A French director who describes filmmaking as “a journey into the impossible”, Claire Denis has an undeserved reputation for making difficult films.
True, her 10 fractured, fearless features - this set offers just four - owe more to movement, music, gesture and texture than dialogue and plot convention. But her intuitive flair for warmth, rhythm and startling, layered images lends them a near-tactile immediacy: think of her as the French Terrence Malick who isn’t bezzies with Brad Pitt.
Denis’ grounding included work as assistant to indie heroes Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, whose talents for abstraction inform her debut, Chocolat (1988).
A late-starting director at 40, she digs here into her African upbringing to explore the relationship between a black houseboy (Jarmusch semi-regular Isaach de Bankolé) and a French girl in Cameroon.
The plot involves a plane crash, but Chocolat is more about moments than events, more reverie than romance: it tells us nothing but implies magnitudes.
With great daring, Denis’ next two films tackled serial killers and cock-fighting. So it’s a minor shame the next film included here is Nenette Et Boni (1996), mildly lesser Denis in its snapshots of tensions between a dirty-minded pizza chef and his pregnant teenage sister.
Even off-form, though, Denis’ imprint is clear in the dreamy pacing, lush score (by pals Tindersticks) and near-edible images, notably when DoP Agnès Godard drools over pastries.
Beau Travail (1999) steered Denis to festival-slaying form, its riff on Melville’s Billy Budd swooning to the erotic heat among French Foreign Legionnaires in Djibouti.
More interested in expressive masculine rituals than narrative, she plays it with the precision of an art-dance piece, right up to a stop-you-dead climax that’s as elusively magnetic as all that has gone before.
Returning to Africa for White Material (2009), Denis casts the equally intense Isabelle Huppert as a woman clinging to her coffee plantation while civil war brews.
The story isn’t easily summarised but the visceral visuals speak intricate volumes about obsession, denial and violence.
Even when we don’t know where Denis is going, she’s worth following: she takes us to places other directors don’t.