Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Incomparable Moment: the Baker Meets His Wife

Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis, 1996)

(Cinema Underground is walking on air right now! We have just returned from the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival where we met, listened to and flirted with Claire Denis! So beguiling, so impassioned and yet so unpretentious. We think we are in love.)

I could write for days and days about the cinema of Claire Denis. About how this tiny French woman makes movies about foreigners, Africans and Blacks where they are not “other” but herself (Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, 35 Shots of Rum); about how so few heterosexual filmmakers, let alone a woman, make such knowing, erotic films about men (Beau Travail, Friday Night); about how she weaves so masterfully, so seamlessly and potently between dream and reality, between document and desire.

But then what will I tell her when we meet again to prove that my interests in her cinema are not merely intellectual? 🙂

So I will limit my discussion within the confines of our narrowest category: a single moment from one of her films. In this case, a scene from Nenette and Boni where the Baker (Vincent Gallo) as a young sailor first sets eyes upon the woman (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) he will marry. I don’t know that much more context is necessary. Everything I wish to discuss about her cinema is evident in the clip.


To understand the greatness of Claire Denis, you have only to imagine what a lesser director would do in her place. In the case of a scene like the above, it shouldn’t be too hard. Hollywood dreck is filled with such starstruck “love at first sight” moments. They usually employ attractive stars and catchy soundtracks just like Denis’ scene. However, often there is some inherent comic incongruence or stylistically heightened significance. In Hollywood parlance it’s called a “meet-cute” with an emphasis on a kind of attractive fatalism.

But what does Denis do?

First, the scene is a detour from the narrative proper–not merely a flashback but something more akin to an aside. It occurs outside the central narrative frame of either Nenette or Boni’s actions and concerns, delving into the background of the object of Boni’s obsession. But what is it? Is it a flashback from the Baker’s Wife’s consciousness? Such a strange lateral shift in the diegisis! At no other time is her character afforded anything like this central focus. Is it another of Boni’s fantasies? But why should Boni contrive such a convincing and sensitive portrait of a relationship he would be better served to parody?

Music begins the scene and the music is prominent, despite the fact that the Baker/Sailor only puts money in the jukebox part way into the scene. So the scene gains the significance of memory through its minor subversion of simple cause and effect but, more importantly, the song (“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys) tells its own story.

However, she is distinctly NOT making a music video. We know this because the music does not merely symbolize or accentuate the meaning of the action. She does not edit or choreograph expressly to the music’s rhythm. Rather, the song acts as a separate, distinct but additional stream of significance to the action, coloring or inflecting it. This is the very meaning of complexity and Denis expects her viewers to be able to contend with both disparate but complementary discourses. Image and sound perform a delicate dance, if you will.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself because her actors and her camera perform an even more bewitching number.

In this one scene, Denis basically gives the lie to the critical legacy of hogwash about “objectification” and the tyranny of the “male gaze.” It was always bullshit to begin with, silly formulas for stupid academics to frame films in their own image.

Denis’ gaze is nothing but her own and, far from objectifying, comes close to articulating the living, breathing soul of her actors through her signature lingering, close inspection of appearance and behavior. Her camera explores rather than indicates. She ably allows for depth to emerge from the surfaces.

Note the pan along Gallo’s arm and up his chest before settling in ECU on his face. This is the kind of shot usually reserved for women as seen from a male POV. Yet, here Denis seems willing enough to “objectify” her subject, utterly absorbed in Gallo’s angular face, his haphazard facial hair and his sleepy, sexual stare. Is Gallo even conventionally handsome enough to warrant this kind of attention? Denis does not care and this is where “objectification” falls apart. It is not his (perceived) beauty which makes him worthy to be subject to her camera; it is the (genuine) performance of himself that makes him, to Denis, beautiful.

Denis blurs the line between actor and character, between performance and documentary. Are we watching the Baker/Sailor in this scene or is Denis simply watching Vincent Gallo? The shot conveys a kind of intimacy and immediacy that subverts such simple formulation. Significantly, the camera is too close to correspond to a literal POV for anyone other than perhaps Agnes Godard, Denis’ DoP. The whole POV game is simply insufficient for understanding something so complex as the meaning of Gallo’s measured breathing or the flitting movement of his eyes. What is the “meaning” of the blueness of Gallo’s eyes? Denis’ fondly loitering camera ensures we meditate on this significant point.

Can the answer to that question can be found in the blueness of Bruni-Tedeschi’s low-cut blouse?

But, no, surely her little vignette only serves to elucidate the Baker’s Wife’s charms and subsequently charm the viewer into sympathizing with the couple’s inevitable union. But for that to be the case, as it would for most romantic comedies, Bruni-Tedeschi would have to be actually DOING something, no? Or, if appearance was her primary virtue, surely Denis could have cast someone more conventionally beautiful.

Yet, I can’t think of a woman in film more enchanting than Bruni-Tedeschi for these sixty seconds. Again, it’s unclear whether we are now watching the character or the actor, so varied and spontaneous are her expressions and so unembellished is their documentation. In just under a minute of screen time, she manages to suggest a fleeting galaxy of emotions–from affected indifference to mild embarrassment to joyful submission to bold reassertion. And while the actor deserves credit for such a seemingly unaffected performance, it is Denis’ inspiration to let her simply BE, confident in the power of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed to create such a complex dance of meaning.

This is what makes Claire Denis so great.

In a scene that is ostensibly about two people meeting, she dispenses with POV. Instead of jumping predictably between subjects from his view to hers, she shifts mercurially between modes–between memory and fantasy, between the viewer and the viewed, between indifference and desire. Her stillness animates, while her silence speaks volumes. Her play is not merely the bilateral shot-reverse-shot between characters but the far richer interplay between herself, the viewer and her subject. Finally, she delivers that rarest of cinematic promises: the revelation of a real lived experience. God only knows how.



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