Monday, October 28, 2013

Put your love in me / Babe / I need you now and forever

         There are plenty of film artists who demand a more active spectator than conventional narrative cinema does. What makes Claire Denis a standout among them is the degree to which the spectator, in filling in for themselves some of the connective narrative tissue between her images, is actually assumed into the machinery of the movie. Of course, this is true to some extent for most movies--the process is called "suturing" in film theory--but the kind of suturing that takes place with a Denis movie is both more complex, and (if you're willing to roll with her languid rhythms and almost total eschewal of exposition) more intense. The viewer's input is an essential part of her movies' completeness as cinematic objects. If you're more inclined to stand back and view a movie as a tidily-constructed thing-in-itself, her stuff will probably frustrate the hell out of you. But she doesn't make "puzzle" movies. Each image in a Denis movie possesses an affective resonance that extends beyond whatever function it might serve when its narrative significance is gleaned. As she said in a recent interview, "When you have a little space, it’s not for the audience to think, it’s for it to GO with the film." If you're willing to GO with Denis's movies, they can take you to sublime places, as well as deeply unsettling ones. The degree of complicity an active spectator has in the construction of a Denis movie makes the ones where she delves into the dark side of human nature especially disturbing. Much of her work has a degree of darkness (e.g., I Can't Sleep (1994) involves a serial killer who targets the elderly, but the movie surrounding that plot thread is so colorful and vibrant that it bears no resemblance to a horror movie), but Trouble Every Day (2001) and her latest movie, Bastards (2013), can safely be categorized as her Dark Ones. Trouble Every Day (2001) takes what seems like an outlandish B-movie idea--that there exist people who are driven to commit acts of cannibalism when sexually excited--and grounds it in a realist conception of human desire, so that the dividing line between kissing someone and biting their face off becomes discomfitingly blurry. Bastards has been called a noir, and it has the shape of one: a convoluted story about the deviant horrors concealed behind the slick surfaces of upper-class normalcy; deep, dark shadows, deepest and darkest around the eyes of Michel Subor, the most iconic embodiment of pure evil I've seen in cinema in some time; a character (Chiara Mastroianni) who turns out to be something like a femme fatale; a palpable-at-every-second sense of moral rot. But what it really is, at bottom, is a cry of disgust that the structure of power capitalism has created enables the well-off to get away with all manner of depravity without repercussions. It's blunt in its intentions from the title on down, which has led to complaints that it lacks her usual grace and nuance. The contentious final scene, where Denis shows us a video recording of the sickening act (inspired by the most infamous scene in Faulkner's Sanctuary) that kicked off the plot, has been called gratuitous and an empty provocation. It doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already, and by ending things there, she leaves us both harrowed and unsatisfied. It will make most viewers feel like they've been had. But I don't think Denis simply wants to provoke. If provocation was the chief goal, she could have made it more explicit than it already is, and the shot choices less impressionistic (really, for an amateur recording, the scene sure looks an awful lot like a Claire Denis movie). And what of the attention paid in several shots to Lola Creton and Laurent Grevill's faces, which seem to register emptiness, resignation, and tenderness simultaneously? The scene is shocking, but it's not only shocking. Nonetheless, while Bastards contains nothing as hard to watch as a couple passages in Trouble Every Day (everyone who's seen it knows which I'm referring to), it is her bleakest, toughest, least forgiving piece of work. Trouble Every Day at least has a scene where Tricia Vessey cuddles a puppy.

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