NYFF Diary #4: Voilà l'enchaînement
In the films of Claire Denis, intimacy between people is a constant, insoluble problem. Her characters have to either structure their lives around avoiding the company of others (The Intruder), concentrate all their pent-up sexual energies into bursts of ritualized behavior (Beau Travail), devote themselves so fully to another person that they don't know how to share their beloved's attention (35 Shots of Rum), or, perhaps most dramatically, sublimate the urge to eat the one they love at the cost of showing any affection (Trouble Every Day). At the center of these films, for all their accumulated layers of allusion and meaning, stands the simple business of cohabitation: the difficulty of letting other people make claims on you, and—still harder—of figuring out which claims to make on them.
Of Denis’ previous films, the director’s new short Voilà l'enchaînement, which had its stealth U.S. premiere at a single New York Film Festival screening last week, is pitched most directly in response to 2002’s Friday Night. Like that film—an exquisite reverie about a one-off erotic encounter between two Parisians on a rainy winter night—it strips Denis’ cinema down to its three most basic elements: two lovers and a room. The older film, however, is one of Denis’ most unambiguously tender, while the new film—like Bastards, the ferociously bleak film noir she completed last year—is one of her bitterest and least open to the possibility of truly mutual erotic exchange. Its guiding thought is something like Henry James’ suggestion that the “sacred fount” of romantic satisfaction is “too much for a single share, but not enough to go round… One of the pair has to pay for the other.” The difference between Denis’ picture of coupledom and James’ is that, in the case of Voilà l'enchaînement, the lovers take turns “paying” scene by scene.
They are a Parisian couple with two children and one more on the way. He is black, she is white. She wounds him with sustained reproaches and needling accusations—of spying on her, of failing to follow through on his promises, of taking bread meant for her mother. He wounds her by leveling moral charges against her, her class, and her race.
One day, during one of their many fights, the police arrive. She accuses him—wrongly, as far as we can see—of striking her. During their next quarrel, he does. He is briefly imprisoned, and it is now, staring at the almost exclusively Arab and North African prisoners around him, he tells us that he’s come to see the depth of his county’s moral decrepitude. Soon, we move from him to her. By now, the movie has become a pair of monologues, and it’s in this unreconciled mode that it ends. There is nothing onscreen to distract us from the spectacle of this couple’s coming apart; the movie was shot, save for the rare appearance of a bed or a door, on a bare soundstage at Le Fresnoy-Studio national des arts contemporains, where Denis was teaching at the time.
At half an hour, Voilà l'enchaînement contains nearly as much dialogue as some of Denis’ features, and the script—by Christine Angot, a high-profile, controversial writer of “auto-fictions” and plays—sets the movie’s rhythm and tone in a way that the director’s previous screenplays rarely did. Denis’ camera, more so than that of almost any other contemporary filmmaker, needs the freedom to conduct its own movements without bending to the demands of dialogue and plot. At once unmoored and embodied, the camera drifts around its human subjects with more agility and grace than her subjects could ever hope to have—and yet the attitude it takes up towards them is essentially that of one desirous, sharp-sensed physical agent towards another.
No Fear No Die
It’s curious to see Denis, working closely with her miraculously gifted longtime DP Agnès Godard, adapt this style to what sounds on paper like filmed theater. The film’s dialogue is full, like any feuding couple’s conversations, of superfluities and repetitions, but it often feels redundant by performing a role very similar to that of the images. The tensions it somewhat bluntly describes—racial, social, interpersonal—are named with devastating clarity by the images themselves, which have a kind of confrontational directness new, at least in such a high dose, to Denis’ work. Each scene is short and agonizingly compressed, dominated by tight shots and direct addresses to the camera. This approach places an immense burden on the movie’s two actors, whose faces Denis often frames in unsparing close-ups. The result could well have been unbearable, if the actors in question—Norah Krief, a seasoned theater actress working with Denis for the first time, and Alex Descas, a fixture of the director’s work since his unforgettable performance in her second feature No Fear, No Die—hadn’t been so capable of holding up under her scrutiny.
The movie’s entire trajectory emerges in its first scene: Krief is caressing Descas’ clothed chest tenderly, imploringly, but with a mild nervous apprehension; you could imagine her teeth clenching at any second, her outstretched hand tightening into a fist. Repeatedly, she asks him to get her name tattooed on his body. He refuses each time. There’s something, he suggests to her, possessive about the idea, an unhealthy need on her part to own him—and, he continues, a trace of the impulse that once led whites to brand their slaves. (“I always wanted a stud,” she tells him later in the film, to which he responds with an extended monologue on the use of male slaves for sex: “That one’s a field slave. That one’s a house slave. Decapitate that one. That one’s a stud.”) The camera traces out the movement of her hand across his body, while, on the soundtrack, we hear the rustle of his shirt against her skin and his.
Who are these people? We never find out, exactly, and it’s unclear whether we need to. There’s a sense in which Denis has always been more concerned with her characters as they exist in relation to one another at this moment, right now—the friction of their bodies, the signals passing between them—than with their prior histories. And yet it’s her apparent lack of interest in what we might call “social background” that makes Denis such an effective observer of the ways class and race bleed into the texture of daily social interaction: the way one character’s blackness registers on the face of a white character in White Material, or how the sight of a beautiful young hotel maid rattles through the body of a middle-class man in Trouble Every Day.
Describing Denis as an observer of social phenomena risks making her sound, inaccurately, like an anthropologist. She’s often been called a “sensualist,” which is not much better. Occasionally—in the explicatory classroom scene on post-colonial Europe midway through 35 Shots of Rum, or in some of Voilà l'enchaînement’s monologues—Denis does have her characters speculate in theoretical terms about the social structures by which they’re bound. In her features, these passages often give the movie a kind of rhythmic stutter or jolt. The new film, on the other hand, is nearly all disruptions: a catalogue of discombobulating moments that might have been edited down from a rhythmically calmer, steadier movie. There’s less here for the dialogue to disrupt.
There’s another sense, however, in which the characters’ speeches give Denis the chance to take on a new mode of address. Voilà l'enchaînement is, at bottom, an angry, indignant picture of a country succumbing to a disease it’s unwilling to name, and Denis evidently wants to name it with no margin for ambiguity or error. The piercing, frontal close-ups with which the movie is peppered are aimed at us in a way even the most direct passages in Denis’ previous films were not: something is being taught to us, told to us, asked of us. But the primary appeal is being made, as always with Denis, visually: in the withering curl of Krief’s lips or the way the harsh spotlights of the soundstage bounce of Descas’s eyes. In a film saturated with spoken words, the most critical might be the voilà of the title, or the phrases—all variations on “now I understand”—that Descas repeats after his prison stint with awful incantatory power. Naming a sickness, for Denis, means giving an audience an open invitation to come and see it for themselves.