Female FIlmmaker Project: No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990)

Denis creates a cinema of either utmost beauty or total effecting horror, and often these modes are interchangeable in her visual language. In Beau Travail the male body is a canvas, but the film becomes increasingly suffocating as characters go further and further down a rabbit hole of increasingly difficult regimens in the sculpting of those bodies. In Bastards the sensual style that she created around lingering bodies, and intimacy was turned inward into something horrifying as it dealt specifically with sexual assault. Denis is no doubt a filmmaker of bodies, but her films often explore themes around how those bodies navigate a world that isn’t exactly fair to them. In No Fear, No Die she goes back to the well of established ideas in her debut Chocolat in oppression through colonialism. While Chocolat‘s ideas are presented in an autobiographical narrative (Denis grew up in South Africa), No Fear, No Die places the camera distinctly on the lives of those most intensely effected by a white supremacist world.

Dah (Isaach De Bankole’) and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) are trying to make their way in France as cockfighters. It’s a quick way to earn a buck, and they are skilled at training their birds in combat. Jocelyn struggles with this task as he shows saturating love for the birds he is sending to their deaths, and as the film goes on he has a harder time adhering to his superior’s requests to up the violence of the cockfights by including weaponry not natural to a chicken. They are struggling for cash so they succumb to their bosses demands, and this seems to send Jocelyn into a depression.

What’s so remarkable about Denis’ work in No Fear, No Die is how effortlessly she seems to navigate through these ideas of being owned while still capturing an eerie beauty of the process of loving & raising one of these rooster’s in the art of combat. Jocelyn sincerely cares about the fate of his birds, and while it’s silly of him to care this much about these animals & be in this profession he gives them love and care. Denis shoots these scenes similarly with compassion. Jocelyn will hold his birds close to his chest and pet them for significant amounts of time while Denis gives us close up of his hands. These scenes are also often presented in a softer, richer light than the dingy underground of the cock fighting world. It isn’t a leap to think the metaphor of the cockfighting can be seen as pitting black men against one another while white men profit from their work. The metaphor for this is backed up by how she shoots the cockfighting. It’s almost as if these chickens know they are tangled metaphors. She shoots in extreme close up on their bodies, emphasizing their quick jumping movements as well as the claws they use to destroy each other (no animals were hurt in the making of this movie, but it’s still extremely difficult to watch). At the end of the day these chickens are sentenced to death before they even entered this arena, and one can’t help but feel Denis feels a similar empathy to those who enter life with the deck stacked against them, much like Jocelyn and Dah.

There’s a sense of fatigue in this movie. Denis shoots these grimy underworlds in constricted spaces. Ceilings hang low, hallways are tight, and small rooms are filled to the brim with men smoking, drinking, and cheering on this destruction. Bankole’s eyes speak volumes in the films final moments as he watches his friend stumble further into the destruction of this sickening profession. He stands with his back next to a red painted wall, it’s intensely foreboding to his friends fate, and the blood on their hands for the creatures they raised to die for a quick buck. It’s an incredible moment of acting and direction coinciding for a brilliant visual moment sold by an actor’s face.

No Fear, No Die is a mournful picture, coloured by past history & shrouded in death. The world is broken for these men, and Denis captures this in her emotional painting. Chickens spill blood, Humans spill blood. In this film the cost is all the same. Money stands in the way of peacefulness. It always has.

L’Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004

Female Filmmaker Project
What’s remarkable about Claire Denis’ L’Intrus is that at a structural level it is maybe her most cinematic feature to date, and I don’t mean that in terms of big or sweeping. I think cinema as a medium is visual at it’s core. It is about telling a story through images and L’Intrus is built up entirely on images. The narrative is stated in any expositional terms by any character, but shown in every frame. This makes L’Intrus her most basic achievement in cinema and her most difficult statement, because it’s entirely interpretational. I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is a vision, a dream or reality but in every image there’s meaning both obvious (dogs eating a heart) and cryptic (I’m still not sure what the dogs mean). This makes L’Intrus feel challenging, but in truth everything is laid out there for you to have as you will.

 After recently viewing Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey I also thought about this as a film about the idea of home, but instead of it being only about the nature of a home as a place it is about the body as a home. Louis Trébor (Michel Subor) is a man who needs a heart transplant, and with the heart being an essence of life and perhaps even a metaphor for the soul does that mean without his heart is he now homeless within his own body? I think Denis’ film points towards yes. After his heart transplant he wanders aimlessly. He isn’t quite himself anymore. He moves from country to country and nothing feels quite right for him. He cannot settle and even his family feels different.

Denis has always been a filmmaker of bodies and the tone of her films often appear in the way she shoots those figures. She’s always close, framing them closely into the lens, and often focusing on one body part. She’ll move the camera over one’s body and depending on how she does all of this she creates different tones of physique. In Vendredi Soir the human body is sensual, alive with passion and free. In Bastards she took sexuality and used it for horror. In L’Intrus Louis body feels cold and in a way dead. He has a scar running up and down his chest and every time we see his frame it’s draped in this cool grey or blue lighting or he’s hooked up to a machine. There is no warmth in his soul after he loses his original heart. He’s essentially homeless in his own body. This is in stark contrast to the way Louis’ grandson is shot earlier in the film when his face is covered in sunlight and has a smile on his face. He has his original heart after all.

This makes me think Denis’ film is also about aging and regret. Louis’ has never been a good father. His entire family is estranged and he doesn’t even know his grandchildren. Despite his heart transplant he is sickly and even if he continues he doesn’t have the warmth of life in him. He doesn’t have a family so in one of the more absurd scenes a group of people he’s living with hold auditions to be his new son. While on his death bed he has one final vision of his son with the same scar running down his chest, he sees a coffin later and Louis is then on a boat. I think this signifies his son being the one thing he lost in life that he wishes he could have back.

What makes L’Intrus so fascinating is how flexible it is, and how someone else could easily come up with something different. In the power of cinema as an artistic medium I think a viewer can see what they want to and go on their own path. L’Intrus is one of those films. It feels expansive and in it’s imagery so very human. We all have dreams that we’re unsure of the meaning and one of the coolest things about cinema is that it can sometimes act as a function of those dreams. Where everything is endless and definition is mutable.