum, cut social services so that the Welfare State is made to serve its new “beneficiaries”—business and the rich—and privatize everything.


Default is thus presented as the ultimate threat, the possibility of failure that authorizes the most rapacious policies as lesser evils. But if default is a threat made by the neoliberal financial system, it is also a threat to that system. For indebted man, a refusal to pay is hardly the same as revolution, but it is nonetheless a refusal of the terms of subjectivity offered by capitalism. What does it mean to say “no” to the narratives of indebtedness, to refuse the blame enclosed in the idea of “defaulting” on a loan? Default is a threat from below, too—a refusal to play by the rules of the game. Denis’s recent films L’Intrus (The Intruder [2004]) and 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum [2008]) form a mode of what I am calling “default cinema” by placing obstacles in the path of neoliberal narratives, refusing to see the world within the framework they offer, and by forcing a material and representational break. This refusal...

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