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The hopeful loneliness of Claire Denis
The history of cinema is full of feelings of heartache and desolation, but no one has ever conveyed it as poignantly as the French director
There are few emotions filmmakers have been more adept at conveying than loneliness.
Audiences feel it from Travis Bickle’s gaze in Taxi Driver as he drives the streets of New York observing rather than participating in life. We see it etched onto the face of actors, like Jeanne Moreau’s downturned beauty, wet from the rain in Elevator to the Gallows. We experience it in the sense of longing that Greta Garbo creates. We detect it without anything more than a single glance from the agonized faces of Buster Keaton and Robert Mitchum. Auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni drown their protagonists in landscapes and bathe them in darkness to make their alienation palpable through the physical relationship with the world around them in films like Wild Strawberries and L’Avventura.
But that is the past. While cinema’s history is filled with masters of for lorning solitude, there are few working filmmakers as capable of exploring the theme of loneliness with anything approaching resonance. That is, with the exception of French filmmaker Claire Denis.
Raised in colonial Africa, Denis began her career as an assistant director working on films like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. In 1988, she made her feature debut with Chocolat, a semi-autobiographical film about a young white woman returning to West Africa, a homeland where she doesn’t belong. The film screened in competition at Cannes, launching Denis as a favourite among the arthouse film set. Her cinematic style is most often described as elliptical, with plot and character tied together through moments rather than clear narrative trajectories.
In 1999, Denis made waves with Beau Travail, the recollection of an ex-French legionnaire, Galoup (Denis Levant), of his time in Africa. Like Taxi Driver before it, the film is about its protagonist’s gaze. Through Galoup’s eyes we see the soldiers in their war dance, strong and powerful, muscles glistening in the African sun. Unable to act on his repressed sexual urges, Galoup is overcome with destructive loneliness. While he may have command of the forces, the legionnaire lacks the beauty of his young soldiers and only his strong, weathered face conceals the profound weakness behind his desperation. When watching no longer suffices, he turns to violence, and inflicts punishments on the young man he craves. The film leads to a liberating dance sequence, in which Galoup dances to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona alone with a mirror. The scene acts like the release of a pressure valve threatening to burst. It is the film’s only escape from the oppressive question, “Why am I alone?”
Much of Beau Travail takes place in silence, the soundtrack and movements taking precedence over words. In Denis’s films, dialogue could best be described as ineffectual when it isn’t cast aside completely. In Trouble Every Day, her film about a vampiric disease encroaching on two different couples, Coré (Beatrice Dalle) abandons all speech as she pursues her insatiable desire for flesh. The characters in the film battle between carnal urges and sensibility, unable to strike a comfortable balance in between. Writing about the film, critic Alexandra West asked in her book, Films of the New French Extremity, whether Coré has regressed or “evolved beyond the niceties of humanity.”
In the films of Denis, characters speak without saying very much. The wordlessness of so many of her films operates as a clear indicator of alienation as characters fail to communicate. Very little information or context is offered by conservations either, as meaning operates in gestures rather than words. Loneliness is expressed in this failure of language, as characters struggle to escape their isolation and overcome the artifice of small talk.
In her latest film, Let the Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, a divorcée yearning for love but unable to find it. It is a rare comedy in Denis’s oeuvre and also her most talky film by far. An interpretation of Roland Barthes’s philosophical novel, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the film has Isabelle searching for intimacy in conversations with various male lovers. The movie opens with a love scene between Isabelle and a banker. As she becomes aware she won’t orgasm, she pressures him to finish. The interaction escalates towards an argument that eventually leaves her in tears. It acts as a reminder that loneliness, rather than describing a physical state, embodies a spiritual one. We can be alone in a crowd or in a marriage and we can be alone even in what is considered to be the most intimate moment possible with another person. By the end of the first act, Isabelle declares mournfully, “I want love, real love.”
As she has dinner with an actor who says his marriage is on the rocks, the conversation teases at a potential affair. He offers to drive her home and with his car stalled in front of her apartment, Isabelle’s hand rests on the car door handle as she insinuates she wants him to come upstairs. They continue to talk in circles until her temper snaps, “We spoke all evening but said nothing. First, we said one thing but minutes later we said the opposite.” Isabelle craves intimacy in order to quash her loneliness but like many of us, she is unsure how to find it.
Like in Beau Travail’s finale, music and dancing become a brief reprieve from heartache. As Etta James’ “At Last” comes on at a local club and Isabelle is drawn to the dance floor. With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, a man approaches her and they move together without saying a word. Isabelle is luminous. But, as their affair extends beyond this song it fractures under Isabelle’s crippling anxiety.
Watching Denis’s films, one wonders if a connection can ever be sustained longer than a single dance. In an interview on the French radio program La Grande Table, Denis explains that agony is at the heart of her work. She describes it as a kind of vertigo, an overwhelming sensation in the face of the emptiness of the world. But, amidst that encroaching agony there is always a glimmer of hope she explains, “My suffering is so bad that I could die, but I will not die, and because I am alive, I will find new love.”
Yes, that is the hope. However, the feeling of loneliness is never more acute than when the hope for a reprieve from it persists. And that’s what makes the sense of loneliness that Denis conveys so poignant.