Denis, Claire

(1948- )
   Director. Claire Denis grew up in West Africa where her father was a French colonial administrator. She interned at Télé Niger in educational filmmaking, then studied at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC). She trained under Jacques Rivette—the influential Nouvelle Vague or New Wave director, who has, by Denis's own admission, had a profound influence on her own filmmaking style. She once made a documentary about Rivette, Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), which was something of an homage to his work. In addition to her work with Rivette, Denis also assisted Robert Enrico and Constantin Costa-Gavras, with whom she collaborated in Israel. She was later invited to work for Wim Wenders in the United States. During the time she worked with Wenders, she also met with Jim Jarmusch.
   Denis's formative experiences in Africa would frequently influence the settings, themes, and focus of her films. Her exposure to ex-patriate colonialists fueled her interest in the French Empire, migration, and race relations and her films have drawn rather extensive interest from postcolonial French film scholars, with one of them sometimes even being counted as an African film. Her first feature film, the autobiographical Chocolat (1988), is set in colonial Cameroon. The screenplay was cowritten by Jean-Pol Fargeau, who would help to pen the scripts of almost all of Denis's feature films. As it narrates the journey of an adult French woman who revisits the place of her childhood, Chocolat also explores relationships between the colonizer and colonized. The film pays particular attention to gender and race as it experiments with the cinematic gaze, shifting it away from the standard white male gaze, and placing the gaze instead with a woman or girl-child. Denis's interest in African and Caribbean migrations from former French colonies is also demonstrated in S'en fout la mort (1990) and in her documentary Man no run (1989), about the European tour of the Cameroonian band, Les Têtes Brûlées.
   Denis's emphasis on the visual and the silent is especially evident in Beau travail (2000), a film set in Djibouti and based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor. The film has received critical attention for its representation of the male body, specifically for the way in which the cinematic gaze lingers on members of the French Foreign Legion. The film, which features stunning cinematography, was shot by Agnès Godard, with whom Denis worked on Wenders's Wings of Desire (1987). Denis's later film, Vendredi soir (2002), is based on a literary work by Emmanuèle Berheim and, like Beau travail, it uses only sparse dialogue.
   Denis's avoidance of dialogue or explanations of her characters' motives is also seen in J'ai pas sommeil (1993), which is based on a serial-killer case featured in the French press. Trouble Every Day (2001), an experiment in vampire films and the horror genre, is a further representation of her propensity to highlight silence and visual depth over dialogue. Although Denis tends to underemphasize dialogue, her soundtracks are often a strong presence in her films, and her films often underscore her passion for music: her feature Nénette et Boni (1995) takes some of its inspiration from a song by the Tindersticks, a British band whose music is also featured in Trouble Every Day.
   Apart from the privileging of silence and music and the use of Africa, family dynamics are sometimes a connecting feature that unites some of Denis's films. Both Nenette et Boni and the episode she directed for the television series US Go Home (1994) explore the relationship between a sister and brother. Both also star the actors Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri. Denis often works with the same actors, especially Colin, Houri, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Alex Descas, and Vincent Gallo. Denis later directed I'Intrus (2004), which features Michel Subor alongside Colin and Dalle. Because of the recognizable filmmaking style and the commonalities of theme, Denis is one of the few female filmmakers to have been deemed an auteur. In addition to her activities as a film director, Denis is currently an instructor at the Fondation Européenne des Métiers de l'Image et du Son (FEMIS).

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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  • Denis, Claire — (1948 )    Director. Claire Denis grew up in West Africa where her father was a French colonial administrator. She interned at Télé Niger in educational filmmaking, then studied at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC). She… …   Guide to cinema

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