Claire Denis is fast becoming one of the most respected and critically acclaimed directors in world cinema. With this in mind, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that before this week I could count the number of Denis films I’d seen on one finger (that film being Beau Travail). However, this week I managed to rectify this grave error on my part, by finally sitting down to watch her blood drenched, cult film of 2001, Trouble Every Day. whilst also heading off to the Curzon to watch her latest offering White Material.
Trouble Every Day tells the parallel stories of Shane (DN favourite Vincent Gallo) and Coré (Betty Blue sex bomb Béatrice Dalle), an American scientist and a French doctor’s wife, who both seem to be suffering from violent sexual appetites and a severe lust for blood. It’s a film impossible to pin down to genre, at times coming across as French erotic thriller, before switching to blood fuelled horror, whilst sometimes also managing to somewhat remind of aspects of Jim Jarmusch’s work (although maybe the appearance of Alex Descas just triggered that peculiar link in my jumbled mind). The unusual premise of the film originated from a dream the director had as child, when her mother’s bedtime kisses turned to bites and she started eating her.
Trouble Every Day is definitely not a film based around witty dialogue and quick talkers, in fact Denis’ film is almost silent at times and instead uses strong performances and distinctive cinematography to build a sinister atmosphere. Gallo plays the troubled Shane with his usual sense of style and individuality, injecting his character with an oddness that only he could. As Coré , Dalle brings a totally different kind of strangeness to the film, she slinks across the screen craving blood, skin and sex, as if she were the pure embodiment of raw lust. Her performance is almost animalistic at times and when she is feasting on what she most desires, you really believe the contented look in her eyes. At the complete opposite end of the scale, the stunning, pixie-like Tricia Vessey portrays Shane’s wife as the personification of innocence and purity. Newly wed and on her way to a Parisian honeymoon, she floats across the screen at the beginning of the film, radiating love for her husband. However, as Shane’s problems escalate, she soon appears to be carrying the weight of the world of her tiny frame and her carefree, untroubled nature soon becomes fragile and heavily burdened.
With inventive photography by her usual cinematic collaborator Agnès Godard, Denis has managed to create a film full of contradicting tones and emotions. With close up images of skin and cameras hugging characters’ necks, Trouble Every Day often has a highly intimate and sexually charged feel to it. Yet, the low-lit interiors of the doctor’s house and the trade corridors of the Parisian hotel, fill the film with a sense of dread and apprehension. This is obviously quite confusing for a viewer, as at times you are filled with compassion at the tenderness shown by the characters in the film, then all of a sudden thrown into a state of shock and disgust at their actions.
Trouble Every Day is definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, some will love it, many will hate it! My feet are firmly stuck in the love camp.
The film also features a haunting, trance inducing soundtrack from the Tindersticks, which in turn spawned the great video below.
White Material is similar to Trouble Every Day in terms of being a film that will split audiences, but its style and content couldn’t be more different.
Denis’ 10th full-length fiction film focuses on an unnamed area of Africa, ripe with political and social unrest and rapidly descending into a war zone. At the centre of the film is the resolute, stubborn Maria Vial (the ever-impressive Isabelle Huppert), a French colonist and coffee farmer, refusing to leave her home, despite the impending doom working its way towards her. In terms of story, we’re never spoon-fed too much information and as usual with a Denis film, we’re left to form our own readings and connect the dots.
Isabelle Huppert portrays Maria with a steely determination and unyielding drive, as her blinkered view seems to make her totally oblivious to the volatile situation she finds herself in. The character of Maria elicits mixed reactions for the viewer; at times she is admirable, as her strength and strong will keep her calm and controlled in a time of crisis. Whilst at other times, she is frustrating and selfish, as she puts her family, friends and workers in mortal peril by refusing to shut down and evacuate the plantation. Huppert must be on-screen for at least 75% of the films duration and although the actress is definitely the star attraction, she is capably backed up by some strong performances. Isaach De Bankolé carries on his strong, silent performance from Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control, as ‘the Boxer’, a rebel leader whose time is swiftly coming to an end. Whilst Nicolas Duvauchelle, as Maria’s lazy son, Manuel Vial, brings something unexpected to the film as his character transforms from bed-ridden layabout to shaven headed, rifle-wielding rebel.
White Material is a film full of tension, a tension that builds and builds as the film unwinds, the atmosphere bubbles away like a kettle warming up, knowing full well it will reach its boiling point very soon. Dramatic moments and vital information are never dwelled upon or over-played, but are instead casually introduced into the film’s narrative, like a passing comment. The underlying anxiety in the film comes from the unknown and the unexplained and this ambiguity has the viewer forever on edge, never knowing what to expect next. It’s a refreshing approach in an industry all to often riddled with the Hollywood approach of making sure we always know what to be afraid of and even guiding us when to be shocked or anxious.
As with Trouble Every Day, the directors’ latest film seems to straddle genres (not that a film has to be specifically defined to a genre, in fact a lot of the best films aren’t), instead, White Material giddily mixes parts from a variety of film types. There’s not enough war for this film to be a war film, not enough politics for it to be considering a political film and not enough thrills to be a thriller. What this film most certainly is though is a Claire Denis film. At times dreamlike, often intimate, yet always powerfully compelling, White Material has the talented director’s trademark style stamped all over it.