With this month-long and pretty exhaustive retrospective of the films of Claire Denis, Arsenal pays an exciting homage to arguably France’s best living female director. The retrospective opens on October 1 with a special screening of White Material, Denis’ latest and haunting film about modern Africa, which stars Isabelle Huppert as a (white) coffee farmer in Africa obstinately holding on to her plantation despite political meltdown and rampant violence.
This is a ‘don’t miss’ not only because the 62-year-old director will be present to discuss the film and her 22-year career (she was a late bloomer, directing her first feature at 40), but also because this is arguably one of her best films and it still hasn’t found a distributor in Germany (unlike everywhere else, from the UK and Sweden to Russia). So this might well be a one-off opportunity!
Also set in west Africa (where Denis, the daughter of a civil servant, grew up) are her famous début Chocolat (October 3 and 17, 19:00) and Beau travail (Good Work; October 10, 21:00 and October 22, 20:00), an existential foray into human competitiveness set in the French Foreign Legion. Loosely inspired by Melville’s Billy Budd, and choreographed around male bodies (literally) overexposed in the desert of Djibouti’s leaden temperatures – it oozes mesmerizing, explorative beauty.
But Denis has also recorded the texture of contemporary France’s street and working-class life like no one before (I Can’t Sleep; Nenette and Boni, October 15, 21:00 and October 23, 20:00; 35 Shots of Rum, October 16, 21:00 and October 30, 20:00).
Each film is marked by the distinctive obliqueness of Denis’ gaze – “We are always seeing something through someone else’s eyes” – upon her characters and the world they move in. Denis’ world is a ‘chemical’ world, a place where people are not motivated by reason but often indefinable desires (sometimes violent ones) from the sweaty wrestling in Beau travail, to the serial killing in I Can’t Sleep (October 16, 19:00 and October 20, 21:00) or the cannibalism of Trouble Every Day (October 9 and October 14, 20:00), to the murderous rampages in White Material.
A dozen films in all, including documentaries (mainly portraits of her own heroes, from Jacques Rivette in The Watchman, to Mathilde Monnier in Towards Mathilde), each preceded by the screening of one or more shorts.
FREMD KÖRPER: CLAIRE DENIS RETROSPECTIVE, Oct 1-31 | All in OV, mainly with English subtitles (with the exception of Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, which will have German subtitles).