Claire Denis: A Beginner’s Guide to One of Today’s Best Filmmakers

     September 14, 2016


Sure, space is the place, right now in auteur cinema, but space is the pace for French auteur Claire Denis. Denis is a master of using visuals to convey deeper personal conflicts. She is patient, observational and understated. She does not spell things out with handy dialogue, but pays attention to the pauses; the spaces of thought that words cannot be expressed, either due to language barriers or identity barriers.

Denis was born in France in the 1940s, but raised in colonial West Africa, spending time in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon. Many of her films have dealt with the identity crisis of both the colonized and the colonizer. But they aren’t forceful films; they are films that are meant to wash over you like water shaping a pebble. Denis shows a keen awareness that the disconnect— between people in love, people in power—created by things left unsaid has the power to destroy or the power to free. It’s this very dissection of feeling alien on Earth, and observing from equal vantage points of otherness (including a pair of sex cannibals!) that makes the announcement that Denis will film an original sci-fi this year, ever so delicious.


Image via The Cinema Guild

With major authors and auteurs beginning to embrace hard sci-fi and original sci-fi, between Ex Machina, Arrival, Upstream Color and (to an extent) Interstellar, we’re currently in a golden age of big ideas in movie sci-fi. But because Denis is a filmmaker whose every filmmaking current runs opposite of what we expect from the genres she dabbles in—from a military film, to a racial divide film, to a horror film, to an immigrant film—there is bubbling cinephile excitement brewing to see what a futuristic sci-fi movie from her view could be. We’ll drop the synopsis for High Life now, and rejoin you after your jaw drops. 

Deep space. Beyond our solar system. Monte and his infant daughter Willow live together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A solitary man, whose strict self-discipline is a protection against desire – his own and that of others – Monte fathered the girl against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate Boyse, the young woman who gave birth to her. They were members of a crew of prisoners: space convicts, death row inmates. Guinea pigs sent on a mission to the black hole closest to Earth. Now only Monte and Willow remain. And Monte is changed. Through his daughter, for the first time, he experiences the birth of an all-powerful love. Willow grows, becoming a young girl, then a young woman. Together, alone, father and daughter approach their destination – the black hole in which all time and space cease to exist. (via Wild Bunch)

Robert Pattison, Mia Goth and Patricia Arquette are set to star in High Life, from an original script from her frequent screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeua (subsequently touched up for English by the award-winning author of White TeethZadie Smith). And if you’re intrigued by either the synopsis or want to know a new sci-fi film to look forward to and want to get to know the auteur better, we’ve selected four films that best highlight her attention to space and her direct approach to genre (her horror film does not feature jump scares and instead is truly horrific because she focuses on intense pain for an intensely painful duration). The below selections are gems of visual cinema and might best be read with the soundtrack accompaniment of Tindersticks, a minimalist group that’s become as intertwined with her pastiche as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has become with Paul Thomas Anderson.

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