Claire Denis’s Early Career as Assistant Director
By Leo Goldsmith
There is a scene at the end of Claire Denis's Chocolat in which three African men, working at an airport in Cameroon, load luggage into the belly of a plane. They ride the luggage cart out to a far end of the airport for a smoke break, chatting all the while. The camera shoots them from some remove, slowly moving in to a tighter shot as they take refuge from the ensuing rain under an overpass. One man takes a leak, and they all continue talking, but we don’t hear their conversation above the sound of Abdullah Ibrahim's smooth, buoyant afro-jazz score.
Chocolat was Denis's first film, and as such is often regarded as atypical of her work generally, but this scene falls in line with many similar final scenes in the films of her subsequent career. Nearly always slightly distanced from, if not completely unmotivated by, the foregoing narrative, sequences such as these seem to suggest a kind of liberation from the often violent emotional and sexual tension that precedes them. They suggest something—a sensibility, an emotion, a persistent narrative line—that the limited film narrative cannot itself fully contain or account for: Alice Houri's plaintive enjoyment of a salvaged cigarette butt in Nénette et Boni; Denis Lavant's superlative solo dance to Corona's “Rhythm of the Night” in Beau travail; Béatrice Dalle's euphoric dogsled ride in L'Intrus. In this light, Chocolat is not atypical of Denis at all, and its final sequence presages many such scenes in the director's later work.
This finale is notable also for its resemblance to the work of another filmmaker: Jim Jarmusch. The trio of men, the laid-back camaraderie, the cool, casual laziness of everyday life made meaningful with just the right music: transported to Louisiana and transposed to black-and-white with audible dialogue, this could easily be one of many similar, lengthy sequence shots from Jarmusch's Down by Law, the direction of which Denis assisted only two years earlier.
For those interested in Denis's work, the approximate fifteen-year period of her career when she worked as an assistant director prior to her directorial debut, is particularly useful for both its length and its pedigree. Born in France and raised partly in Africa, Denis enrolled (encouraged by her then husband, a photographer) in IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques—now La Fémis—France's prestigious film school) in 1972, learning filmmaking in a milieu freshly galvanized by the events of May ’68. But though only a couple of weeks younger than Philippe Garrel—who was directly inspired by the Nouvelle Vague, active as a filmmaker since the age of sixteen, and already a celebrity in left-wing film circles of IDHEC for his political action and association with Godard—Denis would not make Chocolat until she was about 40. After IDHEC, Denis worked mostly in the coming decades under directors as diverse and variously integral to international cinema as Dušan Makavejev, Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, and, most importantly, Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. Her prolonged period alongside these filmmakers makes for an impressive resume all its own, even if many of her contemporaries were at the same time busy directing their own films.
Denis's illustrious early career is invariably noted in biographical summaries and interviews with the director, and while some influence from those filmmakers upon her later style and (especially) production model is all but inevitable, the act of tracing the impact of this period on Denis's films is a highly speculative exercise. While the director herself acknowledges a great personal and professional debt to many of them, she nonetheless denies any specific influence. (“I do it my own way,” she said in an interview in 2003. “What Jim and Wim do is so special, and what is good for them is only good for them.”) Although the aesthetic genealogy of a filmmaker's work cannot be established with any certainty, the specific case of Claire Denis offers unique insights into the highly volatile period of European cinema of the Seventies and Eighties. What I propose, then, is a form of speculation that is wild, if not quite idle, providing resonance and background to the development of a highly sophisticated cinematic style that both embraces and departs from Denis's predecessors.
One of the impressions that emerge from even a cursory glance at Denis’s career is that it both confirms and contradicts many of the presumptions that one might bring to it. For example, Denis's upbringing in colonial Africa finds expression in her films' particular interest in marginalized characters—those from the very French colonies in which the director was raised, as well as those otherwise who exist outside of a white, bourgeois, heteronormative ideal of European life. Her point of view, as expressed through her films, is therefore most often aligned with outsiders, those living beyond the usual purview of mainstream French society. Such a perspective would seem to exemplify what Hamid Naficy identifies as a style of “accented cinema”: like Naficy's prime examples, her films are internationally financed, multilingual, privileging sensuality and "tactile optics" over narrative completeness or spatio-temporal coherence, sensitive to issues of exile, homelessness, and border politics. But Denis's films nonetheless seem essentially European, albeit wedded to a system of film production and financing that was, by necessity, becoming increasingly transnational in the Seventies and Eighties.
While Denis does not seem to have been directly involved in the political activities of 1968, her time at IDHEC pitched her into what was then a deeply conflicted French film industry. In the early and mid Seventies, following the May ’68 period, and especially with the 1973-74 oil crisis, the postwar growth of the French economy ground to a halt, and many of the government benefits to the country's film industry followed suit. The election of the conservative Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1974 ensured an official chilliness to the cultural Left in the years to come, and the filmmakers of the New Wave, and many that followed, were specifically denied funding. This forced some, like Rivette and Philippe Garrel, to work on microbudgets, if not into relative poverty, while more established directors, like François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, sought their financing abroad. That is, when they could find it: After 1972's Love in the Afternoon, Rohmer made only two more films in the decade, La marquise d'O... and Perceval, with German and Italian funding.
Not quite the prestigious film school it has become, IDHEC was at that time more a technical school, operating under the directorship of respected filmmaker Louis Daquin. Once associated with the "tradition of quality" so reviled by the Nouvelle Vague, and now all but blacklisted from the industry proper, Daquin was a member of the Communist Party who cultivated a rare supportive atmosphere for ultra-Left filmmakers like the Situationists at IDHEC, and afforded students like Denis opportunities to study under legendary cinematographers like Henri Alekan and Sacha Vierny, and meet people like Garrel and Rivette. Back then, according to Denis, “I didn't at all think I would make films, it was a point in my life where I just told myself: here I am, let's take advantage of it. The idea of having a project, for example, of becoming a director, the very idea of having any sort of ambition, I found that quite abject. To be honest, it wasn't only me, it was the times also.”
With this opportunistic attitude—international financing becoming an increasing necessity, transnational coproductions more common, and filmmakers seeking resources in a newly globalized marketplace for cinema—and the resources and connections available to her through IDHEC, Denis began working on a number of features in a variety of roles. Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme recruited her as an uncredited extra on Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), which in turn led to her "first job on the payroll" as second assistant director to Makavejev on the 1974 surrealist dark satire Sweet Movie. A veteran of the Yugoslavian Black Wave, Makavejev took the opportunity of his political exile and move to the permissive West to push as many envelopes as he could—political, historical, aesthetic, religious, sexual. A coyly sinister, globe-trotting parable of pop-culture, commerce, and prostitution, Sweet Movie is a movie seemingly tailor-made to the audience of every kind of Western cult cinema—schlock, porno, arty-farty—with Anna Planeta and Pierre Clementi (as "Potemkin Sailor") singing Soviet ballads, grueling archival footage of the Nazi exhumation of bodies at Katyn, and a totally naked Carol Laure gyrating in a vat of chocolate.
Denis got her job, by her own recollection, because she spoke a little English, but she seems to have spent her most valuable time during Sweet Movie's production running interference for Makavejev with Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl and his Therapie-Kommune. Now a convicted sex offender, Mühl was then an artist-cum-guru who, along with other Actionists Günter Brus, Otmar Bauer, and Kurt Kren, sought to replace the canvas with the human body, enacting every extremity imaginable upon themselves through performance and happenings. Naturally, a disproportionate amount of the movements in Mühl's happenings involve genitalia or some kind of bodily fluid, and much of this can be seen in Makavejev's film: commune members gleefully beat each other and force themselves to vomit, and Carol Laure tries to play along by tenderly caressing a flaccid penis against her cheek like one would a kitten. As Makavejev's assistant, Denis apparently lived with the Kommune members through part of the shoot.
“They did terrible things,” recalls Denis. “They wanted me to shave my head, drink my blood, eat my shit, things like that. But, in a way, I was not afraid. Maybe because I was smoking pot.” Indeed, her perspective as an outsider amongst outsiders—especially those as extreme as Mühl's group—coheres nicely with her relative equanimity or perhaps dispassion with similar extremities in her films I Can’t Sleep or Trouble Every Day, in which Denis almost impassively records the ways various characters terrorize the innocent (and each other) from the margins of bourgeois society.
Denis continued somewhat unambitiously working as an assistant director, by her own admission, as a way of paying rent, assisting the director Robert Enrico on two mainstream thrillers, The Secret and The Old Gun (1974 and 1975, respectively; “a very masochistic experience,” according to Denis). But probably the most important figure in Denis’s sphere at this time was Jacques Rivette. Through Daquin's efforts, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, a teacher at IDHEC, brought Denis to the set of Out 1: Spectre (1974), which he was shooting for Rivette. The impact of this experience on Denis is incalculable, especially given her admiration for the director. Of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, Rivette was “the only one who seemed absolutely incredible to me,” and her introduction to him apparently resulted from her loud assertion that he was the only director she wanted to work with. Although she has no credit on any Rivette film (unless one counts the 1990 Cinéma du notre temps episode on him, which Rivette handpicked Denis to direct), the older director's euphoric metacinematic narratives, like the contemporary Celine and Julie Go Boating, seem to provide ample ground upon which Denis's later narratively experimental films would build. On the one hand, Rivette's films are, collectively, very wide-ranging, encompassing a breathtaking variety of styles and genres, rarely settling on one in particular. On the other, they individually exhibit both an improvisatory looseness and a high degree of control, suggesting the importance of the filmmaking experience (both production and postproduction) alongside the film's status as a finished product or work or art. All of this finds resonance in Denis’s films, which dabble with, but rarely settle upon, generically defined narrative arcs, which manage to be both performatively open and technically refined at the same time.
More tangibly, Denis's connection with Rivette led to more work, specifically for Eduardo de Gregorio, an Argentine expatriate who taught at IDHEC and has writing credits on several of Rivette's films (Celine and Julie, Noroît, Duelle (une quarantaine), and Merry-Go-Round), as well as Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem (based on a story by Borgés, de Gregorio's fellow countryman). Denis worked as assistant director on de Gregorio's directorial debut, Serais (1976), during a period in which Rivette himself struggled with financing and distributing his projects. Rivette made only two of the proposed four parts of his Scenes from a Parallel Life series and suffered a nervous breakdown after completing Merry-Go-Round in 1978.
After working on several more commercial French productions in the late Seventies, including a repeat of her “masochistic experience” working with Enrico on two more films in 1980, Denis served as an assistant director on Hanna K. (1983), Costa-Gavras's controversial message picture, starring Jill Clayburgh and Gabriel Byrne, about Palestinian land rights. Born in Greece but active in France (and also IDHEC educated), Costa-Gavras successfully drew financing from a variety of international sources for highly commercial films about often provocative contemporary subjects. In spite of Costa-Gavras's prior successes (with the Oscar-winning Z and Missing) and a positive review by Edward Said in the Village Voice, Hanna K. tanked, partly due to the lack of receptivity in the United States to what was perceived as an anti-Zionist film. And while the political thriller seems to have little to do with Denis's aesthetics, she has subsequently commented on the intensity of the experience of living and working in Israel (if not Costa-Gavras’s temerity in making and promoting the film in the first place; Universal reportedly refused to advertise the film in New York, so Costa-Gavras did so at his own expense).
But the next three films that she worked on from 1984 to 1987—Paris, Texas; Down by Law; and Wings of Desire—would seem most to have put Denis in a position (both professionally and aesthetically) to strike out on her own as a filmmaker. Denis describes the circumstances of her being hired by Wenders in typically blasé terms:
One day he called me and said: “Come to the United States.” I discovered a very different form of production: there wasn't on the one hand the screenplay, the budget, the choice of actors, the music.… Everything was absolutely connected and deep down that's what I was looking for. To also have the time to drive, drive, drive whilst listening to music, and dreaming up the screenplay which was being modified day by day by calling Sam Shepard. It was something indescribable for a little French girl.
Here, as in Rivette's work, the circumstances of the production became as important as the film itself, and the result, Paris, Texas (1984), is an astonishing tale about the loss of home, family, and the power of narrative to create a stable myth to unite these elements. In Wenders, Denis seems to have found a filmmaker for whom the free-wheeling process of multinational funding, crews, and location shooting, with all the resultant hazards and rewards, was a given. (She also found Agnès Godard, working as Wenders's camera operator, who would later serve as Denis's cinematographer from Chocolat onwards.) Since 1974's Alice in the Cities, Wenders had been shooting internationally, and by 1984 had already endured the disastrous Hammett for Francis Ford Coppola, the contentious Lightning Over Water with an exploited, moribund Nicholas Ray, and the sullenly titled The State of Things, which is itself about a problematic film shoot in Portugal. For Wenders, born in Germany three months after the Nazi surrender and thereafter raised in a country deeply conflicted about its historical patronage, the persistent questioning of national identity is a consistent theme, as it is for Denis, although in Wenders’s films it’s almost invariably played out among white male characters.
In Paris, Texas, these themes are located in the American West, once a key setting of classical Hollywood narrative cinema, but now the site of commercial decadence and emotional and familial disorder. The protagonist Travis’s mysterious estrangement from his wife and child, and his subsequent disappearance into the U.S.-Mexico desert borderlands, find some visual and aesthetic analogues in later Denis films, like Beau travail, but what seems more significant is the way in which Travis's (and then his wife Jane's) own narration of these events, in the film's climax, strive imperfectly to account for something that remains unaccountable, a time he spent “lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets.” Compare Travis's third-person narrative of this incommensurable (and, in Wenders film, mostly unfilmed) experience with the way in which Denis deliberately evades a straightforward account for Louis Trebor's complex and circuitous life story in L'Intrus, the sense in which conventional film narrative fails to satisfactorily explain. Where Denis and Wenders may be closest is in their skepticism of storytelling and language—versus the purity of images and music—as a way of approaching truth in the cinema. But while Wenders had been exploring these themes since his earliest films (see his early music video–like shorts and particularly Wrong Move, his adaptation of Goethe's künstlerroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), Paris, Texas in many ways represents his final testing of narrative's limits. The last shot of the film, which finds Travis once again drifting into darkness, marks a new beginning for Wenders, a return to classical narrative.
Through Wenders, Denis also met Jim Jarmusch, who had been Nick Ray's assistant at the time of the filming of Lightning Over Water and who had contributed to the soundtrack of Wenders’s The State of Things. More so even than Wenders, Jarmusch combined improvisation and a blithe disregard for narrative with a very precisely cultivated style, most apparent in his black-and-white cinematography, hyper-referential dialogue, and pop soundtracks. The importance of music in Denis's own work makes for an obvious connection with Wenders, as well, but in the films of Jarmusch, a musician himself, its presence is more pronounced, more essential (as evidenced by the constant replaying Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" in Stranger than Paradise, and his casting of musicians in starring roles). Two such musicians—John Lurie and Tom Waits—starred with the Italian comedian Robert Benigni in Down by Law, on which Claire Denis (flouting union regulations) once again served as assistant director.
Jarmusch himself describes his freeform, prison-break film, shot entirely on location in Louisiana, as the only film he's made solely with American financing. And indeed, Jarmusch's sense of filmmaking as an inherently international endeavor—with foreign stars and money—more resembles the lifestyle of a touring rock musician than that of a nationally representative auteur. “Jarmusch organized his life like a rock artist,” Denis has said. “I think he's conscious that there isn't an art of living inherent in the cinema, there's only music which gives the taste of a certain kind of life. Cinema is a battle with people you don't want to meet, with constraints you don't want to have.” This freedom from many different constraints at once—national, financial, narrative—is both overtly and subliminally represented in Down by Law, and remains an attribute of Jarmusch's work right up to this year's defiantly transnational The Limits of Control. Again, Denis: “People think there is absolutely no relation between [Jarmusch's] work and my work, but for me there is one: a sort of openness, a sort of—an open cinema."
Even so, while the relative openness of Jarmusch's production model would seem to have inspired Denis's own, his emphasis on character—particularly as expressed through language (foreign accents or slang) and taste in clothing, movies, and music—hardly resembles Denis's approach. And if Denis's films continually represent their narratives' failure to contain their characters, in Jarmusch's films this is not the case. Consider Stranger Than Paradise as a sort of analogue to I Can't Sleep: The camera locates the protagonists of Jarmusch's film in a series of sequences composed of single takes, usually framed in the confines of an apartment or hotel room, which suggest a very narrow, circumscribed life within which the characters can express or create themselves, worlds and (especially) fashions of the characters' own making. Denis's characters, by contrast, spill out into the world. They are difficult to read, define, or predict, and the arcs of their personal narratives are hard to discern, beginning and ending in abrupt ways that unsettle the viewer's sense of power in the narrative. Put more simply, the viewer is never afforded a privileged perspective in a Denis film—indeed, it is often almost as though Denis knows as little about the characters of her own films as the spectator.
In retrospect, this aspect of Denis's later aesthetic makes the end of her career as an assistant director seem inevitable, particularly with her return to work for Wenders on Wings of Desire. Already, during the productions of Paris, Texas and Down by Law, Denis had been concocting her feature debut (she was reminded of the landscape of Cameroon while filming with Wenders in the American West), and Wenders himself would later help with Chocolat's financing. But even without this opportunity, it’s somehow difficult to imagine Denis collaborating with Wenders after Wings of Desire, the German director's return to filming in his home country after nearly ten years. Filmed by Denis's old IDHEC mentor, the then 77-year-old Henri Alekan (and with Agnès Godard again serving as camera operator), Wings of Desire is a gorgeously shot and wonderfully crafted film, but one which ardently reasserts the power of narrative and particularly language in cinema. With references to Rilke and Homer (“I'm an old man with a broken voice, but the tale still rises from the depths, and the mouth, slightly opened, repeats it as clearly, as powerfully. A liturgy for which no one needs to be initiated to the meaning of words and sentences”), Wings adopts a very dominant, omniscient perspective, aligning the camera with the angels’ godlike point of view. This visual style represents cinematic narrative as not only explicitly masculine and voyeuristic—the angels are mostly men, with only one or two very peripheral exceptions—but also lonely and sentimental.
There is of course no reason to think that Denis was anything but on board for Wenders's film—indeed, Wenders claims that it was Denis's idea to cast Peter Falk as the ex-angel, an inspiration from her love of Cassavetes's films. Nonetheless, given the differences between what Wenders achieves here and what Denis would soon pursue in her films, Wings of Desire appropriately marks the end of her career as assistant. On the one hand, Wenders’s film is a ravishing portrait of a divided Berlin, as well as a subtle metaphor for the melancholy, solipsistic power of the cinema (which it invokes in its masterful opening sequence, a recollection of silent-era city symphonies and the earliest of actualities). But on the other hand, it’s easy to see how, for a filmmaker like Denis, such a perspective is limiting, narratively regressive, or even hopelessly dogmatic. If Wenders’s camera is an angel with an all-seeing eye who wants only to empathize (and does so by spying on hot circus acrobats in their caravan dressing rooms), Denis's is at best an uncomprehending witness, but more often merely a recorder, a tool.
Far more than her predecessors and early collaborators, Denis views cinema as a means to record and not to interpret, to allow her subjects expression and especially presence to speak for themselves without overt narration. Whatever the influence—direct or indirect—of Denis's predecessors upon her work, the bold narrative and visual style she has deployed in all of her films since Chocolat suggest that hers is not, in Harold Bloom's term, an anxiety of influence, so much as a building upon, an extension of. Filmmakers like Rivette, de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Wenders, and Jarmusch seem to have given Denis a sense not only of how transnational filmmaking might be possible but also of how cinematic narrative's limits can be explored or exploded in the service of different kinds of themes, stories, and characters. Again, it’s crucial to note that while there are many aspects of these filmmakers' bodies of work that Denis shares, there are as many, if not more, themes that find little or no expression in her former employers' work: especially race, sexuality, and the primary importance of sensuality and the body. It is the centrality of these themes in Denis's own films that truly demonstrates her departure from her predecessors' works, and also drives her need to find new narratives, new modes of expression to account for this experience.