The Ties That Bind

"A Propos de Denis: The Films of Claire Denis"
Walker Art Center, April 2 through April 25

Year after year, the Academy Awards proves more of a highly selective trade show than a salute to the best in cinema, and as such it might seem an easy target for contempt. It's certainly no surprise that the daring likes of Charles Burnett's Nightjohn and Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control were roundly ignored this year, along with the latest experiments by established masters like Scorsese and Cronenberg. But it's in the Best Foreign Film category that the Academy's prejudices have appeared most insidious. While the Netherlands' efficiently conventional Character awaits U.S. distribution by Sony because of its recent statue, the most essential world cinema of this decade--including the work of Wong Kar-Wai, Emir Kusturica, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Claire Denis--continues to struggle for exposure and settle for what little it can get. No surprise. Lucky for us Minneapolitans that our independent exhibitors have given screen space in '98 to all five of these alternate nominees, including the brilliant and rarely seen Denis, whose six-film retro at the Walker this month helps make up for lost time.

As it happens, Denis, born in Africa and raised in France from the age of 13, makes films about difference and marginalization as seen through the stories of immigrants or the working class. Her 1988 debut and best-known work, Chocolat (screening Wednesday, April 22 at 7 p.m.), deals trenchantly with racism and colonialism in its semi-autobiographical portrait of a young white girl's bond with her family's black servant in the French colonial Africa of the '50s. Likewise addressing the social pecking order, the harrowing No Fear, No Die (Friday at 8:45 p.m.) follows a pair of West Indian immigrant cockfighters on the outskirts of Paris, using its blood-sport milieu as an aptly brutal metaphor for racial exploitation. Suffice to say Denis is not one for safe material. Three years ago, she boldly spurned her closest shot at commerciality with the ostensible serial-killer thriller I Can't Sleep (Wednesday, April 8 at 8 p.m.), which took the true story of the "granny killer" case--in which a black, gay transvestite and his white boyfriend murdered more than 20 elderly Parisian women--as a chance to sympathetically reveal the killers' displaced status.

In all three films, Denis charts the flow of energy between two dissimilar people while contemplating their place within the larger community. In this, the director's latest, Nénette et Boni (Thursday at 7 p.m.), seems at once a thematic summation and a stylistic stretch. The attracting opposites here are 15-year-old Antoinette (Alice Houri) and her 19-year-old pizza-vendor brother, Boniface (Gregoire Colin). Each sibling is the inverse of the other: Boni is a solitary Marseilles slacker with a dirty mind and a mouth to match, while the nomadic Nénette, newly escaped from boarding school, is seven months pregnant by a father she refuses to name. In a film that's stuffed with visual metaphors, the pizza dough Boni beats into shape gives rise to his masturbatory fantasies of a local baker's buxom wife. But as his adolescent yearning for connection compels him to discourage Nénette from giving up her child, that fleshy dough comes to represent the unformed ingredients in his sister's belly. Meanwhile, as Denis carefully kneads her lumpy narrative into a whole, the baking process signifies in yet another way.

The metaphor of a crazy quilt could apply just as well, especially since Denis has cited Robert Altman's intricately woven Short Cuts as an inspiration. Perhaps owing to her own varied upbringing as the privileged daughter of a French civil servant in colonial Cameroon (not to mention her tutelage under such disparate auteurs as Costa-Gavras, Jacques Rivette, and Jim Jarmusch), her focus never ignores the characters and subcultures on the fringes of the urban tapestry. Recalling No Fear, No Die, Nénette et Boni opens with a brief, claustrophobic scene of a small-time hustler selling bootleg telephone cards with supposedly unlimited calling time--apropos of nothing but Denis's urge to capture the color of Marseilles (and, in symbolic terms, to expose the myth of an economically sound connection). Later in the film, another subsidiary character stalls the narrative to wax philosophic on pheromones as a more natural tool for bringing people together.

Amid these fragmented parts, it's the attempt at communion that drives Denis's oeuvre. "All my films function as a movement toward an unknown other and toward the unknown in relations between people," she said recently--and, of course, this includes her own palpable search for intimacy with her characters and her audience. Explaining her urge to explore the serial-killing "monster" of I Can't Sleep, she said: "My question was, Could I have been the mother of this monster, or his sister?" Given this search for identification with her subjects, it seems ironic that Denis, ever the outsider, has been kept at such a distance from American audiences.

The Walker's Claire Denis retro concludes Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m. with a Regis Dialogue between the director and film critic Carrie Rickey, followed the next day at noon by Denis's "master class" workshop at MCAD; call 375-7622 for more info.

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