Thursday, September 04, 2008

S'en fout la mort

1990, France, directed by Claire Denis

The opening of Claire Denis's second film points up, in striking ways, the gap between reality and aspiration: a hand-held camera combines with a soundscape that captures every scrape and scratch of opening doors and moving cages as a shady transaction takes place, while a voiceover provides insight into the mind of one of the main characters, a mind that wanders far beyond the gritty night-time scene. It's a strategy also employed to good effect by Abderrahmane Sissako, particularly in the opening of his film La Vie sur terre, where the disparity between a Parisian supermarket and a letter home to his father in Mali, read in voiceover, seems an unbridgeable gulf.

Denis's use of sound is especially interesting: it's as though the volume has been turned right up to emphasize the mundane, to further stress the contrast between the voiceover and the world on the screen. As the film progresses, Denis manages to extract a kind of poetry from that soundtrack, just as, later, she finds something hypnotically beautiful in the repeated work that her characters do with the fighting cocks that are at the heart of the film's narrative; there's a real tenderness to those interactions, but also a non-judgmental fascination, on the director's part, with work done by human hands (the scenes are as absorbing as those which depict more conventional artisanal talents in Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en hiver).

Denis's film is set on the margins in every possible sense: it takes place on Paris's southern fringe, near Rungis, the town best-known for its gigantic food market (blood-smeared butchers feature among the customers at the cock-fighting ring, though the audience is by no means restricted to working class spectators); its main characters exist on the fringes of the law; and the central duo, Dah (Isaach de Bankolé) and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) are from Benin and the French Antilles respectively, and thus cut off from their roots. Within the world of the film, their marginalization is often expressed by their silence; while we see them converse with one another, forming an almost brotherly bond, and we hear Dah's commentary in voiceover, they only rarely intervene when there are white characters present, with their boss (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) doing much of the talking on their behalf.

Given the set-up, it's not difficult to discern the likely direction of the story, but Denis is less interested in the narrative outcome than in creating a richly detailed portrait of the physical and psychological realities of her two central characters, and perhaps in challenging perceptions of what we deem to be culturally acceptable. At times, it feels as though we're watching a documentary about the underworld (both criminal and literal, since the two central characters live far beneath the ground), notwithstanding the presence of recognizable actors (de Bankolé, Descas and Brialy are all excellent, the latter mining an unpleasant vein not normally seen in his work), an underworld that's otherwise too easily ignored.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States