I know I am supposed to be comparing and contrasting the work of each director based on the film I chose to represent them, but I am having a hard time not looking at their work as a whole, because if I had to place them in order of beauty and impact, it would go:
2) 35 Shots of Rum
4) White Material
But if I'm honest, I'm more likely to revisit the works of DuVernay than I am of Denis. So is this a contest of "likability," "watchability," or of objective cinematic "greatness"? Because those are all different categories.
Spoiler alert, but it's going to come down to which one I liked more. Because this is my blog, and I get to pick, goddammit.
So I have been musing all day on why I ultimately “liked” DuVernay’s work over Denis’. We can chalk it all up to personal taste, but where does that come from? What influences it? And most importantly, why aren’t I cool enough to like French cinema like I’m supposed to? The thought I kept coming back to was perhaps not an obvious one.
I first heard the term “Deist” when I was twelve years old, and I remember feeling the same sense of understanding, awareness, and relief that I felt when I first heard the terms “queer,” “BDE,” or “binge-watching.” Oh! There’s a name for that feeling! I didn’t make this up!
Deism is the religious sub-genre that believes in “God as a watchmaker.” There is a creator, and She created the world, but made it like a watch: all the springs and coils are set in place, and they run on their own, untouched by the intrusive hands of a messier god.
I have no sources to confirm where Denis stands on religion, but her work reminds me of Deism. She sets up all the springs and coils and lets the watch tick all on its own, with little to no personal intervention.
DuVernay, on the other hand, is the God of her own world. She wants you to know Her creation, and she wants you to feel something about it. She seeks out and creates visual beauty in bold and memorable strokes; Denis finds quiet whispers of beauty and lets it bleed into her work like a watercolor, blurry and distant.
DuVernay’s work will undeniably make you feel something. Her characters and her visuals are emotionally evocative. Denis’ work made me feel… nothing. Or, rather, it made me feel The Nothingness of it all. For someone who is stylistically known for putting the camera all up in their actor’s business, there is remarkably little character to any of them. I see the facts of them: they own a coffee farm, they have a son; they work for the train station, they have a daughter - but what are the feelings?
I used the word “expressionless” to describe the actors in both of her films, and that’s not to say they were boring or untalented. They were fascinating to watch, but not for the reasons I’m used to. I found myself desperately searching for something, anything, that would indicate a strong feeling one way or another, just as I found myself desperately searching for Claire Denis to feel a strong feeling - or feel ANYTHING - one way or another. Instead, she presents this little slice of life, rich with metaphor and agonizing detail, and just… lets it exist.
Denis captured life the way I feel it already is: sometimes beautiful, but ultimately hopeless. DuVernay captured life in the way that I want to believe it could be: hard, but hopeful.
And I say that after feeling tremendous despair after watching 13th. How can we help? How can we ever change the world? DuVernay offers no promises or solutions, but she let me know that there are people out there who Give A Shit. Denis just reminded me that there are people out there as confused and miserable and alone as I am, trying their best. And maybe it makes me a monster, but that wasn't enough for me. That's not why I go to the movies. Deep down, I want to believe in a God that Gives A Shit.
Perhaps I’m just an American idiot consumer, who needs to be told what to feel, or an empty Millennial monster, desperate for a reprieve from the numbness of existing in a capitalistic society where my voice feels unheard and my efforts go unnoticed. But goddamn, it felt good to FEEL SOMETHING. It felt good to be reminded that there are still fights worth FIGHTING out there. All Denis reminded me of was that people are always fighting.
For all these reasons, I am choosing Feeling Something over Feeling The Nothingness. I feel The Nothingness enough everyday without any help from tiny and impossibly cool French artists. I long for the intervention of a God Named Ava.
And the winner is...