When watching her films, don't expect 'Amélie'
On a recent spring afternoon in the velvet-decorated lobby of a posh Seattle hotel French filmmaker Claire Denis, in town to promote her new movie, "Friday Night," looks more like she's enduring a Monday morning.
Clad in a very un-Parisian jogging suit and sneakers, her gray hair sprouting every which way, it's not much of a surprise when she confesses, "This is not the best time for me. I'm in preproduction on a new film, and I'd really rather be back in Paris."
Then, suddenly, the filmmaker's entire demeanor changes as she sees two young girls, part of a wedding party, walk by in immaculate silk gowns.
"I must take their picture," she exclaims in her strong Gallic accent, hurriedly running after the girls with a camera in hand.
By the time Denis reaches the girls and secures their permission for a shot, she is grinning from ear to ear.
Denis is palpably enlivened when her attention turns to making pictures, be they snapshots or feature films.
When the writer-director is on location, she likes "to do everything," she says. "Sometimes I've heard it's better for the director to be on the side and thinking. But me, I'm like a crazy dog. I'm all over. I love to shoot, but sometimes I even do props and wardrobe and makeup and hair."
Although not well known in the United States, Denis is widely regarded as one of the most gifted filmmakers in the world. Before debuting as a writer-director in her own right with the 1988 art-house hit "Chocolat" (not to be confused with the Juliette Binoche film of the same name), Denis worked under celebrated directors Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Rivette, and Wim Wenders.
The style of her nine films is less quirky and diverse than theirs, but Denis does display a similar gift for visual poetry and deliberate pacing. Her style bears little resemblance to popular foreign hits such as "Amélie" and "Life Is Beautiful," which, while no doubt powerful, wear their feelings on their sleeves. Denis's films are subtle, uncompromisingly artful, and elusive pictures.
Denis's previous film, 1999's "Beau Travail," was included in many year-end Top 10 lists. Loosely inspired by Herman Melville's "Billy Budd," the film chronicled a French Foreign Legion outpost in the secluded East African enclave of Djibouti, a former French colony between Ethiopia and Somalia.
"Beau Travail" is about a rift between the outpost's second in command and a new recruit, who becomes a hero after a daring rescue. In the closed society of the outpost, attracting notice - even for something good - ultimately becomes an offense.
The film explores how people often submit to something larger than themselves - groups, causes, nations - in a quest for security and identity.
Denis is the daughter of a French diplomat and spent most of her youth in Africa. Her new film, "Friday Night," is one of her rare movies that do not take place on that continent, for which her works reveal a great affection.
Both "Beau Travail" and her new work are about loneliness in some respect. Growing up in Africa as an isolated French child whose family moved frequently, Denis says she constantly felt like a foreigner. Her love of film began when her mother told her bedtime stories based on classic movies.
"Friday Night" is the story of a one-night stand between two strangers in Paris. It takes place over a single evening. The lead character, Laure (Valérie Lemercier), is moving out of her apartment, the contents of which have been relegated to a collection of cardboard boxes.
Tomorrow, she will move in with her boyfriend. But for tonight, Laure is in between two lives, more eager for escape than she consciously knows.
Amid the first few evening hours "Friday Night" chronicles, Laure is stuck in a merciless traffic jam caused by a transit strike. The radio advises drivers to offer rides to stranded people, so when Jean (Vincent Lindon) knocks on her car window, Laure obliges.
Denis says she strove to portray her characters affectionately and without passing judgment on them.
"Friday Night" also draws on the anthropologist side of Denis's character. Just as "Beau Travail" could be likened to a pack of wolves turning on each other, so is "Friday Night" like the story of a bird that has lost its nest and is looking for refuge.
"I think the difference between human beings and animals is very small," Denis continues. "The instinct to fear, to protect, to love, is a very basic quality."
Denis said she enjoyed the challenge of creating "Friday Night" about one evening. "What is great about filmmaking is that time is something you can construct and build a story with," she says.
Denis's work has a vital, baseline feeling. At the same time, she recalls that her one-time mentor, Jarmusch, told Denis that her films work through accumulation, as if she constructs them detail by detail.
It is this intersection of simple stories and an acute eye that has made Denis a critics' darling, and her new film could awaken American audiences to her talent.