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Lessons from a Parasocial Time

Farah Hasanbegović, one of Eye's Programmers of the Future, collaborated on the retrospective of the controversial French filmmaker Claire Denis. Below is their view on a number of characteristic features of Denis' oeuvre. On desires colliding with reality and wading through the Rio Grande to make a point.

By Farah Hasanbegović26 February 2024

The occasion of the retrospective of Claire Denis’ work finds me alone in a new place and a new job, trying to get settled. This, a person being somewhere new and trying to make their life there, is a common theme in Denis’ films, probably because it’s these kinds of moments in life that carry a lot of the uncertainty that fiction thrives on.

still from Les salauds (Claire Denis, FR/DE 2013)

still Les salauds (Claire Denis, FR/DE 2013)

Mired in dreams and moored in hard times, Denis’ characters are constantly urging the viewer to consider if the things they want are at all possible - and if they are possible, how likely is it that they will succeed in getting what they want.

Denis’ reality seems so unmovable that it doesn’t seem like we need to suspend our disbelief to enter her films, but that we must instead learn how to control our hope - carefully choosing when we can let ourselves believe that a situation on screen is about to turn out right.

What is it that Denis has gleaned about reality that makes it possible for her to reproduce it so accurately?

In my life, I put myself where I am. In cinema, characters’ motivations are devised by the author - someone put them where they are. I find myself scouring the internet for interviews with Denis to understand how she’s reached a point where she’s able to play with this uncertainty. It’s not difficult - filmmakers these days are so extensively documented, a consequence how much of the film industry is public-facing, and it isn’t long before I begin to form an image of the author in my head. In an odd world, a world where so much profits off of parasocial relations, either because everyone is lonely or because we’ve all just engaged with fiction so much that even our way of connecting doesn’t require proximity or even reality, my head fills with quotes, anecdotes, worries, charming asides. I listen and wonder - what is it that Denis has gleaned about reality that makes it possible for her to reproduce it so accurately? And if life really is like that - how do I ever get comfortable in it?

still from Chocolat (Claire Denis, FR/DE/CM 1988)

still Chocolat (Claire Denis, FR/DE/CM 1988)

still from S'en fout la mort (Claire Denis, FR/DE 1990)

still S'en fout la mort (Claire Denis, FR/DE 1990)

A cruel place

Desire, Denis presses, is key to reality. In major motion pictures, the flow of life is so smooth that love and help and laughter come precisely at the right time. However, in reality, desire is all that more magical because it isn’t promised. Whether they want money, blood, forgiveness, a nice breakfast or even simply stagnation, Denis’ characters find their desires constantly tested against a painfully real sense of uncertainty and loss. To the director, reality requires the non-stability of life. Once unsure that she would even become a director herself, it seemed to Denis that the characters of Claire Denis, the filmmaker should be a bit like her - “that they should expect something from life, without being sure that they will get it.” To Denis, the world seems to be a cruel place where one is always at odds with reality, where existence requires a fight.

I find myself facing a similar disenchantment regularly, simple and childish - life is just too real, too irreversible when compared to the digital, or indeed the fictional places we inhabit all day. You scratch yourself in one careless moment and the scar stays on your body forever. Cut hair takes time to grow. We can drop out of our lives and start over, but we can’t un-live the past: our memory stays. Cinema to Denis presents a way to address this great injustice. “Films don’t repair,” Denis says, but instead offer a be a place to “be with” - with the character in their struggle, but also with each other in the world that the screen reflects.

still from Beau travail (Claire Denis, FR 1999)
still from Beau travail (Claire Denis, FR 1999)

A tactile director

Despite their complex, isolating circumstances and states of mind in this difficult world, it doesn’t feel like Denis’ characters are being judged by the author, no matter what they do. All choices, whether they be to kill and steal or to love and do kind things play out with equal respect for the control people have over their life story. Denis’ singular approach to directing, which puts her signature on films that can drastically vary in themes and settings, is grounded in her ability to connect with others. “The frame is a way to magnify the relationships you have,” Denis muses to friend and collaborator Jim Jarmusch, another filmmaker whose work thrives from long-term collaborations. One example of this is the way people move on screen - her characters don’t move neatly - they move precisely, which means that they occupy space in exceptionally convincing ways. They stumble, access alien dance moves, face other characters at odd angles that feel tense and uncomfortable.

People in film often call Denis a tactile director. The word tactile leads various interviewers into trouble, as they phrase their questions in clumsy ways that often recall the uncomfortable connection between physical touch and film sets. Others suggest that she poses the actors - like dolls, or a painter instructing a live model. Instead, this tactile approach has more to do with the relationship Denis establishes with her actors and her cinematographer. It’s about being aware of the body in its environment, often by creating a space that lets us recognize poses and movements as something that our own body could - or couldn’t - do.

Denis and her actors speak extensively about the mood, the choreography of gestures and situations not only as it relates to their position on camera but also as it relates to time - including the time the audience will spend with an image. She feels that this sense of togetherness - both of the process, but also of the viewers who spend time with the body being filmed - is what makes something emotionally moving in a film.

still from Vendredi soir (Claire Denis, FR 2002)

still Vendredi soir (Claire Denis, FR 2002)

Denis' tactile approach has more to do with the relationship Denis establishes with her actors and her cinematographer.

It’s a delight to discover what these careful sensory hints contribute to the viewing experience, whenever a unique, precise gesture appears. In High Life, we watch Robert Pattinson’s character, a criminal exiled to a spaceship headed to a black hole, find his daughter - a child born in space with no ties to Earth, praying. Lost in the absurdity and tenderness of the situation, he stands in a doorway with his arms raised above his head in a pose so human it almost feels like it’s meant to jog the viewer’s muscle memory, to make the body feel the emotions that lead to that specific set of movements. It’s hard to imagine a line of dialogue or a different position that would produce the same effect. It makes it so the actor and character aren’t alone in space and in this emotional cue, but that we are able to share some of their burden through the language of bodies. “I don’t think I use the camera to judge, ever,” says Denis. Instead, she wants her camera to be a companion.

still from High Life (Claire Denis, DE/FR/GB/PL/US 2018)

still High Life (Claire Denis, DE/FR/GB/PL/US 2018)

still from High Life (Claire Denis, DE/FR/GB/PL/US 2018)

still High Life (Claire Denis, DE/FR/GB/PL/US 2018)

“I don’t think I use the camera to judge, ever.”

Claire Denis

Choosing your legitimacy

In one masterclass, she sits with her feet up on the chair, comfortable in her space, and channels some advice she received from another filmmaker: “What do you lack? Only you can decide that for yourself, no one else.” The question of feeling legitimate in a space has been tirelessly brought up in conversations about Denis for years. A woman working in cinema at an exceptionally high level, someone who grew up overseas in the remnants of the colonial structure, someone whose stories and characters frequently reach across the borders of class, gender, race and place. “You will choose legitimacy for yourself,” Denis relays. However, for those most likely to doubt their place - to the young, the strong-headed, those displaced into a position of minority, this feeling of being legitimate, which Denis’ mentor suggests will be self-made, doesn’t have to look like the standard issue image of confidence, nor does the journey to it necessarily need to be elegant. Elsewhere, Denis recounts an anecdote about working as an assistant director to Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas and how her strong-headedness lead her to try and cross the Rio Grande twice over, fully dressed, to prove that it wasn’t difficult. Her point, sadly, fails - halfway across, Denis is swept down in a furious current, and after an hour spent trying to get out of the river - in my imagination: 37 years old, drenched and only 5 years away from releasing her debut feature Chocolat - she finally admits that letting one of the actors try the same thing wouldn’t be a good idea.

Sometimes I feel like the thing that makes it so hard to reach a point where I feel legitimate isn’t the amount of hard work and obstacles standing in the way, but how embarrassing it’s become to have someone see you trying anything at all. In US Go Home, a rare Denis work and her twist on a coming-of-age story, we watch a dashing, young Denis regular Grégoire Colin dance to a song by The Animals with the vigorous, unabashed energy that only comes with being locked in your own room. The spell breaks and his confident charm vanishes when we realize that another character has been just out of frame and out of his line of sight the entire time. “Can’t I ever be alone,” Colin’s character laments - and I get the sense that it’s not the act of dancing that he’s embarrassed by, but instead this display of freedom and unawareness that’s not seen as a part of being cool.

We associate legitimacy with power, but often a kind power that can be used on others or that’s given to us by others. Choosing your own legitimacy would mean cutting to the front of the line of all the people in the world that are waiting to give you their opinion on your life. Trying to summarize her thoughts on the subject, Denis offers that she knew from the moment she began to make her own films that she would maybe at times not find herself legitimate, but that for sure in her work, she would find herself more alone.

A few weeks into knowing that the program would be coming up, I ask around to see if anyone has any Claire Denis stories to share. “I saw her at a party! She dances really well,” is the first response that comes in. I share this because it seems incredibly sweet, no matter how anecdotal it may be. In the poster that follows this retrospective, a still from the making of 35 Shots of Rum, Denis isn’t dancing, but she seems wrapped up in some delightful music all on her own. However, in the second version of the image we discover that she isn’t by herself and that actor Alex Descas stands just to her side - but still that the magic of Denis’ pose and expression isn’t changed by this company.

In the coming weeks, when faced with the uncertain fates, the comedy, drama and brutality of the lives of Denis’ characters, if you find yourself feeling alone or somehow confronted with something in the film that brings up a part of you that feels like it keeps you separate from the world, just remember that the nearest person feeling the same thing might be just a few seats down the row from you - or behind the camera of the image on the screen.

poster Claire Denis – Trouble-Making Magic

poster Claire Denis – Trouble-Making Magic

Films, Talks & Events

In the foreground on a film set, Claire Denis, a woman with wavy blonde hair, stands with her hands raised to her earphones, her eyes are closed as she appears to listen intently. In the background, a man with glasses looks at her reaction