The Claire Denis Collection Review

Four films from director Claire Denis, including the new-to-UK-DVD Nénette et Boni.

The boxset from Artificial Eye collects three previously-released films with one new to British DVD. The latter is also issued separately.

Claire Denis was born in 1948 in Paris, but raised in several African countries due to her father’s job as a civil servant. Denis’s background in the continent has been reflected in several of her films, three of the ones in this boxset especially among them, tackling themes of colonialism and the experience of immigration. Her start in cinema was by working as an assistant director for Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire and for Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law, before making her own feature debut with Chocolat (no relation to the 2000 film based on the Joanne Harris novel, by the way).

Chocolat (1988, Certificate PG, 101:08)

Noel Megahey has previously reviewed this disc for The Digital Fix here.

Chocolat takes place in Cameroon. A young woman, significantly named France (Mireille Perrier), returns to the country where she grew up, and the majority of the film unfolds in flashback to a time when France was a young girl (Cécile Ducasse), She lives with her father Marc (François Cluzet), a regional administrator, and mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi) and their African servants.

I saw Chocolat in the cinema on its UK release, and my memories are more of an overpowering sense of atmosphere and place than of a storyline. Denis has frequently favoured mood and character nuance over more conventional plot dynamics, with narrative progressions sometimes quite elliptically conveyed. France is primarily an observer, at the relationships between the people and the land, and the French with the natives, in particular that between her mother and their houseboy Protée (Isaach de Bankolé, who became a Denis regular). Watching it again confirms those impressions from a quarter-century ago: it’s a film of small details and capturing a time and place, and tensions below a supposedly calm surface, filtered through memory. It certainly won’t be for everyone but it’s an impressive debut, beautifully photographed by Robert Alazraki.

Chocolat had a 15 certificate on its cinema release, but has always been rated PG on video and DVD, presumably (I don’t remember well enough) for a strong profanity translated in a more family-friendly form for home viewing. (Wings of Desire is another example of this, the 12 certificate not being in existence at the time of both films’ big-screen outings.) That said, this may be a film with a child at its centre, but I very much doubt it would have any appeal for anyone who actually is a child.

Denis made three more features in the the next ten years, but apart from festival showings none of them had a UK release. I saw one of them, S’en fout la mort (No Fear No Die, 1990) at the London Film Festival. It did have a UK distributor on board, but it was never released, its subject matter – African immigrants to France involved in illegal cockfighting – making the film legally problematic under UK legislation, although the film’s closing credits begin with a declaration that none of the birds were actually harmed. J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994) remains unreleased in the UK, but Denis’s next film, Nénette et Boni, from 1996, makes its British debut on DVD in this set.

Nénette et Boni (1996, Certificate 15 TBC, 99:17)

Marseille. Antoinette and Boniface, known as Nénette (Alice Houri) and Boni (Grégoire Colin), are a teenaged brother and sister, who have been raised apart because of their parents’s divorce. Nénette is still at school, while Boni works as a pizza baker, and harbours a lust for the woman who runs the bakery across the road (Valeria Bruni Tadeschi) with her husband (Vincent Gallo). Boni’s life is thrown into turmoil when Nénette suddenly turns up on his doorstep. And what’s more, she’s pregnant.

By this time, some of Denis’s key collaborators were in place. One of them was cinematographer Agnès Godard, who had worked as a camera assistant on the two Wenders films which Denis had also worked on. Godard had served as camera operator on Chocolat before becoming the director of photography on I Can’t Sleep. She has photographed all of Denis’s films since then except for White Material. It also marked Denis’s first collaboration with the British band Tindersticks, who composed score music for four of Denis’s films in all.

Shot in 16mm, Nénette et Boni has a grittier feel to it than other of Denis’s films. But certain elements of her style and themes remain. One of them is a delight in her character’s physicality. Beau travail is a good example of this female director’s (and her female DP’s) eye for male beauty, but she isn’t averse to displaying the women as well, particularly some lingering Boni-viewpoint shots of Valeria Bruni Tadeschi. At another time, Denis holds a shot of a medical receptionist, a woman with a fascinating face, far longer than its narrative role would justify. And there’s a sequence where Bruni Tadeschi and Gallo dance: it serves no plot purpose, but shows the filmmaker’s delight in people and their movement, and that’s something we see more of in her next film. There’s also a strong subtext in this film: given his actions towards his sister late in the film, you have to wonder whether Boni’s feelings towards her are purely fraternal.

Beau travail (1999, Certificate 15, 89:08)

Beau travail returned Denis to UK distribution, and began her association with Artificial Eye, who have released many of her films in cinemas and on disc. (Chocolat was released in the cinema and on VHS by the now-defunct Electric Pictures.) Beau travail is a very loose and elliptical adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (itself filmed rather more faithfully in 1962, directed by and costarring Peter Ustinov), updated to a French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti, involving the rivalry between Galoup (Denis Levant) and newcomer Sentain (Grégoire Colin).

Given the tensions simmering below the surface, it may be fair to call the film’s content homoerotic, but describing the film’s look and style as that is problematic. The concept that film has a gaze and that gaze is male and heterosexual is widespread, to the point where when we get a film where the gaze appears to have another orientation and gender is disconcerting. We’re far more used to gay male directors (who are often not shy of gazing at their male actors via the camera) but less so when, as here, both the director and the DP (Agnès Godard) are women. Plot takes a back seat in this film, as Denis and Godard take much further their delight in their actors’ physical presence, not least many scenes of the soldiers exercising with their shirts off. With the film opening and closing with scenes in a nightclub – at the beginning, a crowd, at the end, a man dancing alone – at times Beau travail comes over like a musical without the songs but with the dance numbers, and it’s that semi-abstract dance of her characters, around and against each other, that Denis captures.

White Material (2009, Certificate 15, 101:17)

This boxset now jumps ahead a decade. Denis’s next film after Beau travail wins her points for trying something different. Trouble Every Day melded her themes and concerns with a genre subject, namely that of the gory vampire movie. Noel Megahey rates it more highly in that linked review than I do – to me it was a total failure. Also on this site are reviews of L’intrus (The Intruder) and 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum), both again by Noel. Denis followed the latter with White Material, her most recent feature film to date.

White Material has been reviewed twice before on this site, by me on DVD here and by Anthony Nield on Blu-ray here. What follows is a shorter version of my earlier review.

In an unspecified African country – presumably in the present day, but that is also unspecified – Maria (Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation. She is separated from André (Christophe Lambert), who is the father of her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The region is in the grip of civil war. Government militia clash with rebels who follow a charismatic figure known as “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé).

At the beginning of the film, The Boxer, whom Maria has hidden in her house, is unbeknownst to her found dead. As Maria hitches a ride home by bus, much of the action proceeds in flashback. As the civil war intensifies, Maria tries to persuade her workers and foremen to stay on, but they disregard her and flee. Government helicopters broadcast warnings and drop survival packs. André tries to make a deal with a local army officer for protection. Meanwhile, Manuel becomes increasingly alienated, and after his humiliation by some local children he goes on a rampage. The title refers to a brand of cigarette lighter, but you can’t miss its symbolic significance.

While White Material is too deliberately low-key to be called a thriller, Denis maintains a steady and compelling pace throughout. A typically commanding performance from Huppert holds the film together, though Duvauchelle and Lambert (the latter looking considerably different from his Hollywood heyday) are also impressive. Denis regular de Bankolé has a small role, which is as much a presence as a character. Yves Capes’s widescreen camerawork and Guy Lecorne’s editing are also fine.

The DVDs

The Claire Denis Collection is released by Artificial Eye as a set of four DVDs. Affiliate links above are for the box; for those for the individual release of Nénette et Boni go here. The three other discs are the previous Artificial Eye releases repackaged for this set.

The certificate of Nénette et Boni does not appear on the BBFC website at the time of writing, but I will be surprised if it gains anything other than a 15.

Details of the individual discs follow.

Chocolat is a dual-layered disc encoded for all Regions. The film is transferred in the correct ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced. As Noel points out in his review linked to above, this is very likely an older DVD transfer, and possibly not from a HD master. That said, it’s acceptable enough. Noel did question the yellowish tone, but I do remember from my cinema viewing this being quite a yellow film.

The soundtrack, mostly in French with some exchanges in English, is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, the film being a late example of monophonic sound when Dolby Stereo had become all but ubiquitous. The track is well balanced and clear. The English subtitles are optional.

The main extra is the theatrical trailer (1.32), presented non-anamorphically in 1.66:1, with a further black bar on the left hand side. Also on the disc are trailers for The Wind Will Carry Us and Claire Dolan.

Nénette et Boni is a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. The film is transferred in a ratio of 1.75:1, anamorphically enhanced and there’s nothing much to worry about, with colours and black levels seeming accurate to me. Given the film’s 16mm origin, grain is certainly evident but it’s natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround (2.0), reflecting the Dolby Stereo track it played with in cinemas. The mix is well balanced, with occasional uses of directional sound (for example Boni’s air rifle), and surrounds used mainly for ambience and the music score. The dialogue is almost all in French with a few of Gallo’s lines in English, and the English subtitles are optional.

The only extra is the trailer (1:44), which is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1.

Beau travail is a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. This edition is a repackage of what was in 2000 Artificial Eye’s second-ever DVD release (after Time Regained) and their first with an anamorphic transfer, which is in the original ratio of 1.66:1. This is therefore a thirteen-year-old transfer and what was certainly acceptable then has been surpassed now, not least by the fact that a new transfer would be more likely from a HD master. The results are a little soft in some scenes, but if you make allowances for the age, it’s fine.

The main extra is the theatrical trailer (1:37), which looks like a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer of which the anamorphic flag has been incorrectly set, resulting in everything being unduly stretched horizontally. The remaining extras are text screens with a cast and crew listing and filmographies for the three leading actors and for Denis, up to 2000.

White Material is a dual-layered all-regions DVD. The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There’s really little to say here, this being a transfer of a new film from presumably a HD master. It’s sharp and colourful (a pinkish tone in parts being presumably intentional) with solid blacks.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. The mix is front and centre for the most part, with the surrounds being used mainly for the music score (by Tindersticks) and for some subtle ambience. It’s not the most showy soundtrack out there. There is a Dolby Surround (2.0) alternative. English subtitles are optional.

The extras begin with an interview featurette (10:02) from the French-movie satellite channel Cinémoi. It contains interviews with Denis and Lambert along with clips from the film. As you can guess from the short running time it doesn’t dig very deep, but Denis does discuss her original inspiration for the film, a mutual wish with Huppert to adapt the first novel by African-raised English novelist (and now Nobel Prizewinner) Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing. (The novel was filmed in 1981 with Karen Black in the lead role, but I haven’t seen it.) Lambert talks about his admiration for Denis’s work. The other extra is the theatrical trailer (1:43).


Updated: Mar 15, 2013

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