And just like that, we are off and running into Matriarch Madness!
Our first Matriarch of Filmmaking is the legendary Claire Denis. Before we delve into an analyses on two of her most iconic pictures, a little background...
Claire Denis was born in France, but lived in the French-speaking parts of Africa until she was a adult. Her father was a civil servant, and made a point of moving the family around every two years so the kids could "get a sense of geography." Her experience growing up as a racial minority has noticeably colored her work, in the sense that she seems to have worked towards transcending race altogether. "It was very embarrassing," she has said of her upbringing, "Not because I was white, but because I was not black."
In her early 20s, she married a much older man who was a photographer and artist. Although their marriage didn't last, it was he who encouraged her to go to school for filmmaking. Her first film, Chocolat, was met with critical acclaim.
She has described herself as "filming fast and editing slowly," and is notorious for filming on location over working in a studio. It's been said that she will position her actors before the camera as if they were posing for still photography, and luxuriates in the tangible sensuality of their bodies and the terrain they occupy.
White Material (2009)
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Marie N'Diaye
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, & Isaach De Bankolé
IMDB description: Amidst turmoil and racial conflict in an unnamed Francophone African state, a white French woman fights for her coffee crop, her family and ultimately for her life.
Within the opening 10 seconds of the film, you know exactly what Denis' style is: slow, lingering shots, all done with a shaky hand-held camera. We are glued to Isabelle's body, sometimes uncomfortably close, sometimes achingly far away. We see so many things, with so little dialogue, music, or intentional narrative to tell us how we should feel about it. For better or for worse, we get to choose how these images make us feel: A crowded bus. An abandoned shoe. A woman seen through a door. Running through a field, from something or towards something we do not know.
I also have to point out here that there are literally so, so many shots of the back of Isabelle's head. I am sure there is some film school rhetoric out there that says if you employ this technique, it's a subconscious indicator of delving into their psyche. And I'm not saying it didn't work... you spend so much time behind Isabelle's wispy, carefree (or careless?) ponytail, that she becomes anonymous without you even realizing it. And because the shots are mostly quite close, you don't feel foreboding or stalker-ish... If anything, she almost becomes like a mother leading you by the hand through this dusty and violent world.
I am inclined to wonder how this film would have been different if we had been facing our protagonist. I'm inclined to believe she would have been immediately "othered." She would have become subconsciously objectified, and because of that, much less forgivable. It's so much easier to judge someone when you're looking them in the eyes. When you're trailing along behind them... you're just trying to keep up.
To be fair, it was effective... I'm just not entirely sure what it was actually trying to be effective at. Which is kind of Claire Denis' whole thing: she refuses to emotionally manipulate her audience. You get to choose how the work makes you feel. But if I'm being honest, by the end of it, I mostly just felt like Pam:
The hardest part of this film for me was still in not judging Isabelle's character. As we follow her around her new war-torn village, she is stopped by an African soldier who tells her she is disgusting and basically all the violence in the country is her fault. She doesn't flinch, she doesn't argue. In fact, a few scenes later, she mutters his words back to herself like a chant. Is it blatant ignorance? Is it heartbreaking defeat? I AM NOT SURE.
ADDENDUM: I was remiss not to point out in my initial publication of this post that White Material was co-written by an extraordinary woman of color, the accomplished writer Marie N'Diaye. Knowing that does change my judgement of this piece somewhat... but still little to help relieve this unshakable discomfort. Perhaps that has less to do with the White Privilege of it all, and more to do with the fact that Denis' films make no promises to be "comfortable."]
The fact of the matter is, I can't help but view this film through the lens of my over-active white guilt cringe muscles. On the one hand, there is a part of Isabelle desperately fighting to keep her farm that is inspiring and devastating because it's all she has left in the world, and because you know she will fail. And on the other hand, you feel like she SHOULD fail. I couldn't help but yell at my screen, "Go home!" because it wasn't a battle worth fighting. It wasn't her land. She didn't have any right to be there. It's not like she was traipsing around in white linens and drinking lemonade on the porch (although she does wear a super iconic light pink dress and run through the fields a lot). She gets dirty and sweaty. She drives a big ol' truck. She gets guns pointed in her face by African teenagers. She works on her own farm. But it still feels... wrong? Am I shitty for saying it feels wrong? Am I shitty if I DON'T say it feels wrong? Unclear.
"Isabelle Huppert, small and slender, embodies the strength of a fighter. In so many films, she is an indomitable force, yet you can't see how she does it. She rarely acts broadly. The ferocity lives within. Sometimes she is mysteriously impassive; we see what she's determined to do, but she sends no signals with voice or eyes to explain it. There is a lack of concern about our opinion; she will do it, no matter what we think her reasons are." - Roger Ebert
There are two moments that stuck with me the most.
Isabelle runs the farm with her ex-husband, who lives on the farm in a separate home with his African wife and their 10 year old son, Jose (the ex-husband's sick father also lives on the farm with them, but more on that later). After recruiting some new farmers after the old ones abandoned ship, Isabelle goes to pick up the kid to take him out of school (partly because there are dangerous rebels roaming the streets now, but mostly because she needs his help picking coffee). She doesn't realize that her ex-husband also showed up to pick up the kid, so she drives the truck of workers back while the dad drives the kid home on the back of his motorcycle. In a few lingering shots, we see this young half-black boy stare at his two white "parents," then stare at Isabelle's truck packed with workers. There is no dialogue, and there doesn't need to be. You know what's going through his mind.
It's mere chance that he's riding next to the truck instead of riding inside it.
The second moment was pretty much the entirety of this bizarre sub-plot involving Isabelle's son. He is a grown man, a gorgeous, blond, Dorian Gray-esque asshole who sleeps all day and has no purpose in life. Some child soldiers sneak into the house one day to steal some clothes and jewelry, so he chases them outside into the wilderness of their coffee farm BAREFOOT (he is not very bright). The kids circle back around and sneak attack him, and with a gun and machete to his throat they make him strip naked, and run off with their clothes.
The shots are extremely minimal: he runs on the hills, they come up behind him, weapons are out, and they start to pull his clothes off. I read probably three or four articles about this film, and it wasn't until the very last one that I saw mention of a possible theory that the son was raped. I re-watched the scene, and while it's more like an extremely faint echo than a solid suggestion, it does (sort of???) make sense for what comes next...
...Because what comes NEXT is that the son goes BAT SHIT FUCKING BONKERS. The child soldiers mock his "golden hair" and cut off a chunk with their machete, so he shaves it all off, grabs the excess hair, and shoves it down the throat of his dad's new wife. Then he hops in his motorbike, and in full Mad Max style he chases after the child soldiers and JOINS THEM?? Then leads them BACK to his OWN HOUSE and loots his OWN FOOD?? Then they all do a bunch of drugs they stole from the pharmacy they looted in town, pass out, and get ambushed by the African military who slits all their child soldiers throats and burns the son alive.
Meanwhile, Isabelle is getting dragged around town by the new farmers who want to go back home and the African rebels who keep ambushing her for money, at one point coming across a young girl wearing one of her stolen dresses and necklaces. By the time she makes it back to the farm it's too late. In a completely expressionless rage, she picks up a piece of wood, and over the the burned corpse of her dead son she beats her ex-husband's father to death.
And that's it. That's the end of the fucking movie.
I think the rape of the son makes more sense plot-wise, but it's also clear by now that plot is not really one of Claire Denis' priorities. It's all about the metaphor: white people raped the land, and now the land is raping them back. A hair for a hair, an eye for an eye, a son for a son.
The last shot in the film is not of Isabelle, but of the only child soldier who escaped. He clutches the red beret of a beloved rebel soldier, and runs into the smoking fields. So what are we left with? What's the message? I mean, it's whatever you want it to be. It's wavering, it's trembling, and it's easily over looked.
35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogué, & Grégoire Colin
IMDB Description: The relationship between a father and daughter is complicated by the arrival of a handsome young man.
The IMDB description can't help but make me chuckle. I mean, like, yeah, technically I guess it's about a young woman and her father and "the handsome young suitor who comes between them," but that makes it sound much more drastic and dramatic than it was. In what I can now confidently say is CLASSIC CLAIRE DENIS style, it was more like the delicate murmur of a plot. If Tarantino is the clanging of a brass gong, then Claire Denis is like a small flute playing quietly in the other room.
If White Material was the movie about the back of Isabelle Huppert's head, then 35 Shots of Rum was about blue and brown: almost every shot in this movie was rich with blues and browns, and it is undeniably, aggressively beautiful. ...Water & Earth. Ice & Rust. Cold & Warmth. What does it all mean? I don't know, but I can't stop fucking looking at it! The fact she didn't just call this movie "Blue & Brown" is honestly a crime. Also because it's never actually explained what "35 shots of rum" means, except that there's a story behind it (I guess everyone who knows the story is too drunk to remember it).
What's odd to me about her work is that even though she luxuriates in these long, beautiful stretches without dialogue, and lingers on faces and bodies and the mundane but beautiful world that surrounds them, there is SO little character development. Her actors are all but expressionless. There are no monologues. There is one argument in this film, and it lasts like 2 lines, and both of them are yelling from different rooms so you don't even see their faces. Who are these people? They're not boring, and they aren't blank. They have colors to them, (BLUE AND BROWN PROBABLY) they have shape. But they have no... substance? I'm not sure. I am lacking the words the describe the lack thereof. They're just people, living life, and we get to watch them. They cook dinner, they ride the train, they eat and sleep and hug. There are feelings there, deep ones, but they are expressed with such a delicate touch that I found myself squinting to see it. (Somewhere in France, a very cool French person is flicking their cigarette and saying, "Stupide Americans" right now).
Which made it all the more awkward when this HILARIOUSLY aggressive scene was thrust upon me. Josephine (the daughter) and Lionel (the father) are going out to a concert with their friends and pseudo-family members from the building: Gabrielle, a spunky taxi driver who has a desperately obvious crush on Lionel, and this other guy, whom I will only be able to refer to as French Adam Driver.
I mean, come on!
The car breaks down in the rain on the way to the concert, so they end up ducking into this little bar to drink and dance the night away. Lionel is being grumpy because he's clearly annoyed that French Adam Driver, who has been his neighbor and buddy for years, is now suddenly hitting on his super hot and totally-old-enough-to-date daughter.
French Adam Driver, oblivious to Lionel's SUPER NOT SUBTLE grumpiness, decides to cut in the middle of Lionel & Josephine's cute (or weird?) daddy-daughter dance, *just* as the slow song starts to play. It is in this moment that French Adam Driver decides to fucking realize that he's hot for daughter, and they begin to dance VERY SENSUALLY while Grumpy Lionel is LITERALLY THREE FEET AWAY. Going into French cinema, I had prepared myself for some avant-garde and very un-American sex shit, but I was NOT prepared for this.
AND HERE IS YOUR DAD, THIRTY-SIX GODDAMN INCHES FROM YOU, WATCHING THE WHOLE THING LIKE THIS:
But don't worry, he SUPER MATURELY handles it, by grabbing the hot bartender and dancing sexy with HER. Except his daughter doesn't see it. Only Gabrielle, the adorable and long-suffering (LITERAL) girl-next-door sees it, and watches the whole fucking thing like THIS:
...Fucking savage. Oh yeah, and this goddamn song is playing for the ENTIRE FOUR MINUTE SCENE:
...I tease, but ultimately I did actually enjoy this movie. Okay, maybe "enjoy" is too strong of a word. I reached for my phone WAY less during 35 Shots than I did during White Material. Hey, I'm not saying I'm proud of it, I'm just saying what happened.
I will be honest that it was "easier" to like this movie. It was significantly less uncomfortable (and that's saying a lot, HAVE YOU LISTENED TO THAT SONG?) There's a family with a very insular bubble, this beautiful little island they've created for themselves, but they both know deep down that it can't last forever, and it shouldn't. Change sucks, but that's life. That's a story that I am familiar with, and that I enjoy seeing explored from a new perspective. (A white woman fighting for her right to farm indigenous land while her son becomes a literal INCEL was harder to get behind. I'm sorry.)
And it's not just the daughter "discovering sex;" this isn't a weird, Puritanical portrait of a father owning his daughter's body, this is a French film for Christ's sake. Lionel works as a train conductor for the metro, and at the beginning of the film one of his work buddy's retires (this is where we first hear of the "legend of 35 shots," although we frustratingly never find out. Again, I suspect that it's my American inclination to have Closure And Answers that makes me bothered by this). His work buddy gives off the most aggressively, painfully obvious signs that he is Not Fucking Okay with being retired, and it goes right over Lionel's head. Seriously, the guy weeps at his own retirement party, he says "I don't know what meaning my life will have after this," he meets up with Lionel for coffee and gives him back a book he borrowed ten years ago and says "I won't be needing this anymore," he joins Lionel on the train a few weeks later and says "I wasn't expecting to miss it this much... I'm glad I could take one last ride with you" and SOMEHOW Lionel is still surprised when Work Buddy throws himself in front of the tracks later.
You know it's coming, but you know that Lionel doesn't. And that's what's devastating. It's honestly the most distinct narrative thread we see out of Claire Denis: if I continue on this path, I will end up like this man; and by extension, my daughter might too.
So presumably, Grumpy Lionel let's French Adam Driver date his daughter. I say "presumably" because all we see is Lionel & Josephine argue, then go on a road trip to Germany to visit Josephine's dead mother's grave, and then they come back and Josephine and French Adam Driver are getting married?? It's all very surreal and abstract and Freeeeeench and it's fucking beautiful, don't get me wrong, but it also kind of makes me feel like an idiot when I have to rewind a scene four times and read several articles and analyses on a film to understand how we got from vacuuming and arguing with dad to driving to Germany to marrying marrying French Adam Driver.
And the winner is...
This doesn't feel like a "perfect win" to me, because I'm really not walking away from either film going, "Oh shit, I have to tell my mom to watch this" (which is, ultimately, the greatest compliment I can give a film. I only recommend Janet the best.)
Ultimately, 35 Shots will linger for me a moment longer... those blues and browns, y'all. Like that ancient Instagram feng shui saying goes, "It must either serve a purpose, or be beautiful." Neither of these films really served a "purpose" - and I recognize that they weren't supposed to, and that's Claire Denis's whole existential French thing - but one of these films was remarkably more beautiful.
If Denis' directing style could be translated to a different medium, it would be the abstract, trembling, intensely detailed graphite masterpieces of Agnes Martin... it's subtle, it's unassuming, it preaches nothing to you and demands nothing of you, and it's not for everyone.
To be honest, I'm not sure if it's for me. I want to be the kind of person who likes movies like this... slow, still, quiet, and so abstract that it transcends narrative. But at heart, I'm a storyteller, and I don't know if you can call her work a true "story." It has all the elements of one, but it's missing something. It's beautiful to watch, but there's no sense of closure. Watching her work is like trying to complete a puzzle that has all blank pieces and no picture on the box. Claire Denis is the La Croix of directors, and what can I say, some people really dig that shit.
...A small announcement that there has been ANOTHER change to the Matriarch Madness bracket. After much toiling and gnashing of teeth, I decided that I couldn't live with myself if Jamie Babbitt wasn't on the list (I HAVE NEVER SEEN BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER OR THE ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE AND HONESTLY I DON'T KNOW HOW THAT'S EVEN POSSIBLE). So despite how much I fucking loved Jennifer's Body, she will be replacing Karyn Kusama. (Please forgive me Karyn).