Americans are usually familiar with a scant few film directors, and fewer still foreign film directors. Claire Denis is not usually among them. Despite being an ocean away, Denis’ work has a lot to say about Western culture and colonialism that could just as easily be applied to this side of the Atlantic.
Music in pictures
Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. and
Saturday, May 4, at 2 p.m.
Down by Law
Friday, May 3, at 9:15 p.m.
I Can’t Sleep
Saturday, May 4, at 6:15 p.m.
Friday, May 10, at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday, May 4, at 8:30 p.m.
Trouble Every Day
Sunday, May 5, at 4:30 p.m.
Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m.
Nenette and Boni
Sunday, May 5, at 7 p.m.
Thursday, May 9, at 7 p.m.
Saturday, May 11, at 5 p.m.
Wings of Desire
Saturday, May 11, at 2 p.m.
35 Shots of Rum
Saturday, May 11, at 7 p.m.
Sunday, May 12, at 4:45 p.m.
Sunday, May 12, at 2 p.m.
Monday, May 13, at 7 p.m.
Sunday, May 12, at 7 p.m.
Man No Run
Thursday, May 16, at 7 p.m.
Americans are usually familiar with a scant few film directors, and fewer still foreign film directors. Claire Denis is not usually among them.
Despite being an ocean away, Denis’ work has a lot to say about Western culture and colonialism that could just as easily be applied to this side of the Atlantic.
The Northwest Film Center has chosen to focus on Denis’ filmography with its upcoming retrospective “The Lyrical Space of Claire Denis,” which begins this Friday, runs for two weeks and features nine Denis films.
The event kicks off with Denis’ debut film Chocolat, of no relation to the Juliette Binoche/Johnny Depp romantic comedy of the same name.
Denis’ stories and characters vary wildly, from a middle-aged man searching the black market for a heart transplant to French Foreign Legion soldiers going stir-crazy.
“All of her films have this very familiar thread running through them,” said Nick Bruno, the center’s public relations and marketing associate. “They’re not about the situations as much as they are about the people experiencing the situations.”
Denis also worked as assistant director on several films included in the series. Even in cases in which Denis is not at the helm, her presence can still be felt.
“There’s an improvisational aspect to the work,” Bruno said. “It has these moments that are very nebulous. Unplanned but focused.”
The Vanguard took at look at two films that will play the first weekend of the series: Chocolat and Down by Law, for which Denis acted as assistant director for indie auteur Jim Jarmusch.
Down by Law (1986)
Friday, May 3, at 9:15 p.m.
A desolate New Orleans rolls past us in the opening minutes, a reel of grim black-and-white footage set to a dirty lick by Tom Waits. With just a couple of edits, the whole of the introduction could be mistaken for one of Waits’ ethereal music videos.
Waits co-stars with John Lurie and Roberto Benigni in Down by Law, a character-driven film that takes its time getting through a sparse plot. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film revolves around three men who are arrested and jailed and who later escape from prison—the movie isn’t interested in the particulars of the breakout but rather the interplay between its trio of main characters.
Luri and Waits play Jack and Zack—a small-time pimp and a washed-up deejay, respectively, who don’t want to admit they’re similar in more than name. Both men are initially lectured by women who see through their icy facades, and both men are framed for crimes well above their petty stations.
Begigni is Bob, an unfortunate Italian tourist charged with manslaughter. His broken-English motormouth is somehow able to bridge the rift between Jack and Zack, and the three form a strange and uncertain friendship.
Waits once described Down by Law as a “Russian neo-fugitive episode of The Honeymooners.” It could just as easily be labeled Perfect Strangers: Art House Edition.
With not a lot of plot ground to cover,
Jarmusch lets the camera meander and stare. Conversations are often in a minutes-long shot with little movement, giving the impression that the cameraman happened upon a scene from a play in middle of the street and hit the record button.
The back-and-forths are filled with the awkward pauses and empty posturing that make up everyday conversations. There’s an uncanny, almost unsettling reality to these scenes, which almost always last a few beats longer than they would in any other film.
Two people finish talking and then a man walks down the block, turns the corner and goes off camera. A prostitute leans against a pole and inhales a cigarette, then exhales.
This isn’t necessary information for the story, but it grounds the story in a more believable world, giving the characters and their plight more gravity.
Some might find Down by Law too boring, too slow and, in one or two cases, too unbelievable. For others, it might be like looking in a monochrome mirror.
Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, May 4, at 2 p.m.
Compared to the bleak black-and-white scenery of New Orleans, the colorful landscapes of Chocolat’s French Cameroon seem like paradise. But look closer and you can see the cracks in the beautiful exterior, and an age-old conflict simmering on the horizon where the earth meets the sky.
A French woman named France recalls her past in post World War II Africa as a privileged white girl who makes friends with a black houseboy named Protee. Without any real friends her age, France is most often seen peeking into the lives of the adults around her.
Even she has to notice that something is going on between her gorgeous mother, Aimee, and Protee. The two share many furtive glances but rarely speak to each other outside of the master-servant relationship. Their squabbles go unspoken, save for the anguish they clearly express when they think no one is looking.
The sexual strain is undercut by a much older layer of racial tension, brought into the open when Aimee’s beautiful home is visited by the crew of a small plane that has crashed nearby. The guests are not shy about articulating the social hierarchy, almost yelling to the audience at points.
The Lyrical Space of Claire Denis
1219 SW Park Ave.
$9 general admisison, $8 students
For more showtimes, visit nwfilm.org
Maybe most blatant of all is Luc, another romantic contender for the married Aimee. In a story told largely through inference and subtlety, the one-dimensional human plot/conflict device Luc robs the audience of the critical-thinking process that had been built over the course of the film.
Though Chocolat and Down by Law are very different thematically, they both share a fondness for setting. Like Jarmusch, Denis lingers on moments in time—not because they provide an extra morsel of story or even character motivation but to evoke a mood or a place.
This technique brings us closer to the world where African colonialism was not just a phrase used in history books. As France realizes after looking back on her childhood, that world is still our own.