Claire Denis: In a Nutshell

Claire Denis: In a Nutshell

Follow the veteran director from her childhood in Africa to the red carpet of Cannes. 

Born in Paris a couple of years after the Second World War, Claire Denis was only a couple of months old when she and her family moved to Africa. She lived there until she was a teenager and continues to describe herself as “une fille d’Afrique” (a daughter of Africa).

Back in France, she studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, where she met cinematographer Agnès Godard, who would become a life-long collaborator. She began her professional life in style, as assistant to major directors like Robert Enrico, Wim Wenders and Jacques Rivette, and worked with Jim Jarmusch on his film Down by Law.

African Influence

Then in 1987, Denis wrote and directed her first film, Chocolat. A semi-autobiographical story of racial tension in the colonial Africa of the 1950s at the moment of independence, the film premiered in competition at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, was nominated at the César Awards and met with widespread critical acclaim in the US.

In 1999’s Beau Travail, Denis returned to the landscape of her childhood for a tale inspired by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Filmed in Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland), it follows devoted soldier Galoup’s (Denis Lavant) experiences in the French Foreign Legion and his almost deadly rivalry with a new recruit. Trouble Every Day (2001), Vendredi soir (2002), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009), and Bastards (2013) – presented in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2013 – followed and her reputation as one of France’s most interesting directors was set.

Cinematic Territory

In 2017, Denis returned to Cannes when Bright Sunshine In, featuring Juliette Binoche and Gérard Depardieu, screened as the opening film in Directors’ Fortnight. Perhaps her best known movie in the English-speaking world is her 2018 dystopian space thriller, High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche in a haunting tale of a group of criminals sentenced to life in space. Known for her unflinching, overtly sensual, often confrontational style, Claire Denis has become one of the grande dames of French cinema and at the age of 76, she’s showing no signs of slowing down: her 16th movie, The Stars at Noon, has just premiered at Cannes.

Asked by Sight & Sound in 2000 what had made her become a film director, she said simply: “I was absolutely unfit for anything else. Cinema appeared to be a territory where I could survive.”

10 Second CV: A screen star’s life in one take

Name: Claire Denis
Born: April 21, 1946, Paris

Early career
Having decided she hated her initial choice of economics, Denis went on to study at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques before finding work as an assistant to major directors such as Wim Wenders and Jacques Rivette.

I know the name…
Denis’ best-known movie among English-speaking audiences is High Life (2018), starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.

What’s her next movie?
The Stars at Noon, which recently premiered at Cannes, tells the story of Trish, a struggling reporter in Nicaragua, hoping for a scoop she can sell to an American magazine that wants nothing to do with her. Her passport and press card have been confiscated and established reporters snub her. Then one night, she spots a young man, Daniel, clearly a newcomer to the tropics and the pair become involved sexually… and before long, both Trish’s and Daniel’s lives are in peril.

C’est pas vrai!
Claire Denis had to return to France from Africa at the age of 12 because she had contracted polio.

From France Today magazine 

Lead photo credit : Claire Denis in Bastards © Alcatraz Films/Camille de Chenay

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