Reviews

The French Director's Unique Voice Comes Through Loud and Clear in 'The Claire Denis Collection'

Nénette et Boni (1996)

Spanning the period between 1988-2009, these four Claire Denis films represent some of the best of the world cinema genre.


White Material

Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Grégoire Colin, Isaach de Bankolé, Alice Houri, Denis Lavant
Distributor: Artificial Eye
UK Release date: 2013-02-25
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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 (1988)

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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