Last February, I went to a screening of a film I love, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. In Jeanne Dielman, a middle-class Belgian single mother and part-time prostitute (she stays at home for that, too) spends two-hundred minutes doing dull housework and then stabs one of her clients to death with scissors. It’s a long haul. Frame by frame, tension expands to fill Jeanne’s salmon-drab kitchen and underwater-blue living room like an invisible poison gas. Jeanne Dielman is an entirely consuming experience, or would have been, if the woman next to me had refrained from repeatedly opening her phone, thereby emitting white light, and sending text messages, thereby emitting soft beeps. I tried to give her dirty looks, but the light was insufficient to illuminate my glare.
Phones are in museums. They are in libraries and in classrooms. But there’s something more offensive about a phone in a movie theater, even more offensive than in a theater-theater. It must be because movie theaters have a kind of cemetery quality—you’re there to commune with absent or departed spirits. People ought to be able to get away from ringtones when they’re dead.
People used to fret about the “masses” using the movies as “escapism.” It is actually supremely difficult to escape into a movie. The impulse to send texts during a movie, or the power of the smallest square of light to distract everyone in a six-seat vicinity, is proof of this. Besides: escape from what? Into what? When I watch movies, I have a running internal monologue of thoughts like, “What would I do if I had to clean all day?” or “Do I look that good when I smoke?” The human brain does not turn off so easily. The drive to identify with narrative, to insert oneself into the story, the basic desire to be in that story, is boundless. That’s not escapism, that’s participation. And even if you can stop identifying, you’re still thinking—if not of something else, then at least of something also. As Chris Fujiwara has written, in a piece called “The Force of the Useless,” “it’s impossible to concentrate entirely on a film or on one’s self.”
The whole point of going to the movies in the first place is to experience this slide. It’s to have the freedom to be thinking in tandem with the film—really, to be thinking at all. At home, it is nearly impossible not to interrupt viewing—to pause, to get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, to check email, yes, to send a text. In the theater you are captive, or you should be, and so your mind ranges more freely, because it traverses the same course, bouncing against those images, again and again, back and forth, until it arrives at last at someplace new.
French filmmaker Claire Denis is a master at creating this state of cognitive oscillation. It has something to do with what her movies are about, but it has more to do with how they are put together. Take, as a counter-example, Park Chan-Wook’s recent vampire-action-romantic comedy-horror picture Thirst, which opened in New York in 2009 a few months before Denis’s latest American release, 35 Shots of Rum. Park specializes in a kind of stylized perfection that makes you hold your breath for fear of getting something dirty. In Thirst, he creates a pristine white room for the purposes of splattering it artfully with blood. The sequence is as beautiful, and cold, as deep space. You watch it as if through a pane of glass.
Denis’ films are the opposite—they are permeable. Their energy is a recognizably human energy, fueled by the intensity, drive, musculature, and posture of bodies, by how they move. Even her landscapes—dusty roads, frozen snowy expanses, the jungles of Tahiti—are suffused with the sense of being looked at. They seem to absorb the gaze rather than reflect it back blindly.
Denis works with cinematographer Agnès Godard (no relation to Jean-Luc), and their pictures tend to be warm and lush. There is no single Denis style—the camera might be rough and hand-held, a little bit like Cassavetes (1990’s No Fear No Die); it might wander sensually (1997’s Nénette & Boni). In Chocolat (1988), it hardly moves at all; scenes open on principals in clusters of two or three like they are posing for picture postcards. Nor does she stick to one genre. What she has is a rhythm and certain thematic commitments. My favorites of her films—Chocolat, No Fear No Die, Beau Travail (2000), Trouble Every Day (2001), 35 Shots of Rum—whether set in French Cameroon or in a basement cockfighting ring, whether about legionnaires or sex cannibals, are dramas about families or people living together in close quarters. She is particularly drawn to the legacy of colonialism and in giving an inside look at those, often black French people, who are elsewhere caricatured as “outsiders.”
Denis is especially receptive to three things: human bodies (especially when they are semi-nude, and especially black touching white skin); bodies of water; and transit. Several of her films open with shots of bodies of water and end with close-ups of human figures. The most remarkable of her last shots comes without question in Beau Travail: Dennis Levant’s sadistic, repressed, rageful legionnaire Galoup, clad all in black in an empty black room, disco dancing alone to the ‘90s dance hit “Rhythm of the Night.” People talk about this ending like it’s a climax—in the New York Times, Stephen Holden described it as a “frenzied Dionysian release.” It is, sort of. Galoup is exploding. But it’s not disco heaven; it’s disco limbo. Levant’s frenzy has the feeling of being suspended out of time, somewhere beyond the laws of cause and effect. He’s practicing for more practice. In Denis, what we are waiting for is often to see how the next waiting will look.
Even when psychotic—even when they are drag queens who murder old ladies—Denis’ characters radiate calm self-possession. We know how they feel based on how they open or close their eyes, and they tend not to speak very much. The couple in Friday Night (2002) interrupts their tryst to have dinner at an Italian restaurant, but they spend the meal gazing at each other, looking at the food, fantasizing—doing anything but having a conversation. Quietness is a moral virtue in her world, part of an ethic and aesthetic of restrained power. She is obsessed with male bodies of the strong, silent type. Denis has worked repeatedly with the same actors, notably Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, and Isaach De Bankolé. Colin is sexy, rangy, but not exactly handsome. He always seems a little trembly, like he’s got a finger stuck in a running faucet, and the faucet is his emotions, and the finger is his face. De Bankolé is fierce and self-possessed and a little scary. If Colin is water, De Bankolé is fire, or steam. He simmers. Descas is, simply, the best-looking actor on the planet. But his features almost never move. His face is like a mountain where occasional little cracks of light or water poke through. He acts with his posture and his weight as much as with his eyes.
You only realize just how still these men are when the occasional chatterbox shows up. Towards the end of 35 Shots, we meet a German woman played by Ingrid Caven, who seems to have wandered in from the set of In a Year of 13 Moons, the last movie she made with Fassbinder, thirty years ago. She writhes against a high-backed burnt orange sofa and enunciates like an aged Hollywood star. She rambles about her fear of the sea. “So vast, so wide . . . and when you scream, no one hears you.” It’s a totally jarring encounter. Denis’ protagonists are more likely to blow cigarette smoke or throw back a drink than to make confessions.
Denis is deeply attuned to the rituals of cohabitation, how people cook and clean and pour things. Chores become regimes. Training is a main interest, and not just in Beau Travail, with its yellow scenes of sweaty legionnaires scurrying under barbed wire, swinging from bars and doing push-ups in the desert. Jocelyn (Descas) training his cockfighters in No Fear No Die, Jo (Mati Diop) chopping garlic and precisely spooning out rice in 35 Shots—it’s all part of the same solitary discipline. People are always bathing in her movies. Sometimes they give other people sponge baths.
These are the rituals of caretaking, and they carry the action. On the first viewing of Trouble Every Day, for instance, you may think that it’s a movie about sex cannibals. This is wrong. The second time you see Trouble Every Day, you realize it is actually a movie about marriage—about what two people can and cannot share, about love and tenderness and forgiveness, waiting around, cleaning up other people’s messes. On this second viewing, you also realize that the most disturbing scene in the movie is not when Vincent Gallo’s character literally eats a hotel maid while performing oral sex on her. The most disturbing scene is when the newlywed Browns (Gallo is the husband), so brutally ensconced in their embrace, so cloaked in their intimacy, ignore that same maid when they enter their room for the first time, treating her like one more piece of furniture, without eyes to see or ears to hear.
No one can pay attention to every frame of a movie, anymore than anyone could truly be absorbed by every word of a novel for hours on end with no breaks. A good narrative gives you some breathing room, opportunities to go in and out, to look up and away. Absorption is only possible if it is porous; otherwise we would call it strangulation.
Art trains perception. It works by signaling what is important and what can be ignored or forgotten. This is a skill we need to live, and one that the many people I see with hands fused to their camera phones, who indiscriminately photograph their friends, themselves, and their food, are clearly confused about. I sympathize. Self-surveillance is not just about vanity. It’s motivated by fear, a fear that we will not know which things we are living through will turn out to be the ones that mattered. So we take photos of all of them, just in case.
All of Denis’s films prominently feature views from vehicles moving through landscapes or cities. Are they breathing space, signposts that we are on a momentary vacation from meaning? Or are they in fact the meaning itself? Sometimes, as in Friday Night, half of which takes place inside a car creeping through Paris during a metro strike, they aren’t more important than “what happens”—driving is what happens. Sometimes, as in Chocolat, they are triggers to a flashback. Sometimes they are simply prettier than anything else. In 35 Shots we get mesmerizing shots of the tracks along which Lionel (Descas) drives his train. We get them in gray clear skies; in sunlight, with splotches of yellow crowding the window; at night, with apartment windows lit, twinkling like picture frames of photos of more night. The driving is a break, a chance to meditate as Lionel does, to imagine and daydream and remember, like he does. Denis knows that what is beautiful about a view is usually that you are leaving it, and that what you’re doing as you leave is usually taking stock.
Fujiwara has praised cinematic boredom. But boredom can be oppressive or dominating. It tends to be about endurance and submission—the brutally long take, the exhausting slow pan, the excruciatingly slow zoom. When a film is boring it bores with its whole soul. The only Denis film that is properly boring—and this is no condemnation, but simple phenomenological fact—is The Intruder (2005). It is no coincidence that The Intruder is her most difficult film to follow. One is bored when one does not know what is happening. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes of a child who remarked that his mother did not permit him to be bored. When Phillips asked what would happen if he were to become bored, he replied, “panic-stricken” at the thought, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking forward to.” Boredom threatens the self by eroding its ability to make sense of nonsense.
It’s a feeling adjacent to terror. Which is why the right word to describe Denis’ effect, and technique, is not boredom—it’s reverie. Reverie is not at all related to panic. It has no anxiety. It’s imagination, distraction. When Kracauer wrote on the distraction of German film palaces of the 1920s and ‘30s, the word he used was Zerstreuung, which has connotations of fragmentation, decay, vaporization. Denis is not interested in distraction as decay. Her films induce a private experience, an ongoing, associative process of identification and reflection.
Reverie ricochets against fixation. The most gripping scenes in Denis’s movies are dances. Sometimes these are club scenes—the group of neon-clad African women gyrating in the dark disco in Beau Travail—but they’re often focused around couples dancing at home or in some other private place. It helps that she chooses perfect diegetic music. In an unforgettable sequence in No Fear No Die, Jocelyn, who raises cockfighting roosters, circles in the training ring with a new bird. They go round and round, Jocelyn intently baiting the rooster with a soft toy. When his business partner (De Bankolé) changes the music to “Buffalo Soldier,” Jocelyn softens, sweeping the rooster into his arm and swaying in circles, his eyes closed. This is a crowded movie with a rusted and aquamarine color palette shot with a slightly shaky camera filled with horrible sounds—slamming doors, flapping wings, screeching birds, car horns, men’s shouts. Even its silences are portentous. Descas caressing his rooster as they dip to the sound of Bob Marley brings everything to a complete stop. I said before that you can’t ever turn your brain off while watching a movie, but I should have said that brains can only be turned off for short spells. This is one such spell. When Descas picks up that rooster, you stop thinking about yourself; it’s like you have been emptied out and for just a few seconds are only in the presence of Descas. Two scenes later the men are in a nightclub, with flashing lights in primary colors. Descas dances with a young white woman with long brown hair, burying his face in her shoulder. When she pulls back he stares at her as if seeing her for the first time, as if disappointed to realize that she is not his rooster, and walks out.
The oldest meaning of reverie is not, in fact, daydream. It is not related to one’s mental state at all. The first meaning of “reverie” was uncontrolled behavior; a fit of fury; wild joy or delight—maybe something like Levant’s dance. Denis has said that her shy actors express themselves in dance. But it feels more like they take shelter in it. In I Can’t Sleep (1994), Camille (Richard Courcet) and Theo (Descas again) both dance with their mother at her birthday party, cutting in on each other. Denis shoots them close, but it takes a few seconds for them to work their way into the frame and become the center. They emerge out of this fabric of brightly colored dresses, chattering family, an old sofa. Minutes later, Daiga, a Latvian immigrant (Yekaterina Golubeva), gets sloshed on white wine with the jolly female hotelier who has taken her in, and they slow dance to “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
In the most intense sequence in 35 Shots, the protagonists dance in a tidy, warm café that a glamorous woman with long braids in a silk maroon wrap opens just for them on a rainy night. The first song to come on is Ralph Thamar’s “Siboney,” a contemporary, crooning rendition of an old bolero love song by a popular vocalist from Martinique. Then, smoothly, Denis switches registers. The romantic nostalgia of piano and rose petals gives way to a sweaty, intense modernity. The music is “Nightshift,” by the Commodores. As Lionel moves with his daughter, and her sort-of boyfriend cuts in on them, the dancing becomes a way of making the restaurant into a home, of creating a family. But ultimately, of course, they can only remake the same relationships they had when they walked in. The scene is so intimate that it hurts to watch. It’s composed of beautiful people looking at each other and away from each other, cuts on single faces or couples—a lover limping with frustrated desire; a father looking frankly at, then turning away from, his daughter’s passion; the open disappointment of Lionel’s ex when he seizes the hand of the café owner, who stares at him with eyes that I don’t know how to describe other than to say that they look like they are inhaling.
I would say that this scene short-circuits reverie like the rooster dance in No Fear No Die, but that’s only partially true, because the last time I watched it, I cried. I think crying at a movie is never about sympathy. It’s about yourself. It’s about wanting to have what the movie has, especially if that thing is something sad. It’s an expression of the desire for total identification, frustration at the fact of being a viewer at all. If there was really such a thing as escapism, if you could flee the reverie altogether and join with the movie, there wouldn’t be anything to cry about.