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Under the Skin: The Films of Claire Denis

March 4, 2011 - April 16, 2011

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The work of Claire Denis begins with what she calls “tactile intuition.” Her films feel their way through charged situations and complex relationships—cultural, familial, sexual—by attending to the textures and rhythms of the physical world and to the ways that people move through it. This is a corporeal cinema: Denis once asserted,” capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me.”

Born in Paris in 1948, Denis spent her childhood in various African nations where her father was a French colonial functionary. Several of her most acclaimed films, from her debut feature Chocolat to Beau travail and the recent White Material, are set in Africa, and a concern with colonialism and its aftereffects runs through much of her work. But her approach to this and other subjects is less political or even psychological than emotional and experiential; exposition is pared away, leaving impressions whose full meaning emerges only with the passage of time.

Denis served a long apprenticeship before directing her own films, beginning as an assistant on Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) and later working as an assistant director to Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. This retrospective includes her films with those two directors, as well as the fruits of her long collaborations with cinematographer Agnès Godard, writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, and actor Alex Descas (whom she has described as her “muse”). Here is a chance to experience a body of work that both exerts and rewards alert observation.


Juliet Clark
Contributing Film Notes Writer

Friday, March 4, 2011
7:00 p.m. White Material
Claire Denis (France, 2009). Isabelle Huppert plays a West African plantation owner whose world is collapsing around her. Denis’s most recent film is “tense, convulsive . . . a thing of terrible beauty” (Village Voice). “The best film of the year” (Artforum). (102 mins)

Friday, March 4, 2011
9:00 p.m. Chocolat
Claire Denis (France/W. Germany, 1988). Denis’s first feature draws on recollections of her girlhood in 1950s colonial Africa. “A film of infinite delicacy . . . made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story” (Chicago Sun-Times). (105 mins)

Saturday, March 5, 2011
7:15 p.m. Paris, Texas
Wim Wenders (W. Germany/France, 1984). Amnesiac Harry Dean Stanton and his young son set out across the West in search of the boy’s mother in Wenders’s melancholy road movie. Written by Sam Shepard, with a memorable score by Ry Cooder; Denis was assistant director. (145 mins)

Sunday, March 6, 2011
3:00 p.m. I Can’t Sleep
Claire Denis (France/Switzerland, 1994). Loosely based on a series of real-life murders, Denis’s Parisian noir opens up more riddles than it solves, mysteries of intention and desire. “Calmly lures viewers into an ordinary world where the sinister and the benign wear the same face” (N.Y. Times). (110 mins)

Sunday, March 20, 2011
3:00 p.m. No Fear, No Die
Claire Denis (France, 1990). In Denis’s surprising second film, Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas play immigrants who train birds for cockfights on the outskirts of Paris. “Has a seedy, claustrophobic power that says as much about human as about animal exploitation” (Time Out). (91 mins)

Friday, March 25, 2011
7:00 p.m. Nénette and Boni
Claire Denis (France, 1996). “A sibling drama of unsentimental urban grit and swooning lyricism, Nénette and Boni meditates on the myriad permutations of love and sensuality . . . Denis’s elliptical narrative style has seldom been this graceful” (Slant). (103 mins)

Friday, March 25, 2011
9:00 p.m. Beau travail
Claire Denis (France, 1999). In this story of French Legionnaires isolated in a blisteringly beautiful African setting, Denis creates “a fixed, timeless world of mysterious, balletic rites, rippled with simmering homoerotic tensions. . . Prepare to be blown away” (Time Out). (90 mins)

Saturday, March 26, 2011
8:30 p.m. Down by Law
Jim Jarmusch (U.S., 1986). Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni make an odd trio of Louisiana jailbirds in what Jarmusch termed a “neo-Beat noir comedy.” Denis was assistant director. (107 mins)

Friday, April 1, 2011
7:00 p.m. Beau travail
Claire Denis (France, 1999). In this story of French Legionnaires isolated in a blisteringly beautiful African setting, Denis creates “a fixed, timeless world of mysterious, balletic rites, rippled with simmering homoerotic tensions. . . Prepare to be blown away” (Time Out). (90 mins)

Friday, April 1, 2011
8:50 p.m. Trouble Every Day
Claire Denis (France, 2001). Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle are stricken with a gruesome sexual compulsion. Denis’s controversial take on erotic horror is “sui generis . . . harrowing, merciless, strangely tender” (Glenn Kenny). (101 mins)

Saturday, April 2, 2011
8:30 p.m. Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders (W. Germany, 1988). Denis assisted (and met actress Solveig Dommartin, who later appeared in No Fear, No Die) on Wim Wenders’s poignant city symphony, which centers on a pair of melancholy angels whose beat is Berlin. (130 mins)

Friday, April 8, 2011
6:30 p.m. The Intruder
Claire Denis (France/Korea, 2004). After a heart transplant, a man travels the world in search of new meaning. “Poetic and primal. . . . This mysterious object may be Denis’s most gorgeous film” (Village Voice). (130 mins)

Friday, April 8, 2011
9:00 p.m. U.S. Go Home
Claire Denis/Cédric Kahn (France, 1994). “The great unseen Claire Denis film” (Harvard Film Archive), U.S. Go Home is a vivid portrait of 1960s French youth. With Claire Denis: The Wanderer, a filmed interview with the director. (114 mins)

Saturday, April 9, 2011
8:30 p.m. The Intruder
Claire Denis (France/Korea, 2004). After a heart transplant, a man travels the world in search of new meaning. “Poetic and primal. . . . This mysterious object may be Denis’s most gorgeous film” (Village Voice). (130 mins)

Friday, April 15, 2011
7:00 p.m. Friday Night
Claire Denis (France, 2002). A chance encounter in a traffic jam offers a thirtysomething woman a moment of liberation. “This is wonderfully alert filmmaking, vividly alive to the constant by-play between inner longings and everyday surroundings” (Time Out). (90 mins)

Friday, April 15, 2011
8:50 p.m. Vers Mathilde
Claire Denis (France, 2005). This rarely screened documentary on choreographer Mathilde Monnier is “a must for modern dance and Denis fans” (Variety). With short Pour Ushari Ahmed Mahmoud, a haunting evocation of political repression and exile. (88 mins)

Saturday, April 16, 2011
8:40 p.m. 35 Shots of Rum
Claire Denis (France, 2008). Denis magically limns the story of a father (Alex Descas) and his daughter as they face the inevitable: her independence. “Quiet and lovely . . . (shows) how the melancholy strains of ordinary existence are also its sweetest music” (N.Y. Times). (100 mins)

Series curated by Susan Oxtoby. PFA wishes to thank the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Harris Dew, IFC Center, New York; CulturesFrance, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris; Delphine Selles, French Cultural Service, San Francisco; Jonathan Howell, New Yorker Films; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Jake Perlin, The Film Desk; Brandon Peters, Strand Releasing; Andrew Tracy, TIFF Cinematheque; and Paul Richer, Pyramide International.