This week in Claire Denis: Talking to the Nightingale's Christy LeMaster about Nenette et Boni and Beau Travail

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Alice Houri plays one of the title characters in Nenette et Boni, which screens again tonight at 6 PM.
  • Alice Houri plays one of the title characters in Nenette et Boni, which screens again tonight at 6 PM.
Tonight the Gene Siskel Film Center continues its monthlong Claire Denis retrospective with an encore screening of Nenette et Boni (1996), the French director's characteristically oblique portrait of troubled teenage siblings in Marseilles. When Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed the movie for the Reader upon first release, he called it "too coy and nonspecific for its own good." In light of Denis's later films, though, the ambiguities of Nenette now feel like part of a larger puzzle, hinting at themes of desire and displacement in the age of globalized capitalism. These themes are more pronounced in Denis's subsequent Beau Travail (1999), a quasi-adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd set amid a French-legion outpost in postcolonial Djibouti. (Writing about it in 2000, Rosenbaum declared that Denis had "developed a new kind of mastery.") That film screened with Nenette et Boni this past Sunday. Continuing my project of discussing Denis with local female critics, scholars, and academics, I attended the double feature with Christy LeMaster, cofounder of the Nightingale Cinema in Noble Square, current staff member of Columbia College's Television Department, and an old compatriot from the local website Cine-File.info.

Ben Sachs: From writing and talking about movies with you, I know you're concerned with the politics of men photographing women, noting how the visual representation of women by straight men communicates, whether intentionally or not, the photographers' desire for and/or their impulse to objectify their subjects. I'm curious as to what you make of Denis's presentation of Grégoire Colin in Nenette et Boni. His character is not only an attractive young man, but one who's in thrall to these adolescent sexual fantasies and often appears on-screen half-naked. What do you think is being communicated through Denis looking at him?

Christy LeMaster: I think the sexuality is undercut by the very thing you mention—the adolescent quality of it. Because he doesn't seem sensual in the way the bodies of Beau Travail do.

But in Nenette et Boni, you see Colin masturbate, you hear him recite his fantasies about the baker's wife. . . . You'd think a female filmmaker would present this behavior critically, yet Denis doesn't. There's a vitality to all of it—even in that early scene when Boni's hanging out with his friends and they're getting into this . . .

Dude talk? [laughs]

Yeah. And Denis seems almost appreciative of it. The characters seem so alive in that moment.

Both of the title characters possess what you might call "unmanageable youth." To me, the sexuality of the film is part of that. There's clearly some correlation between Boni's sexual energy, which he releases through his fantasies, and Nenette's pregnancy, which is the consequence of actual sexual activity. I thought the scene of her giving birth was pretty amazing.

How so?

It was just harsh. Denis didn't romanticize it at all.

And she cuts its short too, just before we can get absorbed into the momentum of the scene.

It doesn't feel like the climax of Nenette's experience, even though the movie has been leading us to think it will be. The cut feels like a little attack on the audience.

That's a good way of describing Denis's editing in general. Her scenes are either shorter than you expect them to be or longer than you expect them to be. Her movies never develop a comfortable rhythm.

She doesn't fall into the trap of "durational" filmmaking, even though her sense of visual composition is really solid and formalist in the way of much of durational avant-garde cinema.

I think that's why Denis's filmmaking is practically inimitable. You can spot the influence of other breakthrough filmmakers of the past 20 years—for instance, Michael Haneke, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, or the Romanian New Wave directors—in the work of lesser artists. You just see certain kinds of shots that remind you of them. But Denis always seems two steps ahead of everybody else.

Even the really formalist compositions don't betray themselves. When Haneke's framing something gorgeously, I often think, "I'm watching you frame this gorgeously." But the beauty in Denis's films sneaks up on you.

It's as though there's an autonomous force within the film that's constantly throwing it out of balance, diverting its attention. In Nenette et Boni, that force feels especially strong.

Where do you see that?

In the sexuality, the "unmanageable youth," global economic forces. You know, there's that motif of the black marketeers in Marseilles stealing phone card codes and selling them to immigrants. . . . There's also the power of fantasy. At numerous points, Denis shows us things we're inclined to see as the characters' fantasy projections, then reveals them to be real. Like, when we first see Nenette, she's wearing a red dress in a swimming pool—that's a classic dream-sequence image. Then she gets out of the pool, her classmates look at her funny, and she tells them she forgot to bring her swimsuit to school. Or when Boni wakes up one morning . . .

. . . And there's a trail of buns from the bakery, as though we're inside one of his fantasies about the baker's wife.

But we find out that Nenette has snuck into his house the night before and read his diary. She's making fun of his fantasy. Denis tricks us this way so many times that it's hard to say whether the end of the film—where you see Boni holding Nenette's child—is fantasy or reality.

Gregoire Colin in Nenette et Boni
  • Gregoire Colin in Nenette et Boni

Isn't the last shot of Nenette having a cigarette?

You're right. I was thinking of the second-to-last shot.

I read the end totally differently. I'm not sure if what happens with Boni is real or not, because it's fairly implausible that he'd walk into a hospital with a gun hidden in a bouquet of flowers.

Which is an unexpected reference to Terminator 2.

Anyhow, I saw that [last shot of Boni] as taking place in his fantasy. How would he take care of the baby after this? Denis doesn't give us any cues that he knows how. . . . But after that, she gives us a swing, a sense of the weather changing, and then Nenette standing outside smoking a cigarette. And she looks totally relieved.

The moment made me realize that, for this whole movie, Nenette just wanted to be free of this thing. It's a completely unromantic take on child birth. If this were a traditional, Hollywood-style movie, she would see her baby, fall in love with, and the family would be restored. Boni would make up a room for the baby, and they'd all move forward together. Denis gives us none of that.

Yet there are elements of the traditional coming-of-age narrative. Did you notice that the baker's wife disappears from the film about a half-hour before it ends and is never referred to again? He stops lusting after her—or maybe it's more appropriate to say his lust for her is no longer the driving force in his life.

Yeah, taking care of Nenette and the possibility of taking care of the baby make him more of an adult.

And that's reassuring in a familiar, narrative-movie way. No matter how abstract she gets, Denis always has one foot in the realm of narrative cinema. You can sense that in the subplot with the kids' father, who has these associates in the criminal underworld that eventually turn on him.

Which may be related to the stuff with the black marketeers . . .

All that stuff is familiar from the countless Scorsese knock-offs being made around the same time as Nenette et Boni.

Speaking of abstract filmmaking, I thought the most sensual part of the movie was early on when Boni has that sexual dream and Denis has the light move across the surface in a way that meshes with the activity of his new coffeemaker. I don't know why it has such an erotic charge.

The coffeemaker—which Boni gets from a black marketeer, we should add—becomes a symbol of sexual energy. Whenever he wakes up from a sexual dream, it's heaving and sighing like a living thing.

It feels like a reversal of teen-movie cliche to have a young man obsess over one woman, rather than go out and chase after multiple women.

His obsession sort of latches on to whatever's around him: the coffeemaker, the pizza dough . . . it's a silly concept, yet those moments are genuinely erotic.

Nenette et Boni
  • Nenette et Boni

Isn't it interesting how Nenette doesn't experience that? She's never sensual.

We don't know who the father of her child is. The movie wants us to entertain the thought that her pregnancy is the result of incest, but it never goes so far as to confirm this.

Why else would they be so determined to cut their father out of their lives?

There are all sorts of reasons why juvenile delinquents would hate their father and many ways in which a father can fail his children. Having the father be a sexual predator seems too open-and-shut for Denis.

All that's clear is that Nenette's pregnancy is not the outcome of a loving relationship. Whatever happened, she was not prepared for it.

Denis often seems more concerned with results than with causes. She wants to observe how a teenage girl looks and acts after she's been robbed of her sexuality.

Nenette's such a hardened presence. It's unnerving to watch a girl that young seem so emotionally "shut down." And to make things worse, no one's sympathetic to her being pregnant at 15.

She doesn't really invite sympathy, though. At the beginning of the movie, Nenette doesn't know how long she's been pregnant, even though she's in her second, maybe even third, trimester.

Or she's just not telling anybody. Either way, we sense what an isolated person she is.

In Nenette et Boni, Denis often wants us to ask whether we're looking at reality or fantasy—there's a tension to the film. But in Beau Travail, that tension is no longer there. The images exist in a sort of free fall, and there's no attempt to resolve them.

But the images are clearly linked to these cultural references—Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation. . . . The movie ends up working on two levels. There are the questions raised by the story and the question of how Denis is engaging with these earlier texts.

Beau Travail
  • Beau Travail

I'm impressed by how much Denis retains from Billy Budd, considering Beau Travail takes place two centuries later and within a very different context.

But Melville's novella features the rumor of a mutiny and Billy Budd accidentally killing someone. Those events don't enter into Beau Travail.

Well, yeah, the stakes aren't as high—which has to do, I think, with Beau Travail working as a postcolonial narrative. In a sense, the movie's about the stakes not being high. Denis Lavant's character needs to impose some life-and-death significance onto his situation.

Those training rituals are so intense and you have no idea what the men are training for. As someone who thinks about the influence of straight-male perspective on cinema, I found it amazing to watch a movie that's coming from a very different perspective. It doesn't feel natural—it's alienating. Denis isn't sexualizing the men in Beau Travail, per se. The movie is more concerned with bodies in motion rather than bodies as objects. We're always seeing the men engaged in physical activity.

I think eroticism is something of a red herring in the film.

Well, objectification doesn't necessarily mean sexualization. At the same, you can eroticize anything—it doesn't have to be a human body.

It can be pizza dough.

Right. [laughs] I was interested in how Denis photographed landscapes in Beau Travail. The wide-open deserts could have been presented in a very National Geographic way, but they don't overwhelm the story.

Just as the military rituals are complex but futile, the landscapes, though imposing, aren't beautiful. I think this comes back to the characters needing to impose significance on a situation where they aren't needed. And eroticizing people and landscapes is one way of imposing meaning.

Colin and Denis Lavant in Beau Travail
  • Colin and Denis Lavant in Beau Travail

It feels almost arbitrary that Lavant's character is so obsessed with Colin's.

It's the same way in Billy Budd. The character of Billy Budd represents an opposition to the prevailing order, but it isn't clear as to how—it could be sexual, political, even spiritual. Melville loved to keep things open-ended. Whenever he came up with an image or situation that could be read as metaphorical, he would hint at a dozen ways that you could interpret it.

And Denis does that too, in all of her films.

What's important, in both Billy Budd and Beau Travail, is that a person is capable of disrupting this order, that it isn't absolute. The legionnaires need something to distract them.

Well, wouldn't you? Their life looks so fun and awful at the same time! Because there's no real purpose to the legionnaires' presence in Djibouti, it almost looks like they're on vacation. But then, Lavant takes them on this excursion into the desert and you have no idea why. Are they building a road to nowhere?

I love how Denis uses Neil Young's "Safeway Cart" to accompany those shots of the men trudging through the desert.

All the music in Beau Travail is amazing.

It's hard to tell at times when she switches from one piece of music to another. There's such a fluidity to the sound design.

There are also moments of "sculpted" sound. That's one of the canonical tactics of avant-garde cinema, using very precise sounds to give definition to abstract images. There's also a link with the avant-garde in how Denis sometimes keeps sounds and images disconnected, bringing a sound to the forefront then letting it fall away.

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