Special thanks to Julia Lesage for her supportive feedback and for introducing me to the work of Susanne Langer, whose 1953 book Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art inspired the title of this essay.

1. Deleuze, 201. [return to page 1 of essay]

2. I am inclined to agree with Adrian Martin’s assessment of White Material as one of Denis’ more qualified successes, and for the same reason: Denis’ political critique of postcolonial Africa and her narrative, audiovisual stylizations are typically potent, but they operate within the context of a star vehicle for the commanding presence of Isabelle Huppert, who had originally propositioned Denis to adapt Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass is Singing. Huppert’s Maria Vial is a headstrong French coffee farmer determined to bring in the harvest at her plantation despite the eruption of a brutal civil war, and in Martin’s words she feels like “a distant relative of Bette Davis in any number of 1930s and ‘40s melodramas.” White Material’s function as star vehicle restricts Denis from exploring “the meaning of actor/character-as-body” (Beugnet) as convincingly as her other films, as well as from pushing images and sounds as elements that carry meaning in themselves.

3. Staples scored L’intrus as a solo project, as did Hinchliffe with Vendredi soir. Tindersticks are credited as a full band with the scores for Nénette et Boni, Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material. The soundtrack of Beau travail features a mixture of pop artists (Corona, Tarkan, Neil Young) and excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera Billy Budd.

4. Antonioni is actually one of those filmmakers, like Pasolini, Rossellini and Renoir, whom Schrader locates on the margins of transcendental style. (I mention him above because I see less of a kinship between Denis and the third director whom Schrader focuses his central thesis upon, Carl Theodor Dreyer.) 35 Shots of Rum ranks as Denis’ most purely transcendental project to date, doubtless because she conceived it as a tribute to Ozu’s father-daughter domestic drama Late Spring (1949).

5. Beugnet, 21.

6. Smith, 2005.

7. Beugnet, 27.

8. Langer, 1991, 78.

9. Beugnet, 14.

10. Deleuze, 201.

11. Romney, 2000.

12. Denis on an itinerant childhood spent travelling through colonial Africa:

“I remember being dazzled by the beauty of the Red Sea, the desert. You don't forget a landscape like that. I always thought of Djibouti as a place where human history hasn't really begun yet – or perhaps it's already over. There's something in the landscape that's stronger than human civilization. There's no agriculture, for example, and there are live volcanoes. And there's the Legion.”(Romney, 2000)

13. Of special interest for their aesthetic and intertextual links with Beau travail are Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) and Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The film also bears a self-consciously intertextual relationship to Jean-Luc Godard’s once-controversial Algerian War critique Le petit soldat (1963), in which Michel Subor played a young exile caught up with revolutionary groups, also named Bruno Forestier.

14. It is tempting to read this scene as a tongue-in-cheek, queer pastiche of the showdown between gunfighters Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), wherein they circle each other slowly before opening fire.

15. Thompson, 202.

16. Langer, 1991, 72.

17. Langer, 78.

18. Martin, 2006. [return to page 2]

19. Beugnet, 119.

20. Ibid, 110.

21. Romney, 2000.

22. Jean-Michel Frodon has made a similar observation about the manner in which Denis’ films

“radically modify the status of the shot. The shot ceases to be the narrative and plastic unit with which the sequences that compose the film as a whole are built. The shot as unit becomes the shot as stroke or line, a visual sign that, only through its combination with other signs, will call forth a mental recomposition producing emotions and meaning” (2002).

Frodon, however, sees the editing rhythms as less informed by music than the aesthetics of contemporary kung-fu cinema.

23. Langer, 1991, 71.

24. Connor, 1997, 211.

25. Langer, 1991, 68.

26. Connor, 1997, 207.

27. Ibid.

28. Langer, 1991, 73.

29. Langer, 82.

30. Ibid.

31. Langer, 1991, 72. [return to page 3]

32. Murch, 2000.

33. Connor, 1997, 207.

34. Ibid.

35. Marks, 162.

36. Ibid, 129.

37. Ibid, 162.

38. Ibid.

39. When asked whether she ever enjoys films with snappy dialogue, Denis responded that:

“when it's good, I really enjoy it. The only thing is, the type of story I like to tell is another sort of dialogue – it's the dialogue between sound and movement, and feelings and emotion.”(Cochrane, 2009)

40. Martin, 2006.

41. In some ways, Denis’ take on subliminal sound recalls the celebrated opening montage of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), where an arch compendium of life in a picture-postcard suburban Midwest finally settles upon the scene of a middle-aged man hosing his Norman Rockwell lawn before having a heart attack. From this shot, the camera slowly burrows beneath the grass to uncover a nest of bugs building their secret subterranean home... and with it, a parallel sound-world that crunches, seethes and slithers at the edge of our consciousness.

42. Marks, 183.

43. Jacobus, 135.

44. Ibid, 133.

45. Connor, 214.

46. Ibid, 209.

47. Ibid, 210. [return to page 4]

48. Ibid.

49. According to Beugnet, on Vendredi soir Denis and Ughetto

“had the opportunity to mix the sound with a SR surround system that recreates a rich and textured sound and generates a heightened feeling of being enveloped in it” (193).

50. Marks, 138.

51. Ibid, 148.

52. Connor, 2004, 50.

53. Segal, 47.

54. Langer, 80.

55. Connor, 2004, 50.

56. The fact that Laure only attains this blissful (and presumably temporary) state of visual integrity after a sexual encounter with a man could be said to undermine the film's feminist value, though the focus on her pleasure suggests otherwise. Beyond considerations of gender, the notion that good sex functions as a mind-cleansing visual restorative has enjoyed a broad cultural currency. See the sex scene between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound (1996). Gershon plays a just-released convict who presumably has not had sex in a long time. Lying back in post-coital bliss after her first tryst with Tilly, she sighs wistfully, “I can see again.”

Works cited

Beau travail. Dir. Claire Denis. 1999. DVD. Artificial Eye, 2000.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Beugnet, Martine. French Film Directors: Claire Denis. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. Print.

Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. 1986. DVD. Sony, 2006.

Bound. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. DVD. Republic Pictures, 2001.

Cat People. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. 1942. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2005.

Chocolat. Dir. Claire Denis. 1988. DVD. Artificial Eye, 2009.

Cochrane, Kira. “ I'm not interested in making conclusions.” The Guardian 3 July 2009.
< http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/

Connor, Steven. “The Modern Auditory I.” Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Roy Porter. London: Routledge, 1997. 203-223. Print.

---. The Book of Skin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota UP, 1989. Print.

Frodon, Jean-Michel. “Songe érotique d’une nuit de gréve des transports.” Le Monde 11 Sept. 2002. Print.

Jacobus, Mary. “Flaying the Mind: Milner and the Myth of Marsyas.” The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 119-147. Print.

J’ai pas sommeil. Dir. Claire Denis. 1994. DVD. Edition Salzgeber, 2011.

Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Mentor Books, 1948. Print.

---. “The Symbol of Feeling.” Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought. Ed. Sally Everett. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1991. Print.

Late Spring. Dir. Yasujiro Ozu. 1949. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2006.

L’avventura. Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. 1960. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2004.

Le petit soldat. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1963. DVD. Wellspring Media, 2004.

L’intrus. Dir. Claire Denis. 2004. DVD. Tartan, 2005.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. London: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

Martin, Adrian. “Film of the month: White Material.” Sight and Sound July 2010. <http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/5514/>

---. “Ticket to ride: Claire Denis and the cinema of the body.” Screening the Past Nov 2006.

Murch, Walter. “Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See.” New York Times 1 Oct 2000. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10

Nénette et Boni. Dir. Claire Denis. 1996. DVD. Strand Releasing, 1997.

Olympia. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. 1938. Laserdisc. Criterion Collection, 1997.

Once Upon a Time in the West. Dir. Sergio Leone. 1968. DVD. Paramount, 2003.

Paths of Glory. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1957. DVD. MGM, 2004.

Querelle. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1982. DVD. Gaumont, 2009.

Romney, Jonathan. “Claire Denis interviewed by Jonathan Romney.” The Guardian 28 June 2000. <http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/

---. “Who wants to be a legionnaire?” The Guardian 27 June 2000.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1988. Print.

Sebastiane. Dir. Derek Jarman. 1976. DVD. Kino Video, 2003.

Segal, Naomi. “Chapter 2: Anzieu's theory.” Consensuality: Didier Anzieu, gender and the sense of touch. New York: Genus, 2009. 31-53. Print.

Smith, Damon. “L'intrus: An Interview with Claire Denis.” Senses of Cinema 2005.
< http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/35/claire_denis_interview/>

Strike. Dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein. 1925. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2000.

Thompson, Kristin. “The continuity system.” The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. Ed. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. London: Routledge, 1988. 287-309. Print.

35 Shots of Rum. Dir. Claire Denis. 2008. DVD. Drakes Ave, 2009.

Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. 1935. DVD. Synapse Films, 2001.

Trouble Every Day. Dir. Claire Denis. 2001. DVD. Prism Leisure, 2005.

Un chant d’amour. Dir. Jean Genet. 1950. DVD. BFI Video, 2003.

US Go Home. Dir. Claire Denis. Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge... Arte. 28 Oct. 1994. Television.

Vagabond. Dir. Agnès Varda. 1985. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2004.

Vendredi soir. Dir. Claire Denis. 2002. DVD. Tartan Video, 2004.

White Material. Dir. Claire Denis. 2009. DVD. Artificial Eye, 2010.

Wochenende. Dir. Walter Ruttmann. 1929. Sound-only film.

To topPrint versionJC 54 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.