Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cannibalism and One Night Stands.
Digging Backward into the Works of Claire Denis.

Trouble Every Day. (2001)  Claire Denis

Friday Night. (2002)  Claire Denis

I've been digging into the older works of Claire Denis ever since that splendid night I spent with 35 rhums, a story that continues to spiral around and flip like fish in my head. Going back through her oeuvre I've found these mindbending trips are nothing new for Denis fans. Her films relentlessly tap the brain promoting an intense retracing of all the steps in your memory. You don't walk out of any of these stories having anything about a movie figured out. You can't instantly lean to your buddy's ear and say, "So what did you think?" before even hitting the theater door. They are elusive films which favor emotion over clarity, leaving psychological loose ends for further review.

I'm interested in the fact that she does this with a wide spectrum of  feelings. The films listed above aren't similar at all in genre -- their only point of comparison is that they are stylistically indebted to their auteur. They are quiet, uneasy dramas with fantastical energy and unrestrained imagination. Both begin in reality and slowly weave in a slap of verve that tickles at the core of their foundations. But comparisons end there. I love trying to reconcile how one artist creates works so decidedly different from one another.

Trouble Every Day is a visceral, traumatic film which exhibits raw horror at the possibilities of human sickness. It's best viewed as a sort of zombie film, with all the standard conventions of flesh-eating post-human creatures and blood smeared all over the walls. It is base -- as difficult to watch as a Noé attack, or Von Trier's latest onslaught, Antichrist. The cries and screams of its victims continue to echo days later in your ears.

There's no need to go into great detail in describing its plot, it really is that simple. Vincent Gallo stars as a doctor trying to hold off a chemical imbalance due to experimentation which makes him want to eat people. We think of fetishism, consumption and the capacity to kill, all in the name of desire.

Fans of Trouble Every Day have called it a "tone poem of transgression," "feeling like no other film in recent history," but it is Jeremy Heilman's wonderful MovieMartyr review that intrigues me the most, when he says: "Ultimately, the message of Trouble Every Day seems to be that all sexual desire disrupts life’s stasis," and he compares the film to the world's greatest vampire movies, in which a story isn't really about vampirism, but something significantly more.

I've read quite a few reviews in trying to parse my own feelings, and I think I like Heilman's the most. But in light of my recent viewings I am more confused than ever at Denis herself. If Trouble Every Day disrupts life's stasis through sexual desire and death, what are we to make of her following feature, Friday Night?

Both films contain a central figure desiring to give in to the forbidden in their chemistry. Both yield to the inevitable temptation, but while Gallo gets away with only guilt-ridden regret, the character in Friday Night flees the scene with joy. Forbidden desire and its outcome are where the films' ideas interact.

Laure is stuck in a traffic jam on a Friday night in Paris. Jean, walking down the street alone, knocks on the window and asks if he can get in her car. And that is it: we are at this point taken into feminine fantasy, as opposed to feminist film, as the two let choice after choice lead them to spending the night in each other's arms.

As the night proceeds, we see Laure's fears, insecurities, hopes, and urges play out in real time -- the film then sometimes rewinds to show us where we are in actual reality. She may have feared that Jean was going to go after that other woman in the restaurant, and we may, as watchers, have followed her insecurity down that line. But things will back up to reality and we'll see that there was really nothing to fear at all.

As the film builds to its unbelievably erotic final moments, we've been down so many parts of her imagination that we're not sure where reality exactly lies. We're aware that something intimate did happen, and that for Laure it was forbidden and joyous and a magical night -- a pleasure that she will most likely keep to herself, or maybe share with selected girlfriends down the road.

The magic that really happens, though, is left off screen -- that is, the magic that we encounter when fully immersed in these involving moments. When reality bends backwards in Laure's over-thought imagination, the film too chooses to bend back elements of the viewer's reality: letters on the back bumper of her Volvo dance around. A pizza at a restaurant smiles at us. A hotel lampshade glides across the room and lands on the lamp on the floor -- the lamp lights up, while the space heater magically flips itself on to keep us warm and cozy.

Laure's magical moment fuses itself into the reality of our theatrical viewing. We're participating with psychology as it deciphers imagination from reality. The story doesn't ask us to watch, we're already participating in its emanations. It's not just the retina and the way that we view, but now it's the spirit and the way that we feel.

If anything at all, Denis is teaching me more about the way I perceive the viewing experience. If I think I've got it all figured out, immediately after taking it in, either I am being naive or the film experience is just too trite. I'm learning to appreciate the ability to reconsider.

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