Before I knew who Claire Denis was, she taught me how to dance. When I was eighteen, it was easier to stay in with a movie than to go to a party and be surrounded by strangers. One night, I watched Denis’s film “Beau Travail,” from 1999. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep. I kept replaying the ending, transfixed by a man with a battered face, Galoup. For ninety minutes, Galoup (Denis Lavant) is small and hunched, a military officer who, after being ejected from the French Foreign Legion, can’t find meaning in civilian life. In a closing scene, he makes his bed, carefully tucking in the corners, and lies down, clasping a gun. Then we hear the pulse of Corona’s disco hit “The Rhythm of the Night.” We cut to Galoup smoking in a night club, leaning against a panelled mirror. He bobs his head to the music, tracing loose arcs in the air with his cigarette. He snarls. He spins in a tight circle, smoke trailing him like a cape. Then, at the chorus, unsmiling and intent, he lets himself go, flying into the air, fingers splayed like a gecko’s. I can’t describe what it felt like watching him for the first time, more blur than human. But I remember what it did to me. I got up and I began to wave my hands above my head, alone in the dark.
I watched “Beau Travail” again recently, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is running the largest U.S. retrospective of Denis’s work to date. The sold-out crowd erupted after Galoup’s dance, as though their cheers could summon Denis out from the screen. The French director, now seventy-two, is one of the greatest filmmakers alive. Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” dubbed her “DA GAWD” in a tweet, and her movies are often deemed among the best of all time. Critics praise her lingering, ravishing study of the body; her elliptical storytelling; her masterly way of shooting the gesture. But none of these themes explain the cathartic power of “Beau Travail” ’s conclusion. The one thing that appears time and again, in crucial moments, as the binding magic of her films, is dancing.
Dance movies—or movies with dance in them—have a long and storied history, populated mainly by professional dancers. Growing up, I watched as many as I could, from “The Red Shoes” and “Stormy Weather” to “Center Stage.” I thrilled to the twirling of Fred Astaire, the liquid snap of John Travolta’s hips, the way Channing Tatum’s ass looked after a backflip. But the appeal of watching someone like Tatum is the precision of his movement: the flow of his shoulder rolls, the nod of careless ease. The scene can easily be clipped into a five-minute YouTube video and lose none of its power. By contrast, Denis’s subject is the dance of the non-dancer—the kinetic poetry of the ordinary. Her dancers are characters caught dancing. She’s interested in the dance that trips, flails, mindlessly repeats, that happens not on a stage but in a shower stall, or in a car stuck in traffic. These scenes have none of the glitz of a Hollywood (or Bollywood) musical number, with the army of background dancers spinning on cars. Instead, they ask simple questions: Why do people dance alone, and dance with others? What can dance bring to a person’s life? Can someone lonely dance with joy?
I went to the BAM screening with a friend who had never seen a Denis film, and who noted in shock, as we left, that Sentain, a main character, had perhaps four lines in the entire movie. This aspect of Denis’s work—the lean, spare dialogue—tunes our attention to the ways in which our bodies betray our desires. Tension mounts and breaks wordlessly: in Denis’s first feature film, “Chocolat,” the climax is a white colonial administrator’s lonely wife reaching out, in longing, to touch her black manservant’s calf; in “Beau Travail,” a subordinate punches his superior; in “Let the Sunshine In,” a woman invites a man’s embrace by closing her eyes and stretching her neck. Denis’s subjects are often outcasts, with quiet, tense bodies that they hold tightly to themselves. She rewards our attention by presenting dance as a form of solace, whether it’s lonely siblings dancing together in “U.S. Go Home,” a father dancing with his daughter in “35 Shots of Rum,” or a half-crazed doctor dancing in front of an air vent in her most recent film, “High Life.” All of these scenes crackle with the possibility of release, of exploring alternative or truer selves. When Denis’s characters dance, they at once reveal themselves and maintain their inner worlds. We can’t know what they’re thinking, but we see them find the rhythm of their lives.
I talked to Denis last week, over the phone. “There is no good life without dance, you know?” she said. “Once I was in New York, and I was at this night club. I was early, and I saw this old couple, with gray hair—they were dancing together, a paso doble. It was a dream of beauty.” The scene felt familiar; Denis’s films often ask how we change while watching a dance. She frequently cuts to spectators, returning to them again and again to show that our faces—with their twitches of longing, agony, and even boredom—can dance as much as our limbs. In “35 Shots of Rum,” a loving father and widower, Lionel, dances with his daughter at a bar in Paris, her cheek on his chest. The music changes to the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” and a friend—a man whom Lionel considers a son—approaches. Lionel backs away. The daughter and the man hold each other, and the scene’s emotional tenor changes, from a dance evoking the tenderness of the past to one that hints at the future. We get a closeup of Lionel’s face as he watches; he isn’t smiling. They kiss. He looks away. As viewers, we feel ambivalent: the two look so right together, but we see, too, the tragedy of a father who has resolved to let his daughter go. As the bar owner places a plate in front of Lionel, his hands catch her wrists. She smiles, and he draws her close. The father goes from dancer to watcher and back again.
In scenes like this, Denis allows plot and meaning to emerge organically from bodies in motion. “I’m not a choreographer,” Denis told me. “But, once, Jean-Luc Nancy, the philosopher in “Towards Mathilde”—Denis’s dance documentary—said something to me. He said, ‘What is great about watching ballet is that, even if you’ve never learned how to dance, even if you don’t know how to dance, you can feel the dance in your body as an audience. . . ’ And I said to him, ‘Yes, that’s true, completely true.’ ” Denis believes that, if we look at it long enough, movement itself contains stories, which we in turn recognize in ourselves. In “U.S. Go Home,” we follow Martine, a Parisian teen-ager living in a housing project, as she crashes a rich older boy’s houseparty with a friend. The camera doesn’t waver from their faces as they slow-dance; they oscillate from having fun to trying to look like they’re having fun. We feel the sweaty, panicked questions of adolescence: Where do I put my hands? Where do I rest my chin? Whom should I imitate? And beneath those questions, another, deeper one: Where does imitation fade and the self begin?
For Denis, the dancer is alone at heart. Both of her most recent films, “Let the Sunshine In” and “High Life,” include moments in which Juliette Binoche dances by herself: arms stretched behind her, neck swanned, mouth slightly open and eyes gently closed. In “Let the Sunshine In,” she dances to Etta James’s “At Last,” and within a few chords a man gathers her into his arms from behind. Binoche starts to smile, wrapping her arms around him, moving in a different kind of ecstasy. (How women’s bodies change when they dance for someone else!) In “High Life,” we witness another type of encounter. Binoche, dancing in front of an air vent, unties a long, thick braid and shakes her black hair loose. But, when a man approaches her, grasping her hips, she pushes him away, to move with the wind. It’s Denis exploring the thorny pleasures of being a woman. It can be wonderful to yield to those watching, but at what cost?
Restraint, liberation, inner life brought to the surface—these are primordial themes, and for Denis they can be found only in the rush and play of motion. The ending of “Beau Travail” feels cathartic because, after an hour and a half, we see an officer who has been stiff and small—the kind of man who will primly adjust the angle of a plate in a mess hall—allow himself the chance to be free. What’s more, we are his only viewers. Denis often shows us how her characters—and, by extension, we ourselves—can dance when nobody’s watching. In “U.S. Go Home,” a teen-age boy, Alain, puts on the Animals’ “Hey Gyp” and begins to dance alone in his room. He paces back and forth, jerking his hips, trying on different characters—first a fist-pumping hunchback, then a guitar-wielding rock star, then just himself, jumping on his bed, pumping his pelvis to the beat. Denis stays and stays with him, past all convention, watching him carefully until he sits down, breathless. The camera cuts to the face of a bored sister, watching her brother through an open doorway. Alain, upon seeing her, stiffens and mutters. She’d seen him dance; it’s horrible, embarrassing. But still she smiles. Suddenly, they know each other just a little better.
On our call, I asked Denis if she ever danced alone. She laughed. “Oh, maybe sometimes, still,” she said. Then, in a rush: “But, when I was a teen-ager, I locked myself in a room and, yes, I was. . . The reality is that dancing alone is such a great experience. It’s like feeling there’s no audience. Nobody is watching. You can try so many things.” I thought of watching “Beau Travail” for the first time, of moving in the dark. I said that I danced, too. “Because it’s a part of life,” she said. “Someone afraid of dancing is somehow afraid of many other things, you know?”
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