Living in the Moment
Matt Connolly on Nénette et Boni

In the films of Claire Denis, a character’s geographic displacement—whether by external pressures or personal choice—often points to a more amorphous sense of emotional, social, or psychological dislocation. Characters arrive in unknown lands looking for economic security or personal fulfillment, only to have their internal insecurities and demons refracted back by their often entrancing yet essentially unknowable milieus. The impetuses for these physical journeys vary from large-scale sociocultural forces to intensely individuated pilgrimages, with the knotty linkages between the personal and political (particularly when dealing with the ambivalences of postcolonial racial and gender relations) never far from the foreground: a white woman’s indeterminate journey back to her childhood home in Cameroon (Chocolat, 1988); a Martinician musician’s struggle for familial harmony in Paris and desire to return to his homeland (I Can’t Sleep, 1994); a sickly Frenchman’s search for a forgotten son in Tahiti (L’Intrus, 2004). Regardless of plot particulars, however, the elliptical structures and startling aesthetic beauty of Denis’s films serve to link the viewer to the protagonists’ free-floating sense of unease and alienation as they sojourn in these enigmatic landscapes: revealing flashes of light, color, movement and music as viscerally enticing as they are contextually ambiguous.

In retrospect, then, Nénette et Boni (1996) seems at first like an odd-duck film for Denis. Though centered on the fragile and fraying bonds between siblings—a common enough theme in her work—the film’s characters never leave the Parisian environment into which they were born, shifting narrative tension away from cross-cultural disconnection and toward interpersonal disharmony based upon shared familial history. Racial and class complications exist mainly on the fringes of the frame, shading in our understanding of the film’s universe and its inhabitants while rarely directly affecting narrative action. With its emphasis upon the airing of long-festering family wounds over endemic social ills and use of subjective fantasy sequences for fairly straightforward narrative purposes, Nénette et Boni appears to lack both the open-ended cultural critique of her earlier works and the poetically fragmented emotional landscapes of her more recent films. An auteurist might (somewhat uncharitably if not without justification) view Nénette et Boni as a neither-this-nor-that transitional work, as she moved from lyrical, politically minded films as Chocolat or I Can’t Sleep toward the more abstruse and subjectively driven—if still socially conscious—Beau travail (1999) or L’Intrus.

But who wants to be an uncharitable auteurist? If not quite as formally or thematically adventurous as some of her work, Nénette et Boni nevertheless represents a lucid illustration of Denis’s formidable cinematic gifts: clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy for characters on the economic and social margins; distillation of complex internal thought and emotion through an enigmatic examination of the body in motion or in repose; suggestion of an unspoken—and perhaps unspeakable—past through an accumulation of small details and quiet gestures. Its modest scale and intimate feel only underscores the depth of lived-in emotional history that Denis is able to convey with notable economy and grace.

A sense of troubled history weighs heavily throughout Nénette et Boni, a weight felt all the more for Denis’s careful rationing of narrative information regarding the specifics of the eponymous siblings’ familial heartache. The viewer only becomes aware of Nénette (Alice Houri) and Boni’s (Grégoire Colin) blood relation almost half an hour into the film, when Nénette asks for Boni’s help after discovering that she’s pregnant and sneaking out of boarding school. If the depth of their estrangement is clear through their constant and often-vicious bickering, however, the reasons behind it remain legible but somewhat vague. Their parents’ divorce split the siblings, with Boni living with their now-deceased mother and Nénette going with their father (Jacques Nolot), who proceeded to ship her away to boarding school. Boni simmers with resentment toward both Nénette for ignoring their ailing mother as she grew ill and their father for largely unspecified reasons. While characters allude to this anguished history, Denis carefully elides narrative details—the nature and duration of their mother’s illness; the length of time between the parents’ divorce and the present—to frame the past as a silent and intractable force whose full burden can be privately felt but not publicly uttered to any productive end.

Instead, Denis suggests the lingering sting of these emotional scars through small, often silent moments, as when Nénette explores her deceased mother’s bedroom with poignant tentativeness: gently brushing her fingers against old sweaters still hanging in the closet and gazing at an old photograph tucked away on a shelf. This prompts one of the film’s only “flashbacks,” a grainy, silent shot of Boni smiling on the beach. Its brevity and washed-out aesthetic point to the fragile nature of her happier familial memories. Boni’s continual residence in his mother’s apartment—which has become a kind of squatter’s paradise for him and his friends—also hints at the extent to which her death has locked him in a kind of perpetual arrested development, the camera highlighting his physical restriction and claustrophobia as it follows him in medium close-ups through his bedroom or kitchen. (Denis is too smart a director to fall into the Freud-by-numbers traps that accompany such a symbolically charged setting, however, and defuses it through a wry and often funny evocation of cramped and semi-squalid twentysomething living: Boni’s pet rabbit defecating in the sink; an unnamed flatmate continually exiting his room precisely when private arguments are heating up outside.)

Moreover, Denis often employs her much-noted fascination with the body and sensuous, impressionistic visual style to convey the unspoken and sometimes startlingly tender relationship between brother and sister: their initial estrangement and cautious, halting quasi-reconciliation. When we first see Nénette and Boni, they are quite literally adrift—she floats alone in a pool, while he drives around in high-speed circles—separated from one another and immersed within their private, isolated spheres. Expressive, semi-abstracted imagery reflect their emotionally volatile yet disconnected daily experiences, with the camera alternately examining and caressing their bodies and surroundings (the vivid cinematography is by longtime collaborator Agnés Godard). The body often reveals more than anything in Denis’s films, with psychological unease expressed through the minute flexing of a muscle and emotional connection discovered in physical interaction. As Nénette and Boni warily begin to accept one another into their lives after she temporarily moves into his apartment, the camera’s candid, exploratory gaze widens to encompass their telling physical rapport. One memorable shot begins on Boni’s head and shoulders as he sleeps. The camera slowly pans leftward until we see both he and Nénette’s feet sticking out at the end of the bed, humorously divergent in size yet tellingly equivalent in position. One gets the sense that they used to sleep like this, back when they shared a roof and an intact set of parents. Later, Nénette comforts a shaken Boni by perching atop his chest as he lays in bed and spoon-feeding him a mysterious if presumably comforting lobster salad–like mixture (in an example of her typically superb eye for detail, Denis contrasts this intimate tableau with their father’s limp offer of lobster bisque later in the film).

For all Nénette et Boni’s exquisitely captured detail, Denis does not ignore the bigger picture. Rather than focusing upon the geographically and socially displaced, however, she weaves their experiences into the tapestry of her protagonists’ daily lives. The film’s first shot drops the viewer into a backroom deal between a sketchy seller of phony calling cards and his potential clients, who utilize a translator to express their justified concerns regarding the cards’ legitimacy. While not central to the plot, both the dealer himself and the effects of his scam ripple throughout the film in a tangential, at times slyly comic fashion (a social worker interrupts her meeting with Nénette to inquire as to why she’s being charged for mysterious calls to Ho Chi Minh City), underlining the closer-than-expected proximity between the localized narrative and Paris’ larger cultural and economic ails. It also defines both siblings’ lives by economic limitations and familiarity with the criminal underworld. Boni and his friends scarf down cheap fast food and sell black market fishing rods out of the back of their pizza truck for quick cash. Their father’s seemingly prosperous lifestyle, in turn, is funded by ill-defined connections with shady underworld types who eventually kill him in a random car shooting. The simultaneous brutality and banality of this moment—a shock cut to the father’s girlfriend splattered with blood and brains anticipates the grisly cannibal sequences of Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001)—frames the film’s milieu as a fairly callous one, and helps explain the combative, self-centered mindsets of both siblings in their interactions with one another and the wider world.

Nénette and Boni are a finely matched pair of emotionally damaged misfits, and the film does a fairly good job at connecting us with both their experiences: their shared melancholy as well as their individual immaturity and selfishness. In yet another example of Denis’s skill at filming the human specimen, the viewer is given a brief point-of-view shot from Nénette’s perspective as she gazes down at the curves and contours of her prostrate pregnant body. At once familiar and foreign, the image (given an amber glow by the blanket that she peers underneath) conveys the disorienting experience of recognizing the body’s mysterious and beautiful topography as it changes, seemingly independent of the individual’s awareness and understanding. Despite this and other telling character moments, however, Nénette et Boni ultimately feels like the latter’s story. Colin’s engaging mixture of aggressive braggadocio and hurt-puppy ennui helped cement his place within Denis’s circle of frequent collaborators, his reticent yet evocative on-screen presence dove-tailing nicely with her preference for minimalist acting style. Denis’s camera picks up subtle inflections of pride, confusion, and sorrow as they flick across his lean, alert features. Boni also offers a cleaner character arc than Nénette, as he moves from hormonal fantasies and dead-end employment as a pizza-cart worker to what appear to be flawed yet decisive steps toward maturation.

More than anything, however, it’s Boni’s connection to the woman simply known as the baker’s wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) that most powerfully illuminates the character’s—indeed, the film’s—rueful lament for a familial love perhaps eternally out of reach. When he initially sees her at work in the bakery, she’s little more to him than a sexual object: the subject of several graphic and overcooked seduction scenarios either described in extended, solitary monologue by Boni or illustrated via fragmentary fantasy sequences. Denis casts a bemused eye upon these assertions of adolescent erotic swagger, gently deflating Boni’s puffed-up bravado when, for example, he lasciviously inquires about purchasing a “nice, long French stick” from the baker’s wife at her place of business (“They’re all the same size,” she replies impassively). Furthermore, Boni’s lustful gaze is counteracted by Denis’s own eroticization of Colin, whose taut frame becomes the subject of many a languorous pan or gorgeously lit medium shot. These images are often beautiful in their own right, with Denis framing Colin’s chest and stomach in high-angled close-ups until they become a kind of sensual abstraction. Yet this focus upon Boni’s body once again calls viewer attention to the clumsy specifics of his retreat into infantilized sexual daydream, and underscores the physical isolation—the essential aloneness—of Boni’s fantasies. This melancholic undercurrent finally shoots to the surface when Boni unexpectedly runs into the baker’s wife and visits with her in a café. Through exhilaratingly patient and humanistic long takes, Denis captures the deeply ambivalent moment when Boni’s objectified idea crumbles to reveal—through her rambling, delighted, curious musings—the wife’s complex, commonplace humanity. (For an in-depth and appreciative analysis of this splendid scene, see Travis Mackenzie Hoover’s wonderful Reverse Shot essay here.)

Ultimately, Boni’s attraction to the baker’s wife has seemingly more to do with a conception of her domestic bliss than any concrete plan for erotic conquest. Two separate sequences completely break the viewer away from the principal narrative thrust of the film and provide candid peeks into the lives of the baker, Vincenzo (Vincent Gallo), and his wife: a flashback to a silent flirtation between the two as the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” wafts through the bakery; and an intimate slow dance between the two set to “Tiny Tears” by Tindersticks (whose members also wrote the film’s tranquil score). Denis does not make clear to what extent these images either run concurrently to the film’s narrative or exist in a kind of idealized fantasy space. The visual syntax for the slow dance sequence, for example, suggests that it’s Boni’s reverie, with “Tiny Tears” beginning as Boni walks down a city street, continuing as we cut to the moment between the couple, and ending with the viewer seemingly returning to Boni on the street as he stares at the baker’s wife through a store window. Regardless, these sequences stand apart for their overtly romantic and blissful feel, accentuated through lovely, lingering close-ups and basked soaring pop melancholy. (The flirtation scene, in particular, captures the stop-and-start rhythms and thrilling rush of burgeoning romantic connection.) Their ambiguous relationship to the rest of the narrative only increases the poignancy of the juxtaposition. They rest in some glowing, far-off place, where simple love and affection—romantic, physical, familial—rises above the muck of petty grievances and past sins.

This push-pull between hoped-for and actual reality is felt throughout Nénette et Boni, with characters unable to strive for the former without succumbing to the traps of the latter. Nénette is eventually freed of her unwanted maternal role, but remains uncertain as to what this newfound autonomy leaves her with. Boni, meanwhile, finally begins to move on from the past and embrace the possibilities of parenthood by claiming Nénette’s newborn. Of course, he does so by storming the hospital and grabbing the infant as he holds the nurse staff at gunpoint. Yet the viewer leaves Boni with a somewhat hopeful feeling. The images of he and the baby are typically Denisian in their emotionally ambiguous, vividly tactile understanding of human connection as formed through the physical. One of the film’s final shots shows the child pressed closely against Boni, the frame eliding most of Boni’s head to place the focus upon the squirming infant moving against his bare chest. The baby has just urinated on him, and Boni verbalizes this realization with a mixture of wonderment and tenderness. If that’s not affection in the world of Claire Denis, I don’t know what is.