Claire Denis

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Claire Denis
Claire Denis 66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra) 2.jpg
Born (1946-04-21) 21 April 1946 (age 75)
Paris, France
Alma materIDHEC
OccupationDirector, writer, professor

Claire Denis (French: [dəni]; born 21 April 1946)[1] is a French film director and writer. Her feature film Beau Travail (1999) has been called one of the greatest films of the 1990s.[2][3] Other acclaimed works include Trouble Every Day (2001), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009) and High Life (2018).

Her work has dealt with themes of colonial and post-colonial West Africa, as well as issues in modern France, and continues to influence European cinematic identity.[4]

Early life[edit]

Denis was born in Paris, but raised in colonial French Africa, where her father was a civil servant, living in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, French Somaliland, and Senegal.[5] Her childhood spent living in West Africa with her parents and her younger sister colored her perspective on certain political issues. Their father told them that independence from France would be a good thing for these colonies.[6] It has been a strong influence on her films, which have dealt with colonialism and post-colonialism in Africa.[7] Her father moved with the family every two years because he wanted the children to learn about geography.

Growing up in West Africa, Denis used to watch the old and damaged copies of war films sent from the United States. As an adolescent she loved to read. Completing the required material while in school, at night she would sneak her mother's detective stories to read.[8] At age 12, Denis was diagnosed with polio and returned to France for treatment. She lived in Sceaux, a suburb of Paris, for the rest of her teenage years.[9] During her time in France, she felt unfit for living in France. She was educated for a life in Africa, and felt completely different from everyone around her.[10]

In 1969, Denis married a photographer she met at the age of 15, after being hired as his assistant. Due to the complex nature of having him in her private life but also as her teacher, they divorced soon after.[11]


Denis initially studied economics, but, she has said, "It was completely suicidal. Everything pissed me off."[8] She studied at the IDHEC, the French film school, with her husband's encouragement. He told her she needed to figure out what she wanted to do.[8] She graduated from the IDHEC and since 2002 has been a professor of film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.[12]

Before applying and being accepted into IDHEC, she worked as an intern at Télé Niger. After telling everyone that she wanted to apply to IDHEC, they told her, "no, don’t waste your time studying, all you need to do is make films here with us".[8]

Her feature film directorial debut Chocolat (1988), a semi-autobiographical meditation on African colonialism, won her critical acclaim. It was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and praised by critics and audiences as a remarkable first film.

With films such as US Go Home (1994), Nénette et Boni (1996), Beau Travail (1999),[13] set in Africa; Trouble Every Day (2001), and Vendredi soir (2002), Denis established a reputation as a filmmaker who "has been able to reconcile the lyricism of French cinema with the impulse to capture the often harsh face of contemporary France."[13] She returned to Africa with White Material (2009), set in an unidentified country during a civil war.

Denis is a highly collaborative filmmaker, saying in an interview, "the film becomes a relationship...and that is what's important, the relationship."[14] The importance of collaboration can be seen throughout her work. She often recasts actors in multiple films, most notably Alex Descas, who has worked with Denis 11 times from 1990 to 2017, and Isaach de Bankolé who appeared in three of her films from 1988 to 2009. Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Juliette Binoche and Grégoire Colin have also appeared in multiple Denis films. She often collaborates with screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, composer Stuart Staples, and cinematographer Agnès Godard, whom she met in the 1970s at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques.[14] Asked about her screenwriting process, Denis said, "I often realize I have Isaach or Grégoire or someone else in mind" when writing scenes. She has also said that usually she "hold[s] no auditions" for casting her films.[14]

Her collaboration goes beyond her own films, as she has appeared in other directors' films, such as Laetitia Masson's En avoir (1995) and Tonie Marshall's Vénus beauté (1999). She shares screenwriting credit with Yousry Nasrallah for his film El Medina (2000).[15] She also worked as an assistant director with Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), and with Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986).

In 2005, she was a member of the jury at the 27th Moscow International Film Festival.[16] In 2011, she was a member of the jury at the Deauville American Film Festival.

In 2006, she directed the video for the song “Incinerate” by the band Sonic Youth, from their album Rather Ripped.

Her 2013 film Bastards was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.[17] Also that year, she was awarded Stockholm Lifetime Achievement Award at the Stockholm Film Festival.

Denis announced in 2015 that she was partnering with Zadie Smith for her English-language debut film, High Life. Smith eventually left the project, causing a delay in filming. Denis went on to work on Let the Sunshine In, which starred Juliette Binoche and was released in 2017.

In 2018 Denis completed and released High Life, her first English-language feature film, with Robert Pattinson cast as the lead.[18] The film premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It was later given a limited release in the U.S. by American indie distributors A24. It was positively reviewed by many notable critics.[19][20]

Denis has been a member of multiple film festival boards, starting with the Venice Film Festival board in 2005. In 2019, she was the president of the board of the Cinéfondation and short films at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2020, she was the president of the board of the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival.


Most of Denis's oeuvre uses location work rather than studio work. She sometimes places her actors as if they were positioned for still photography. She uses longer takes with a stationary camera and frames things in long shot, resulting in fewer close ups. But Denis's cinematic and topical focus always remains relentlessly on her protagonists' faces and bodies. The subject's body in space, and how the particular terrain, weather, and color of the landscape influence and interact with the human subjects of her films maintains cinematic dominance.

Tim Palmer explores Denis's work as a self-declared formalist and brilliant film stylist per se, an approach Denis has declared many times in interview to be as much about sounds, textures, colors and compositions as broader thematic concerns or social commitments.[21]

According to the Australian James Phillips, when making her films, Denis rejects the marketable conventions of Hollywood cinema and frees the viewers of her films from the expectations of clichés.[22]

Denis combines history with personal history, giving her films an autobiographical element.[23] This superimposition of the personal with the historical allows her films to be described as auteur cinema.[24] She has worked in many genres, from horror (Trouble Every Day, 2001) to romance and drama (Friday Night, 2002).[25] While critics have noted recurring themes in her films, Denis says she has no coherent vision of her career "trajectory".[26]

Denis has said that she does not concern herself with the theory behind cinema when she makes her films: "I am not at all interested in theories about cinema. I am only interested in images and people and sound... Film theory is just a pain in the ass."[27] She focuses on "human" stories, no matter the setting of the film. Denis has said she does not aim to bring about radical social change or to make the viewer feel better: "I’m not so sure films should be made to soothe people’s pain. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to share something that is a vision, or a feeling." Her films' main focus is always on the characters, frequently in moments of intense anger, violence, and emotion. "Anger is part of my relation to the world," she has said. "I’m filled with anger, I’m filled with regret, I’m filled with great memories, also poetic memories."[28]

Denis has said that the body is "central" to her work, and often uses skin, blood, and other bodily fluids to symbolize characters' feelings, as well as highlight relationships between them. In Chocolat, skin is photographed prominently to accentuate the difference between the subservient and degrading nature of the dark-skinned Proteè's forced outdoor bathing and the shameless confidence of pale, white Luc, who chooses to do so. In Trouble Every Day and High Life, bodily fluids are a central to the stories, creating visceral disturbing images, and highlighting the films' "sexuality".

Denis has directed a wide variety of films that span most known genres in her 30-year career, but she is known for bending a genre's rules, often not obeying traditional rules of pacing or cinematography for established genres like horror, science fiction, and fantasy, focusing instead on the characters, their psyches, emotions and relationships. Though she does make horror movies and romantic comedies and dramas, Denis has never been concerned with making the scariest, funniest, or most heart-breaking films; she is only interested in telling the human story.

Denis chooses the titles of her films carefully. Noëlle Rouxel-Cubberly argues that titles are intended to force the viewer to rethink a film's imagery and that Denis uses them to describe the raw reality of her films. For example, the title of Chocolat simultaneously refers to a racist term used during the period of the film, the cocoa exportation from Africa to Europe through a slave system, and the 1950s French expression "être chocolat", meaning "to be cheated."[29]

Denis is also known for "shooting fast, editing slowly". In general, she does a few takes on set and spends most of her time in the editing room, creating the film there. This post-production process often involves rearranging scenes out of the order in the script. For example, she placed the dance in Beau Travail at the end of the film though it was not at the end of the script. Of this process, Denis has said, "I'm always insecure when I'm making a film. I have doubts about myself but rarely about the actors."[30]


Feature films[edit]

Short films[edit]

Documentary films[edit]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Festival Award Film Result
1988 Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Chocolat Nominated
1989 César Awards César for Best First Feature Film Nominated
1994 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema FIPRESCI Prize – Special Mention Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge... Won
1996 Locarno International Film Festival Golden Leopard Nenette and Boni Won
1996 Locarno International Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention Won
1996 Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film Golden Bayard for Best Artistic Contribution Won
1996 Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film Golden Bayard for Best Film Nominated
1998 Independent Spirit Awards Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film Nominated
2000 Berlin International Film Festival Reader Jury of the "Berliner Zeitung" – Special Mention Beau Travail Won
2001 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film Nominated
2001 Rotterdam International Film Festival KNF Award – Special Mention Won
2001 Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film Golden Bayard for Best Film Trouble Every Day Nominated
2001 Sitges - Catalan International Film Festival Best Film Nominated
2004 Ghent International Film Festival Grand Prix The Intruder Nominated
2004 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Nominated
2009 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion White Material Nominated
2011 National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film 3rd place


  1. ^ "Claire Denis". Les Gens du Cinéma (in French). 9 July 2013. Retrieved 19 February 2014. This site uses Denis' birth certificate as its source of information.[according to whom?]
  2. ^ twhalliii (22 December 2009). "The Best Films Of The Decade (2000-2009) | #9 Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum". IndieWire. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  3. ^ Sharf, Christian Blauvelt,Eric Kohn,Anne Thompson,Kate Erbland,David Ehrlich,Chris O'Falt,Jude Dry,Tom Brueggemann,Bill Desowitz,Tambay Obenson,Michael Nordine,Zack; Blauvelt, Christian; Kohn, Eric; Thompson, Anne; Erbland, Kate; Ehrlich, David; O'Falt, Chris; Dry, Jude; Brueggemann, Tom (26 February 2019). "The 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women". IndieWire. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
  4. ^ "Film Museum - Claire Denis".
  5. ^ Hermione Eyre, "Claire Denis on filmmaking and feminism," Prospect, 21 June 2010, [1]
  6. ^ "Claire Denis". The European Graduate School. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  7. ^ Beugnet, Martine (2004). Claire Denis, p. 8. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York. ISBN 0-7190-6481-3.
  8. ^ a b c d Ancian, Aimé (2002). "Claire Denis: An Interview". Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on 18 October 2006. Retrieved 26 November 2006.
  9. ^ "Chocolat (1988; Dir. Claire Denis) Film Guide & Resources". Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  10. ^ Jenkins, Barry (16 April 2019). "Claire Denis Talks to Barry Jenkins About Director Anxiety and Expectations". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  11. ^ "Interview: Claire Denis". Film Comment. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  12. ^ "Claire Denis Faculty Page at European Graduate School (Biography, bibliography and video lectures)". European Graduate School. Archived from the original on 24 October 2010. Retrieved 27 October 2010.
  13. ^ a b Taylor, Charles (31 March 2000). "Beau Travail". Retrieved 13 June 2006.
  14. ^ a b c Ratner (2010). "Moving Toward the Unknown Other"
  15. ^ Mayne, Judith (2005). Claire Denis, p. 132. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. ISBN 0-252-02991-7.
  16. ^ "27th Moscow International Film Festival (2005)". MIFF. Archived from the original on 3 April 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  17. ^ "2013 Official Selection". Cannes. 30 April 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  18. ^ Bramesco, Charles (10 September 2018). "High Life review – orgasmic brilliance in deepest space with Robert Pattinson". The Guardian.
  19. ^ Bradshaw, Peter (8 May 2019). "High Life review – Robert Pattinson heads for infinity and beyond | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  20. ^ Seitz, Matt Zoller. "High Life movie review & film summary (2019) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  21. ^ Palmer, Tim (2011). Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, Wesleyan University Press, Middleton CT. ISBN 0-8195-6827-9.
  22. ^ Phillips, James (2008). Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, p. 3. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 978-0-8047-5800-0.
  23. ^ Reis, Levilson (2013). "An 'other' scene, an 'other' point of view: France's colonial family romance, Protée's postcolonial fantasy, and Claire Denis' 'screen' memories." Studies in European Cinema, 10, 2–3, pp. 119–131, p. 122.
  24. ^ Beugnet, Martine (2004). Claire Denis, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York. ISBN 0-7190-6481-3.
  25. ^ Beugnet, Martine (2004). Claire Denis, p. 2. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York. ISBN 0-7190-6481-3.
  26. ^ Beugnet (2004). Claire Denis, p. 2
  27. ^ Carew, A. (2019). Claire denis. Screen Education, (96), 84-97
  28. ^ Kiva Reardon, ‘“Anger Is Part of My Relation to the World”: An Interview with Claire Denis’, cléo, vol. 1, issue 3, Fall 2013, available at <>
  29. ^ Block, Marcelline (2008). Situating the Feminist Gaze and Spectatorship in Postwar Cinema, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne. ISBN 978-1-84718-664-5.
  30. ^ Ratner, Megan (Winter 2010). "Moving Toward the Unknown Other: An Interview with Claire Denis," Cineaste Magazine
  31. ^ "ARTE France Cinéma coproduit les prochains films de Claire Denis, Ritesh Batra, Hiner Saleem et Xavier Dolan | ARTE PRO - Professionnels de l'audiovisuel".
  32. ^ June, Sophia (4 November 2021). "Joe Alwyn Joins Margaret Qualley in A24 & Claire Denis' 'The Stars At Noon'". Nylon. Retrieved 24 November 2021.

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