Claire Denis comes up with her emotionally richest pic to date in “Nenette and Boni,” a multilayered look at unformed teen emotions and the mysterious, almost invisible ties that bind siblings. Limited arthouse distribution is not out of the question for this tough-but-tender item from the French helmer, still best known for her cool, classically shot 1988 debut, “Chocolat.” Pic was the top award winner at the Locarno fest.
Set in Marseille, the film separately intros Nenette (Alice Houri) and Boni (Gregoire Colin), the first a quietly rebellious 15-year-old at a boarding school, the second a cocksure 19-year-old pizza chef who has wet dreams about a local baker’s sexy wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi). Only when Nenette skips school and turns up at Boni’s apartment one day is it made clear the pair are estranged brother and sister.
Boni reluctantly takes the sulky Nenette in, only to hear she’s pregnant seven months, it turns out, despite the lack of any major bulge. She’s also being sought by her no-good father, Felix, who has learned of her disappearance and wants to help.
Thereon, pic basically charts the kids’ wary relationship as each faces the consequences of the child-to-be. Nenette, still a minor and way past the limit for an abortion, is given the option of an anonymous “Jane Doe” birth in which the baby will be legally given away; Boni, initially against the birth, slowly wises up to his fraternal responsibilities, as well as the realities of his fantasy sex life.
In a change of tack from her previous pics, Denis adopts a patchwork of styles that gives the movie an irreal, highly metaphysical flavor. Frequently shooting in tight closeups that put the emphasis on the thesps’ faces, helmer moves from restless, almost documentary-like camerawork, through idealized dream sequences (for Boni’s sex dreams) to more conventionally shot sequences.
This impressionistic approach may not be to the liking of those who favor regular character development and clear answers. Denis and co-scripter Jean-Pol Fargeau often supply information only after the event, and the pic studiously avoids any judgment of the characters’ actions. Binding everything together, however, is the superb musical score, which gives the pic a dreamy, often magical feel that precisely captures the floating emotions of her young protagonists and raises potentially grungy, downbeat material to an often intoxicating level.
Reuniting the leads of her 1994 telepic “U.S. Go Home” (in the young-love series that also spawned Andre Techine’s “Wild Reeds”), Denis draws good playing from both Colin and Houri as the blank-faced young dreamers. As the object of Boni’s peeping-Tom desires, the more mature Bruni-Tedeschi brings some light and air to the otherwise claustrophobic pic, notably in a key scene when she and Boni accidentally meet and she reveals herself as a prattling airhead.
Other credits are all pro, with Agnes Godard’s varied lensing especially notable. Pic won best film, actor (Colin) and actress awards (Bruni-Tedeschi) in the Locarno competition.