- Introduction: Claire Denis, Auteur Filmmaker Extraordinaire!
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Claire Denis—a filmmaker of extraordinary insight and intensity, and described as "among the first-rank of international auteurs," whose sustained interrogation of the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances is, arguably, without equal among her generation. [End Page 96]
From nuanced to profoundly disturbing, Denis's take on difference and identity, and the personal and social displacements occasioned in the territories and postcolony, is deep and varied. Denis engages the laboring black body in the service of colonialism and the quotidian humiliations it bears rendered compellingly in her first feature film Chocolat (1988) to the colonial fictions and complicity of the male body and its homoerotic registers in Beau Travail (1999).
Denis's cinematographic and social commitments are, too, in conversation with the postcolonial and émigré experience and all manner of humanity in Europe's metropoles. In I Can't Sleep (1994), the horrific exploits of a serial killer drives Denis's scrutiny of intolerance and its consequences, while in Nenette et Boni (1996), the relationship and evolving interdependency between teenage siblings caused by the sister's pregnancy is compellingly rendered. In The Intruder (2004), Denis deploys a heart transplant as metaphor to explore difference, identity and assimilation and In Trouble Every Day (2001), she painstakingly examines the decent to cannibalism and erotic horror; and in Friday Night (2002), chronicles intimacy between strangers in the wake of a traffic jam that disrupts daily routine and place, and centralizes a female character as more than observer. Denis's most recent cinematic gestures attest to her continuing exploration of the destructive and destabilizing foibles and menace in familial relations in Bastards (2013) and, by contrast and humorously, in Let the Sunshine In (2017), in which an aging woman (and mother) negotiates relationships, particularly with men. Most recently, Denis paired with novelist Zadie Smith in her first scriptwriting venture. The collaboration was unsuccessful and Denis went on to complete the film High Life in 2018. Starring Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson and Denis's first English-language feature. IndieWire described it as "as exotic space odyssey in this mesmerizing look into the void."1
The subject of this Close-Up, however, engages with Denis's investment in the African colonial and postcolonial in the films Chocolat and White Material (2009); in the former, the repressive stasis where master and servant—colonizer and colonized—are structurally bounded under colonial rule, humiliated by the routinized practice of subordination, and left to bear in denial the most visceral and demanding of human instinct—desire.
The latter film's title alludes to that reductive and derogatory designation and process of branding all things "white." Similarly, it calls attention to when was a black man referred to as a "Boy" or "Niggar"—terms that resonate and endure in the present and are consequential in Africa, as they are here in the United States.
In an African nation beset by civil war, marauding bands of armed "child soldiers" who pillage the land and its inhabitants, and exploited by a small settler elite who collaborates with local black counterparts to rob the nation of its patrimony while simultaneously exploiting its laboring class. The [End Page 97] veracity of this assertion in White Material is emblematic of the actuality of economic relations between countries and social classes no less today than during the colonial period.
Distinguished by Isabelle Huppert—among France's, indeed the world's, most expressive actors—Maria is the character at the epicenter of the story and unfolding civil war. She, dealing with her own existential crisis, common to resident "expats" in an adopted foreign land, is determined not to relinquish her stake in the coffee plantation and, by inference, Africa, desperately utters: "I have nowhere to go. I won't give this up," Maria claims the land, its bounty, and her right to be [a white] African? Is that the subtext of White Material? Is Denis's provocation, her solidarity with the African laboring class in its postcolonial iteration, trumped by a deeper and gendered investment in Maria? We should examine that. And...