Denis and the Three Looks
Yes, the grandfathers said that there was a frame. Later, the Nouvelle Vague said there was an angle. And us, we say there is a height, which is the height of the eyes of our interlocuter. Our films are more a dialogue, subjective and dialectical, than a point of view on the world, as it was for those who preceded us.
– Philippe Garrel, 1983 (1)
Claire Denis can be situated in relation to a certain neo-classical moment in French cinema of the 1980s. Her debut feature Chocolat is apparently, on the surface at least, much less obviously radical, fragmented or iconoclastic than many other films of the Post Nouvelle Vague stream; it’s nothing like Leos Carax or Jean-Luc Godard. And, by the same token, it does not seem so completely minimal – at least not as “asphixiating”, as Serge Daney once put it – as the work of Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub or Philippe Garrel.
One of the clearest signs of Chocolat’s engagment with classicism is in its over-arching narrative device: the return to a key site of formative experience by the character France (Mireille Perrier), followed by a flashback. It’s hard to get a more classical device than that! It’s telling that Garrel toyed with this device for J’entends plus la guitare (1991) – flashing back from the sight of Marianne’s grave – but eventually discarded it.
However, Denis really belongs to that stream of Post Nouvelle Vague cinema – alngside Olivier Assayas and others – where underneath the facade of classicism, there slowly, subtly appear spreading ruptures, gaps, ambiguities, clashes, tearing this façade away. As I have elsewhere argued, (2) this is the tradition inaugurated (or at least powerfully symbolised) by Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). Chocolat is a film full of the emptiness of mystery, of the unsaid, the unshown, the unseen, things that nag away at what we do see ... And there is a haunting quality of everything not reconciled (the immortal Huillet-Straub title from 1965) which pervades Chocolat in all its narrative and stylistic articulations.
In this context of a hollowed-out classicism, Chocolat can be seen as a postmodern film – not in the MTV pop-culture or cinéma du look sense, but rather in the way canvassed by Marc Chevrie in his 1985 article “Innocence in Quotes”: melancholic fictions, peopled by ghosts, haunted by loss, where people try to touch reality, try to touch other, but only encounter signs, fictions ... (3) Denis’ film lacks that pervasive bedrock of a treacherous movie-reality, a true Baudrillardian simulacrum, that Chevrie detects in the work of Valeria Sarmiento, Wim Wenders, Carax, Federico Fellini’s The Ship Sails On (1983) and similair films of the time; nonetheless, this particular inflection of the postmodern ‘80s mood is definitely present in Denis.
After Jean Rouch and this African adventures, after André Téchiné with his interest in the eroticism of cross-race relations, after the multicultural (or, frequently, bicultural) explosion of the baroque exiles of the ‘70s (Sarmiento, Lâm Lê, Eduardo de Gregorio, Edgardo Cozarinsky) (4) – after all this comes Denis and her particular grasp on the drama of the post-colonial. What, in the simplest possible terms, is the post-colonial situation? The period after colonial rule: the rule of one people, one class, one nation over another has passed. After that, it transitions into a multicultural situation, where these different peoples work out (or don’t work out!) how to live side by side, as equals. But this is not the same as multiculturalism in places where colonialism has never been experienced. The post-colonial situation can be thought as multiculturalism with the memory (the cultural memory, even the genetic memory) of violence, of injustice – virtually a primal memory, a primal scene. It’s a situation where there are only partly buried signs of this violence everywhere: in speech, in gestures, in music, in the landscape ...
Denis offers a tough, cruel view of post-colonial experience in West Africa. Perhaps she is a cinema-of-cruelty director in a line that includes Téchiné (especially I Don’t Kiss, 1991) and Bertrand Blier. It’s telling that Denis’ I Can’t Sleep (1994) was rejected by the Melbourne Film Festival because a programmer considered it racist and homophobic. From the maker of Chocolat? Yet Denis’ films are, indeed, tough. Taking a cue from Pascal Kané’s article on Brian De Palma’s films, we can say that Denis avoids the twin poles of either racism (branding those different as purely monsters, and instead allowing for the fascination exerted by the Other, allowing for our curiosity), or wishy-washy humanism (we are all the same under the skin, once oppressive conditions disappear we will all get on as equals ... ). (5) The model for such cruel cinema comes directly from Tod Browning’s long-suppressed Freaks (1932 – properly released in France only in 1969). In it (and here I am drawing on the brilliant analyses of Thierry Kuntzel and Jean-Pierre Oudart), we see the Others, the sub-humans, as children – and are narratively allowed to be aligned with those super-superior humans who contrive to manipulate them. But, eventually, the narrative shifts over with a jolt to the freaks themselves; they drive the story and exact their revenge, reducing those who are super to the level of sub-sub-human, below the most deformed freak. It is a chastening lesson in Otherness for the spectator. (6)
(It’s intriguing, by the way, to see how Denis’ 1992 list of her favourite films brings out both her penchant for formalist-leaning minimalism, and for the dramas of the colonial and post-colonial situations, of transgressions of all sorts: Bresson’s Pickpocket , Satyajit Ray’s The Home and the World , Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring , de Oliveira’s No, or the Vain Glory of Command , Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing , R.W. Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul , Godard’s Nouvelle Vague , Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero , John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [1976/1978] and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte .)
In Chocolat, Denis gives us a diagram of colonial relations in which we have to face up to the possibility that there can be violence – strategies of irony, evasion, subversion and, above all, menace – going both ways, from slave to master as well as in the more usual direction; plus, the potentiaities and possibilities, frictions and incidents involved in this complex process. Chocolat remarkable pipe scene plays all this out in microcosm: in its moment of menace, even in the relation of Protée (Isaach De Bankolé) with the child France (Cécile Ducasse) which is – in strictly humanistic terms, at least – clear, uncomplicated, seemingly unpolitical.
So this sensibility entails admitting to, in the colonial situation, not only the ambiguous desires of masters for the oppressed (the upstairs/downstairs equation familiar from so-called trashy melodramas like the dazzling Mandingo ), but also the taboo, difficult, torn desire of the oppressed for their masters, tinged with frustration, shame, aggression, hatred. For instance, the strong scene, full of unspoken emotion, where Protée experiences and expresses anguish as he showers outdoors. And a particularly unpleasant identification with the oppressed rules the rather unlovely character of Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), a kind of deluded, duplicitous Fanonist (in the sense that Bernard-Henri Lévy has analysed this historical type in his account of the 20th century French intelligentsia). (7)
Chocolat shows us the colonial situation and, framing it, the post-colonial one. Denis has explained the film’s title: not chocolate as referring to race or skin colour, but as a slang expression relating to how one could be sold shonky goods, like a car that breaks down immediately, i.e., fucked, unworkable, dysfunctional. Which is exactly how she portrays colonial and post-colonial social systems. The most important aspect is that all the same tensions and conditions of colonialism linger, in a ghostly, ghastly fashion. A detail arising from the pipe scene is crucial: the heat of the object touched erases France’s life-lines forever. It’s a pitiless vision of colonialism and its post-colonial legacy. And not ever reconciled: the indigenous and settler cultures don’t get together for an instant. Recall the revelation about William J. Park (Emmet Judson Williamson) in the story’s present-tense, as he drives the adult France around: he’s not African, rather a “displaced” American, who’s “only dreaming” in this new country – note, too, how his refusal to get intimate with France echoes Protée’s violent, wordless rejection of Aimée [Giulia Boschi]).
What makes Nouvelle Vague classicism different from traditional, American style classicism (or, for that matter, quality tele-drama classicism sometimes practiced by, for instance, Benoît Jacquot) is this cinema’s emphasis on the regard of the director, her or his artistic look strongly marked in the film, his or her way of taking things in, sizing them up, communicating the sense of things and an attitude towards them. We do not go into the story (as the multiform POV and shot-counter shot devices of American cinema ensure, in their breaking up, reassembly and penetration of space), but remain at some distance from it. Much French cinema of the sort I am describing plays on this distance, the distance of the regard; this is exactly what is meant, at one level, by mise en scène, and its mystique – we see the look of the director, we see through his or her eyes. Serge Toubiana formulates it well:
A cinema of mise en scène in which the often blunt gaze that the author casts on his characters or the world that surrounds them comes first. It is not a cinema of visual effects, like the American cinema very often is, but rather a cinema which seeks to create maximum tension between the language of the film and the world or the characters depicted. And to use [this tension] to its advantage. (8)
In Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse (1991), for instance, in the great scene of the painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) begining to return to work, as Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) waits to pose, we notice, above all, the reframing movements of the camera, the elegant distances between cameras and performers, the emphasis on physical space and surrounds, conditions of light. There are shot/counter-shot volleys, but almost always in the form of frontal alternations, very little visual overlap (this is Garrel’s strategy, too ... although even when he does it a relatively conventional way, such as in the father/son cafe dialogue of Les Baisers de secours , it looks such an odd specimen, because so all singular in the overall formal system of the film!).
Let us define the formal, visual system of Chocolat. Its differential positions of sight – seeing or being seen – and states of action or immobility are highly significant. Thus, we can generate a set of possibilities combining who sees, who is seen, who moves, who is still: Protée and France are intense observers, but powerless; Aimée is like a trapped bird, watched on all sides, often framed within imprisoning frames (as in Fassbinder or, less ominously, in Chantal Akerman’s Nuit et jour ); Marc (François Cluzet), the husband, a fairly sympathetic character, travels the world, sees all – but actually sees nothing. There is a parable within the story, told by Marc to France, about the horizon: it ironically points to what one can see, or rather not see, even if it is right before one’s eyes; a horizon of perception, seeing without understanding.
Recall, here, Peter Wollen’s schema of the three times or three moments of the look: glimpsing or noticing, looking or gazing, and finally really understanding what one has seen (the moment of recognition, as some screenwriters refer to it). (9) The very idea, both in French and English, of a regard combines both the physical act of seeing with the mental capacity for understanding. What Denis does is to put together this narrative differential of the look with a social semantics of space and movement. It is a complicated semantic, full of blocks and traps – unlike the mostly positive thrust of the American film system, where strong looks transform into certain knowledge and then decisive action (think of Bruce Willis finding the sword and going back down to the gimp’s lair in Pulp Fiction ). And it is systematic, within a highly diagrammatic overall structure – for a comparison, see the equally complicated colonial drama of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946). It even borders on the plainly allegorical, having a main character called France!
But these considerations then go deeper, to connect with the complete style and form of Chocolat, as well as with its post-colonial themes and concerns. I would propose that there are three regards – three kinds of images or shots – which are constantly alternated, constantly in play, in Chocolat: the look of the director; the looks of the characters (often circumscribed within the first look); and then a third look, a third vision which is more mysterious, because it escapes (as it were) both the controlling look of the characters and even the controlling look of the director. This last regard is a vision of something almost outside or beyond the film, and it is figured as a sort of “African Sublime” – a potentially racist category, to be sure, but we cannot refuse its implications, seductions and attractions … for Denis as an artist, as well as for us as viewers.
In a film as tightly constructed and crystalline as this one is, any part of the film would illustrate what I am describing here. Let us take the opening shots. Chocolat begins, during the credits, with a conventionally objective establishing shot of the sea. Finally – in a surprising but not entirely unconventional step – the camera pans to show, but only in the distance, the adult France. In this shot of almost two minutes duration, the camera lingers at all phases: on the water, then on her. Finally, there is cut into a mid-shot of France; her captivated look, and its unambiguous direction, give a strong, conventional (one might almost say Hitchcockian) cue for a POV shot to follow. However, the third shot violates the usual axis of a POV shot: it is in close, and positioned overhead, on a black child in the water. This shot inaugurates a descriptive (rather than narrative) parenthesis typical of Denis: three shots (the boy, an adult hand in the water, finally a wider reveal of father and child), running respectively for eleven, four and nine seconds.
After this parenthesis, the return to the gazer France, in exactly the same camera set-up as shot two, registers oddly: the current that joins regarder to regarded in classical cinema is usually less ambiguous, more economical and direct. Then, after a brief reprise (four seconds) of the beach as seen in the first part of shot one, we cut to a still stranger, even less moored shot than any that have preceded it: a foot (presumably France’s), and a hand (also hers?) entering frame to rub it. What is this shot exactly, what (or whose) regard does it record? It is not strongly marked as the character’s view of herself (the axis, again, is clearly off), but neither does it register as an objective shot like in shot one. Like so many images of body parts in Denis, it is charged with an emotional investment, an element of fascination or even fetishisation – but left to float free of the intersubjective web (of gazes and desires) drawn between and around the characters.
The next shot offers the kind of ambiguous jolt typical of the temporal and spatial leaps in Denis’ œuvre: it is a pan that eventually shows France walking away, her back to the camera, down a road, far away. There is a slight shift in the ambient sound (birds have now been added) to mark an ellipse; but we are unable to gauge, except vaguely, how much time has passed or how the space of this road and its trees relates to the patch of beach on which France previously sat. That is the final shot of the first scene of Chocolat. The next shot – to France still walking, on another but clearly distinct patch of road, with a quite different, beach-less sound ambience – unambiguously marks a new scene. But the floating, internal micro-connections that have played between the previous nine shots tend to render even scene transitions ambiguous, suddenly unfamiliar when they do appear. This is an aesthetic property, on the macro level of scene order and placement, that Denis will exploit for maximum ambiguity as surely as do David Cronenberg or Luis Buñuel: how can we ever hope to reconstitute, as viewers, the yawning gaps between scene units, and what reality (or dream) status does each of these units possess, or declare?
Some of Denis’ work on making and unmaking linkages in a mise en scène can be clearly seen in the découpage – in the transitions from a looker to her or his point-of-view – but much of it can only be felt in the unfolding of the moment-to-moment temporal duration of shots, and the hard-to-define pressure this duration places on the nominal connections between the shot units. Equally, it must also be heard in the subtle shot-to-shot modulations of the sound mix. To put it simply, the longer a given shot stays on screen – whether it records an instance of regarder or regarded in the whole context of a scene – the connective tissue that can be established between the preceding and subsequent shots seems to loosen, drift, give way, creating an unusual, desubjectified lyricism that Denis’ films share with those of Hou Hsiao-hsien. And yet there is nothing mechanical about this process; no rule or logic dictates in advance what length any individual shot should be in order to bind and maintain its linking property or potential.
It is as if, in editing (with her collaborators such as, for Chocolat, Claudine Merlin), Denis must rigorously, intensively find the centre of gravity for each and every shot – what it gives to the narrative, to the overall sense of the scene or the film as a whole – and then also discover and master another rhythm, a counter-rhythm which will at once destabilise the internal scene linkages (but not so much that the narrative loses all moment-to-moment sense or direction), while opening the shots up to freer relations across the entire film. This creates the sense of a film having an inner life, as we can also feel in Pedro Costa’s Blood (1989) – a life not tied to its strictly linear unfolding, or even its discernible, surface plot.
Chocolat constantly plays on fugitive visions, hidden apparitions; these come in two registers. The first kind comes well within the mise en scène, the dramaturgy: within Denis’ look, and what she chooses to reveal to us as viewers. See the remarkable shot where Protée is having a shower outdoors. The masters loll about on their porch in the background, entering their front door; in an extraordinary gesture, we see Protée’s anguish, his humiliation. But there is another kind of fugitive vision which is far stranger, un-bound by the dramaturgy and mise en scène. The emblem of this is the extraoorinary final shot. Again, it is only weakly cued by the glancing-about of the lost, adult France in an airport. Then we leap from her glance to the sight of three African men; they glide into shot, get off their little mobile platform (a truck or trailer); the camera moves forward in a grave, inquisitive way, giving a real force to this shot. For a very long time (so it seems), the men joke, talk, one takes a piss, it starts raining; we have no idea who they are or what they are doing, really. They completely escape the dramatic system of the film – they just are. It is always signs of Africa, African Otherness, which escape in this way: a helpless vision on the part of the post-colonial power of the Other, looming up, mocking, casually confronting, or simply indifferent, disinterested at last.
Another variation on this is contained in the pipe scene mentioned several times already. Here we pass through all the visual registers of Otherness, and all three regards. First there is the detail with young France: she reacts, withdraws in pain. Then Protée removes his own hand. He regards it; presumably he is facing down a far more extraordinary level of pain (and anguish, too – recall that this comes after his ejection from the main household). When Protée looks at his own hand, it is a moment of secret mise en scène given to us by Denis. Then it gets stranger: in the découpage, little France seems to disappear altogether, as we never return to her presence, her look; and then Protée strides out through the door, into the night, disappears into the darkness. He becomes of ghost, escaping our sight, as well as escaping France’s sight (which has, by now, been completely occluded). All later Denis films will return to elaborate such devices. (10)
This play of the trois regards corresponds to, and joins up with, the larger narrative structure of Chocolat. As I have indicated, the film uses a very classical return-and-flashback structure, and does so under the auspices of the director’s memoir, her fictionalised autobiography (shades again of Garrel). Yet Denis exploits a lacuna or gap that often comes, unstated, with this device: things happen which the narrator could not possibly have seen or heard or understood. Chocolat exaggerates this gap: France is not present for most of the story, sees and hears virtually nothing (other more conventional memoir films play with what the narrator might have seen, glimpsed, overheard, but understood only later, eg., John Boorman’s Hope and Glory ). In a way, the adult France’s knowledge – and thus Denis’ own self-knowledge as filmmaker – is a kind of projective, phantom knowledge, haunted, paranoid, full of fantasies.
So, once again, in a quietly subversive way, this is an unreconciled film, a film where nothing comes together. However, alongside the despair, cruelty and general life-draining injustice, there is sensuality, movement, joy and, perhaps above all, music (scored by the great Abdullah Ibrahim). It’s the African music that lasts longer than anything in the film, outstays even the vision of the final image that has already spilt well beyond the cofines of the plot and its intrigues. (11)
1. Philippe Garrel interviewed by Alain Philippon, “Un rêveur en état d’urgence”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 344 (February 1983), p. 15; I discuss this statement in “Frame”, in Elena Gorfinkel & Tami Williams (eds), Global Cinema Networks (Rutgers University Press, 2018), pp. 37-52. back
2. See the 1994 essay “Refractory Characters, Shards of Time in Space”, reprinted in my Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). back
3. Marc Chevrie, “L’innocence entre guillemets”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 376 (October 1985), pp. 28-34. back
4. See Raphaël Bassan’s essay on Raúl Ruiz in La Revue du cinéma, no. 409 (October 1985), p. 47. back
5. Pascal Kané, “Note sur le cinéma de Brian De Palma”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 277 (June 1977), pp. 59-60. back
6. See Thierry Kuntzel (trans. Adrian Martin & Michelle Wild), “Freaks Show”, Rouge, no. 7 (2005); Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Humain, trop humain”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 210 (March 1969), pp. 57-58; and also my Phantasms (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1994). back
7. See Bernard-Henri Lévy (trans. Richard Veasey), Adventures on the Freedom Road (1995) – based on a lively TV series drected by Alain Ferrari, The Spirit of Freedom (1990). back
8. Serge Toubiana, “The Cinema of the Cahiers”, in Antoine de Baecque (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma 1951-1991 (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, Melbourne, 1994), p. 2. There is a fascinating discussion of this idea among Jean Narboni, Jacques Rivette and Marguerite Duras in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 217 (November 1969), pp. 47-49, reprinted in Filmer dit-elle, le cinéma de Marguerite Duras (Capricci, 2014). back
9. See “Mr Big” (1987) in Mysteries of Cinema; also my later essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien (2005, forthcoming in my collection World Cinema Directors), who has described his own system of differentiated looks via his discovery of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinema. In his contribution to a 2005 conference on Hou, Ashish Rajadhyaksha also posited what he called an impersonal, “Pure Symbolic” look – the look of power, authority, the State, as coded into particular representational systems. See his book Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency (Indiana University Press, 2009). back
10. See my 2006 essay, “Ticket to Ride: Claire Denis and the Cinema of the Body”, forthcoming in my collection World Cinema Directors. back
11. This text was first delivered as a lecture at University of Melbourne on 25 May 1995, as part of a course on “International Art Cinema”. back
© Adrian Martin May 1995 [ + Notes January 2019]