This year, the 6th edition of the Panorama of the European Film will be celebrating filmmaker Claire Denis, an icon of contemporary French cinema.
In a dedicated retrospective, two of the auteur’s most significant films will be screened: Beau Travail, her 1999 drama set in the desert of Djibouti, and White Material, the film she directed 10 years later and based also in Africa — this time in an unnamed country torn apart by civil war.
Denis, the daughter of a French civil servant, spent the majority of her childhood and early adolescence in different parts of French colonial West Africa, which heavily influenced her work as a director. Echoes of her experience as a young girl living in Africa found their way to many of her films, most importantly her debut feature Chocolat (1988). The film, harbouring evident autobiographical elements, was nominated for a Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Denis’ films, even the ones that take place in France, often deal with issues of social alienation, cultural displacement and racial conflict. However, despite narratives that reflect the bleak existence of individuals living on the margins of society, her work is often applauded for its raw visual appeal, and she is praised by critics for her ability to "reconcile the lyricism of French cinema with the impulse to capture the often harsh face of contemporary France."
The distinctive quality of Denis’ cinematic imagery can be attributed in large part to the chemistry she enjoys with her longtime collaborators, especially cinematographer Agnes Godard, who has worked with her on nine features so far. The artistic partnership between Denis and Godard calls to mind other great cinematic duets, particularly the one between Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. While Bergman and Nykvist’s focus on the actor’s faces and their employment of close-ups characterised most of the films they worked on together, it is Denis’s treatment of the human body — with the aid of Godard’s camera — as the centerpiece of the film that gives her work its humane, poetic edge.
Her latest film, Bastards (2013), was screened as part of the ‘Un Certain Regard’ selection in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film, Denis’s first to be shot in digital, is a dark, gripping neo-noir thriller that has been criticised by some for giving an impression of incompleteness. However, Denis’s work has always been famous for its opaqueness; her films rarely ever provide clear-cut storylines that leave viewers feeling like they’re in control. This might be one of the factors that make her a rather intimidating filmmaker, but it is also a characteristic that fans of hers have come to appreciate over the years.
While critics and film enthusiasts have been drawing parallels between Denis’s films and noting recurring themes in her work for years, she says she has no coherent vision of her career as a solid, consistent body. She also insists that she does not identify herself as a "female" filmmaker; only a filmmaker, although her work is more often than not discussed and analysed in the broader context of women’s cinema. To her, making films is all about the people — the characters in each of the stories she brings to the screen. The camera, she says in a 1999 interview, needs to be put in the direction of "those that should be seen; those that should be in the light" — otherwise, in Denis’ eyes, making movies is just not worth "all that energy, all that money."
Claire Denis is expected to be among the guests hosted by the Panorama of the European Film in Egypt this year.
You can find the screening times of Beau Travail and White Material here.