In the ranks of international arthouse auteurs, the status of Claire Denis is curiously ambiguous: depending on which lens you look through, she’s either among the most venerated or the most undervalued filmmakers working today. Ask the critical community, and you’ll leave very much with the former impression. Many writers, this one included, will heap her with lofty superlatives, “greatest working filmmaker” among them; in the last edition of Sight & Sound magazine’s famous decennial critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time, her hypnotic 1998 masterwork “Beau Travail” was one of just four films from the last 20 years to place in the top 100.
And yet, 30 years and 13 features into a career at once dauntingly consistent and thrillingly unpredictable, the diminutive 72-year-old Frenchwoman is held in curiously circumspect regard by her own industry. She has never won an award at Cannes, Venice or Berlin, with a Locarno Golden Lion for 1996’s “Nenette et Boni” her lone competition triumph in a major festival. She landed a coveted Competition slot in Cannes with her 1988 debut “Chocolat” — an impressive accomplishment that would usually bode for a glittering Croisette future, but hasn’t once been selected since. France’s Cesar Awards likewise haven’t come calling since granting her a Best Debut nomination.
The divide was made clearest at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, where her first English-language film, the daring, sensuous avant-garde sci-fi “High Life” scooped the Fipresci critics’ award for best in show; a Competition jury of industry luminaries headed by Alexander Payne, on the other hand, gave the film nothing.
Denis, brisk and bird-like in person, tends to take such matters in her stride: “To make a film is such a challenge, that to complain is a little bit difficult… you cannot make films and be sad because you’re not in competition at Cannes,” she shrugged to an LA Times interviewer last year, as her fans raged that her beguiling, Juliette Binoche-starring romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In” had once more got the cold shoulder from Thierry Fremaux’s selectors. (It went on to win Directors’ Fortnight.)
If not in the sense that Denis meant it, “challenge” is the operative word here: nothing about Denis’s work clamors for awards or easy acceptance. Even as her work varies wildly in tone and subject, she remains a committedly oblique sensualist, one who unfolds her narratives primarily through body, motion and tactile physical detail rather than traditional, dialogue-propelled storytelling and characterization. Neither is her work fey or esoteric, underpinned as it is by a fierce political point of view born of her upbringing in colonialist West Africa: strong-willed women and richly developed minority characters recur in her filmography, an antidote to the patriarchal conservatism of much French prestige cinema.
That was evident as early as “Chocolat,” her semi-autobiographical debut about the friendship between a white French settler girl and her parents’ black servant in colonial Cameroon. Piercing in its human irony and its unromanticised evocation of another time and place, it introduced themes of outsider identity that she has repeatedly revisited, twice again on African soil. In “Beau Travail,” a loose, angular riff on Melville’s “Billy Budd,” the memories of a French Legionnaire once stationed in Djibouti cue a fragmented, balletic, subtly queer exploration of masculine crisis and conflict, while in 2009’s mesmerizing post-colonial nightmare “White Material,” Isabelle Huppert’s French immigrant wrestles desolately for her place in the growingly hostile African country that she regards as home.
Her outsider sympathies are fluid and reversible. She sinks just as tenderly and perceptively into the world of immigrant communities in France in “No Fear, No Die,” “I Can’t Sleep” and, most achingly and exquisitely, “35 Shots of Rum”; “Nenette and Boni” chronicles a broken family with a wry, unsentimental eye. Even when her gaze is turned inward, it’s sympathetic and curious: her simplest and most uncomplicatedly lovely film, “Friday Night” studies a chance romantic connection between two middle-aged Parisians with a full-hearted understanding of the innate loneliness that binds us all.
Yet Denis alternates such silk-soft humanism with some of the most bracing, bruisingly experimental formalism in modern cinema. She shocked Cannes in 2001 with “Trouble Every Day,” an ice-cold, blood-hot erotic horror film in which sexual desire segues into cannibalism. We’ve since learned not to be surprised by her fierce radical streak, which has manifested in the cryptic philosophical jigsaw of “The Intruder,” the broken-glass revenge explosion of “Bastards” and, now, “High Life,” in which Denis’s outsider yen travels all the way to outer space, for a brilliantly ruptured, shivering dystopian study of sexual control and ultimate solitude.
If anyone thought Denis working in English and casting dreamboat Robert Pattinson in the lead meant she was going mainstream on us, they were rudely awoken at its polarizing Toronto premiere, which prompted mass walkouts and critical hosannas in equal measure. After staying uncompromisingly true to herself even in a far-out galaxy, it’d be unwise to guess where this most reliably uneasy of auteurs strays next.