We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place
Ryland Walker Knight on U.S. Go Home
Although the curious and internet-savvy cinephile can, without too much hassle, find a way to see Claire Denis’s U.S. Go Home, its perpetual medley of Sixties pop songs (and their consequent licensing headaches) has kept it from easy viewing access in the United States. This is a shame. For starters, the film is a breeze: all that fun music all the time buoys its youthful verve and nudges its tentative exploration forward. For another, it’s a window on Denis’s follow-up, its spiritual sequel, Nenette et Boni, as Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri star in both as siblings. But where the later film shows youth to be a daydream, prone to fantasy as often as violence, U.S. Go Home tells us that youth is a dance. Or maybe it should be.
A dance: following your body, feeling the space around you, always moving, always participatory. Even if you’re dancing alone, you’re still dancing with somebody. It starts from expression. There’s George Bernard Shaw’s quip that dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire, of course, and that’s quite often true, especially among the young and horny. More curious is the elemental teenage desire for self-expression—if we understand that as articulating one’s individuality—though dancing to pop music is so often based on repetition. When teens dance it’s kind of a matching game, where very few try to one-up one another. Part of the game, always, is to impress, but you’ll surely dance yourself into a lonely corner if you can’t dance with anybody but yourself. You can’t force it. You have to feel it, and let it build. You give yourself.
U.S. Go Home is a big-night-out movie. Houri’s Martine narrates, and though it’s her desire to lose her virginity that gets the night, and the film, going, Colin’s Alain opens it with a monologue about sexuality’s risk to one’s honor. They live with their mother in a Parisian suburb near a U.S. army base, far enough from the city that fog/smog smears the horizon and keeps the distant distant and out of sight. We might say that distance locks these people in place. Their world is modest, and there’s little room to vent, it would appear, aside from nights out and that window of freedom that a pop song can open. But the film itself is hardly angsty; instead it renders angst with patient observation. There are rushes of light and movement—it’s unavoidable with kids—and for the most part reflects the Denis style of narrative elision. Its hour-long length alone predicates some of its abruptness, but nothing feels rushed. And there’s that music that keeps playing, keeps getting limbs going, keeps the kids up at night. The music tells the story as much as the (minimal) dialogue or the narrative consequences.
Denis made U.S. Go Home as part of a television series called Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge… which gave nine directors (among them, Akerman and Assayas and Téchiné) an opportunity to make movies about teenagers set in their own adolescent era, though not necessarily culled from autobiography, with one major narrative stipulation: there must be a party scene. So this commitment to dancing is not particular to the Denis film per se. In fact, it’s not limited to this Denis film—bodies and movement are a recurrent motif across her work. After L’Intrus (which we might say is, among other things, her film about the corporeal and metaphysical capacities of the heart), Denis made Vers Mathilde, a documentary about the French choreographer Mathilde Monnier, which is explicitly about how we inhabit space, how we change any space we participate in, and how we compete for space, simply by being present and active. This is perhaps a good way to define her masterpiece Beau travail away from the common “Billy Budd in the French Foreign Legion” tag, however apt that synopsis, for that film, which also stars Colin, shows us scene after scene of half-naked young men, all muscle, locked in ritual performances; it’s a film of training, but it looks like dance exercise, not military conditioning. The sparring involves circling and swimming and hugging; the only punch thrown looks more a magic transference—the ceremonial spell is only broken at the close (maybe the best ending in cinema) when Denis Lavant lets everything loose, flails in pirouette, twirls like a top, and falls off screen in rhythm. There’s a similar scene in U.S. Go Home, but it comes earlier, when Colin’s Alain rocks out solo to Eric Burdon and the Animals’ “Hey Gyp.” He sings along, he romps around his room punching the sky, he bounces on his bed, he delights himself, all in one take. The only problem is that he’s not alone. We come to realize that he’s been watched not just by us but also by his sister, Martine, as we have shared her vantage. She tries to cut him down, calling him crazy, and he, typical teen, asks why he can’t have some privacy.
A dance: an event organized around possibilities, a prelude to plenty, the best way to get laid. Martine and best friend Marlène (Jessica Tharaud) strike out from the first destination—kids dancing with parents, a dad leading a conga line—and find their way to a real party (without parents) with the lights down low and the music turned up loud, where older young people drink booze and smoke cigarettes and make out. On the dance floor, the camera winds around the varied couples while the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” blares; all the girls hang tight on their boys. Then the song changes, picks up speed, and the camera turns around. Among smiles and bobbing bodies, we see Martine and Marlène lost, still wearing their coats, still looking for Alain as a foothold, still standing at the threshold. Our girls don’t belong, but they push into the party. They enter the hive of hip, still onlookers, and Marlène spies Alain dancing, holding a girl close, moving in slow circles. Alain ignores them. He won’t facilitate. The girls will have to, and indeed do, make their own way into the crowd, into this dance. Marlène moves first, quick to let her hair down and bum a cigarette, while Martine sulks. Overall, Marlène fares better simply because she’s ready, she gives in, she lets go, she has some fun with the new rules and the new roles this night initiates. However, Martine is not strictly hemmed in by her behavior: when she asks the same boy for a cigarette, he ignores her entreaty by telling her Marlène is cute and walks away. After all, Marlène is a pale redhead with big lips and Martine an Arabesque waif with kinky hair, which points to the subtle racism in the party’s social dynamic.
The party (the movie) may not be allegory, but the political is hardly an afterthought. The title of the film itself and the repetition of all this commodified pop music begin to sound suspect, or curious. Who’s demanding the U.S. go home, anyway? In the end, we only hear Martine say the line, parroting a protest she could care less about, another sign of teenage flippancy—and the peculiar hypocrisy, or at least irony, of this film’s world. No big surprise that Anne Wiazemsky, that princess of the left, co-wrote the scenario with Denis, casting over the provincial idyll an American shadow and coloring the petulance of a line like, “I’m a Communist, I don’t drink Coca-Cola,” with doubt and a little amusement. The joke’s on the kids, almost, as they’re rootless pinballs. It just so happens that Alain is the right age to be seduced by the Red and that Martine recollects a leftist anthem (that her brother no doubt introduced her to) in the face of an American.
The tragedy in U.S. Go Home, it would seem, is how desire blocks fun, how motivations are always suspect in youth. Though Marlène lays down with Alain, neither looks happy. After walking in on them, Martine seems the most hurt and disappointed, and when Alain tries to console her, to reassure her of their familial bond, Marlène interrupts—and Alain flees. And then the siblings meet Vincent Gallo. Gallo plays Captain Vido Brown. He’s lonely, sitting by himself, drinking bottled Coke with his car door open. When Martine and Alain stroll past, Martine asks for a ride, and though he’s wary, Brown agrees to give them a lift. He even offers them his last two sodas, which Alain denies on the political grounds quoted above. Alain makes it plain he cannot stand the Army man, and Brown implores Alain to chill out, to not wreck his car, but Alain exits, leaving Martine alone. Martine doesn’t seem to care, really, and neither does Brown. He allows her to charm him, though Gallo’s eyes tell us he knows it’s a foolish game. He drives her around, he hugs her, he gets her past the dawn. Maybe he does this because he wants to, more likely he does it because, as he says, he’s miserable.
But the film does not set the American apart any more than it does Martine; each is alone in a world of optimism, which we see is equivalent to (or that such a posture only leads to) a world of disappointment. Alain, on the other hand, seems to live in a world of hurt, always at odds. Put otherwise, his world is his own and he sees threats from every angle, every body, every utterance—anything from a plea of sympathy to an apology. He paws the girls he holds and he eyes them with a lust as intense as his hands are forceful. Funny and apt, then, that he’s most alive when dancing alone in his room, promising one thing after another—things no communist would want, like a Chevrolet—if he could just get some of some girl’s love. And, perfect hypocrite that he is, as soon as he lands some sweetness, he turns his back and stalks off shirtless.
Really, all teen movies are the same at heart because all teens are the same: each longs to fill a type, to fulfill some expectation only she holds onto or knows of inside some private, pretzel logic. And Denis never judges these teenagers’ choices: her style hovers over the world, at a distance (though her camera is far more mobile than, say, that of one of her inspirations, Ozu). She captures life’s richness by observing behavior, and then lets us develop the picture. What Martine learns in the car with Brown is that in order to lose her virginity she will have to give something, and that to flirt can be fun—though the language barrier helps distance herself from the situation and makes interaction more of a game with this older, hurt, less aggressive man. The dance is worth the risk. But that doesn’t stop the world from turning. In the morning he’s still American and she’s still a French teenager and her brother is still hurt, still judging. The spray-paint on the box car behind Brown still reads, “U.S. GO HOME,” and everybody sits alone, half-awake and dazed in the dawn’s pink light, dreaming.