Thursday, January 19, 2023

Claire Denis' “Stars at Noon” and “Trouble Every Day” at The Grand Illusion Cinema: Feb 3 - 9

While entries like the Pynchonesque noir science nightmare of "Trouble Every Day" may align with the New French Extremity label, the films of Claire Denis have remained defiantly thematically varied. From explorations of masculine camaraderie, observations on the post-Colonial landscape of both Africa and Paris, neo-noir thrillers, and sharp-edged gender relations, Claire Denis' filmography navigates the spaces between traditional narrative and more structurally adventurous cinema. Her films have consistently fashioned an interplay of the gravitational pulls inherent in each of these corresponding forms. Denis is herself a complex and irreducible intellect, as made clear in recent interviews on both gender representation in Cannes, and the wider field of women artists, "Claire Denis: ‘I Couldn’t Care Less About the Weinstein Affair'", and for the Irish Times, "‘We are Normal People. Even Though We are French’". Recent representations of her craft can be seen in 2008's masterpiece on class, race and urban life, conveyed through light and motion that was "35 Shots of Rum", and 2014's ominous neo-noir crime thriller, "Bastards". The latter brought its audience deep into the nightmare of one family's decomposition from the inside with their brush with power, corruption and an immoral French elite. In a sense all of her work can be seen as, "Family Films of a Very Different Sort". Another constant of her work, one that she shares with the best of her peers, is the elliptical nature of its narrative and visual structure. Looping back on itself, projecting ahead, fusing impression, experience and dream, these structural and thematic signatures are abundantly detailed in Nick Pinkerton's Claire Denis interview for Film Comment and Senses of Cinema's "Dancing Reveals So Much: An Interview with Claire Denis". More recently, in her crowning point from Cannes 2017, she delivered a subtly pointed observation on contemporary French life in, "Let the Sunshine In". This elegant, eccentric relationship comedy of ideas on middle age, expressed itself with an almost inscrutable sophistication, "Un Beau Soleil Interieur: Juliette Binoche Excels". Taking a typically dynamic about-turn, Denis then produced her first explicitly science fiction work to-date with "High Life" featuring a much larger production, special effects, lead stars in Binoche and Robbert Pattinson, and a screenplay by Nick Laird and Zadie Smith, the following year.

In her observation on the diminishing of content in the modern era that might traverse such complex and charged territory, Catherine Shoard selects “The Fearless Cinema of Claire Denis” as the antithesis to these trends. Expressly the depiction of sex, sexual power and psychology in the director’s 2018 entry, "Claire Denis on High Life, Robert Pattinson, and Putting Juliette Binoche in a “F*ckbox”. The film’s sexual and corporeal focus on a unflinching exploration of "The Fleshy Frontier", and past traditions in related is cinema are considered in John Semley's piece for The Baffler. These multifaceted bodily, sexual, and psychological tensions also succinctly delineated in Charles Bramesco’s review, “High Life: Orgasmic Brilliance in Deepest Space with Robert Pattinson”. Which brings us to her two current films of this year and last. Born of the much-delayed adaptation of Denis Johnson's "The Stars at Noon", and the numerous complexities of the film's long gestation, including its star Robert Pattinson having to leave the project over schedule conflicts. "Stars at Noon" finally arrived at Cannes this year, where it was awarded the Grand Prix. This "Languid Tale of Sex, Lies and Intrigue in the Nicaraguan Heat", is in many ways a compelling companion for, "Both Sides of the Blade" her film of 2021. Where that film was born of the limitations of the pandemic and conversations between Denis and its lead actor Vincent Lindon, her most recent utilized the tensions of the pandemic and governmental control in Nicaragua to heighten its pervasive sense of unease and threat. The film is adapted by Denis and co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius from the late Denis Johnson's novelization of his years spent endeavoring to become a political reporter in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 1980s. Where Denis' film differs is in that the twentysomething protagonist Trish, as played by Margaret Qualley, presents herself as a modern-day journalist, who finds herself in a deadly bind, as her last published work was about politically motivated kidnappings and murders in Nicaragua related to tensions with Costa Rica. The result of "Stars at Noon: A Not-So-Innocent Abroad", is something like a modern Central American update of Antonioni’s "The Passenger", with its own distinct and oblique tropical reverie. Over which hangs an ominous and subtly oneiric sense of threat, that recalls Anna Seghers' 944 novel, "Transit", another tale of closing borders, and an immanent, seemingly inescapable fate.