One of the most interesting and unique voices in world cinema today, the French writer-director Claire Denis, whose finest work is among the films represented on this excellent four-disc set from Artificial Eye, is a master at examining — often using abstract cinematic language – notions of race, sexuality and identity.
Viewed chronologically, the first in the collection is 1988’s Chocolat. Denis’ feature debut, the film is a semi-autobiographical tale set in Cameroon and begins with a lone European traveller called France (whose name is a rather unambiguous signifier of the region’s former colonial power) being picked up along a dusty rural road by an African American driver and his young son.
France (Mireille Perrier) finds that this chance encounter is rekindling her childhood memories, so she settles into the back seat of the car and allows her mind to wander during the journey, whereafter we see, via flashbacks, key moments of her life as a young girl in ’50s Africa, when she enjoyed an affluent existence, thanks to her father’s position as a colonial administrator. She recalls how familial problems began to simmer after her mother developed feelings for their handsome housekeeper Protée (Isaach de Bankolé), a proud and intelligent young black man bound by a racist social convention that vehemently disallowed interracial fraternisation between colonial employer and employee.
Whilst politically challenging and often moving, Denis examines the subject matter with subtlety and even humour, allowing what is essentially a series of vignettes to develop into a beautifully vibrant narrative of remembrance – all greatly enhanced by Abdullah Ibrahim’s jazz score, which offers a shiny and buoyant collection of tunes that provide the film with an upbeat energy.
Chocolat is ultimately a film of contrasts, both thematically and visually: it’s about the contrast between colonial rule (or rather, misrule) and its effects on indigenous Africans, and the complications for individuals who choose to cross the clearly delineated social and racial boundaries; the heft of the characters’ experiences is also emboldened by Robert Alazraki’s beautiful and symbolic cinematography, which captures the contrasts of the environment too, showing Cameroon as a largely arid, grassy landscape punctuated by patches of the most wonderfully verdant vegetation imaginable.
The second film is 1996’s previously unavailable Nénette et Boni, a coming-of-age film about an energetic and restless young man Boni (Grégoire Colin) and his estranged sister Nénette (Alice Houri), who re-enters Boni’s life following a sibling separation and eventually comes to exert an influence that has a stabilising effect on his haphazard life.
Featuring beautifully naturalistic performances, Nénette et Boni is a strange hybrid of a film, in places almost like an American sex comedy for the art house crowd, but certainly no less enjoyable for it. The entire film was shot on location among the French suburbs, so it has a tangible sense of realism and atmosphere, plus a particularly enjoyable cameo from the reassuringly odd US indie darling Vincent Gallo, which is an extra treat.
Beau Travail (1999)
Next is 1999’s Beau Travail, which is perhaps the least satisfying of all the films in this collection. Beau Travail tells the story of Galoup (Denis Lavant), a sergeant leading a small group of French Foreign Legion soldiers stationed at an idyllic but isolated coastal barracks in Djibouti. Galoup is happy with the regimented life he leads, but is desperate to win the approval of his commander.
Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when Sentain (Grégoire Colin), a brilliant new recruit, joins the company and becomes extremely popular with the other men. This angers Galoup, who becomes consumed by petty jealousy. With increasing dissatisfaction, and to ensure Sentain doesn’t also attract the admiration of the superior officer whose attention he courts himself, Galoup sets in motion a chain of events that spells catastrophe for them both.
Despite some absolutely gorgeous visuals and an excellent soundtrack, Beau Travail is, even by Denis’ calmly abstract standards, a thinly-plotted and rather meandering film, and whilst it offers some interesting insights into the nature of pride and the loss of identity, it remains a fairly dull addition to the director’s oeuvre.
The final offering — and the most recent of Denis’ features — is 2009’s award-winning White Material, which is the most conventional film in this collection but also the best, too. White Material shares some thematic similarities with the colonial-themed Chocolat, but in contrast to the gentler tone of the former, White Material addresses the white presence in Africa in a far more searing and shocking fashion.
The film features Isabelle Huppert (who gives an astonishing performance) as Maria, the French owner of a struggling coffee plantation in modern day Africa. Sharing the property with her wayward son, ex-husband and father-in-law, she is reluctant to abandon the plantation when civil war breaks out, choosing instead to ignore the impending danger completely. As the last of the workers leave for safety and a group of enemy rebels advance towards the plantation, the stubborn, shell-shocked Maria and her fractured family can do nothing but stay on and await their fate.
This collective refuge allows the group to deconstruct their troubled relationships, and allows Maria time to bolster her constitution and consider a fightback. It also allows for Denis to examine the characters roles as cyphers of the last vestiges of failing post-colonial rule in Africa.
White Material (2009)
Non-linear in narrative, Denis keeps the pace moving at quite a lick, and although the socio-political issues addressed are complex, she never lets the film get bogged down in pure discourse, but turns in a fairly gripping siege movie. Additionally, whilst the frenetic camerawork and frequently grim and violent subject matter may occasionally recall Jacopetti and Prosperi’s politically suspect Mondo documentary Africa Addio (1966), White Material is successful on several levels and thoroughly deserving of the international acclaim it received; it is also a terrific finalé to this DVD collection.
Extras on each disc include trailers and interviews with Denis and the cast.