Foreign Bodies: The Films of Claire Denis

  1. Foreign Bodies:
  2. The Films of Claire Denis

“There’s no better filmmaker working in the world right now.”

—Nick James, Sight and Sound (2010)

“Denis is one of the most distinctive and challenging voices in contemporary cinema.”

—Xan Brooks, The Guardian (2013)

From November 3 through December 5, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in partnership with the Cultural Services of the French Consulate, presents Foreign Bodies: The Films of Claire Denis, a ten-film series featuring imported 35mm archival prints from the Institut Français and the first Chicago run of the director’s latest film, BASTARDS.

Born in Paris in 1948, Denis spent most of her childhood in West Africa, where her father served as a French colonial official. After attending the renowned IDHEC film school in Paris, she served a long apprenticeship as assistant director to such idiosyncratic auteurs as Dusan Makavejev, Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch. Her first film, CHOCOLAT, was released in 1988 to widespread critical acclaim.

Aided immensely by the versatility of her regular cinematographer Agnès Godard and screenwriter Jean-Pôl Fargeau, Denis’s output has been adventurously eclectic, embracing a wide range of genres and visual styles. She aptly describes her work as “an open cinema.” Still, certain recurring preoccupations stand out.

Denis’s films tend to center on black characters (especially Africans and African immigrants) and on male characters (especially black males, repeatedly played by Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas, but also white males, played by such recurring actors as Grégoire Colin and Vincent Gallo).

“Capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me,” Denis has said. An exaggeration perhaps, but the charged presence of the body, especially the male body, as a site of both erotic spectacle and violent struggle, is a major concern (and pleasure) of her films. Actor Grégoire Colin remarked, “She films male bodies as if she were a homosexual man.”

Denis’s films emphasize the perspectives of outsiders, especially immigrants and foreigners (usually Africans, but also the Lithuanian actress in I CAN’T SLEEP and the American honeymooners in TROUBLE EVERY DAY). She has said, “If my films have a common link, maybe it’s being a foreigner.” Her childhood experiences as a white French girl living in Africa (and then returning to an unfamiliar Paris) undoubtedly contributed to this interest, which scrupulously avoids exoticism and fetishization, while her focus on blacks and males also forestalls a too-easy identification.

Whether gritty or elegant, Denis’s visual style is tactile and sensual. As one critic noted, “Her camera doesn’t just capture; it caresses.” Music adds another dimension to that sensuality, as demonstrated by her integral use of both original scores (e.g., her collaborations with British indie rock band Tindersticks on several films) and cannily chosen pop songs (e.g., the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in NENETTE ET BONI, the Commodores’ “Night Shift” in 35 SHOTS OF RUM).

That all-embracing sensuality also determines Denis’s fragmentary and elliptical approach to narrative, privileging the sensory impact of the moment over clarity of story and psychological motivation, but in ways that are intriguing and invigorating rather than incoherent. As Reverse Shot editors Michael Korensky and Jeff Reichert have written in the preface to their valuable special issue on Denis (, “She chooses to please rather than pillory her audience, invite them into a dialogue around images rather than read sermons from on high... Denis seems to have decided that, in the long, long shadow cast over French cinema by Godard’s early output, the most radical thing to do is not to eschew or batter narrative, but to wrestle with and redefine it, all without losing sight of the essential satisfactions of storytelling.”

Special thanks to Florence Almozini, French Embassy – Cultural Services (New York); Fabrice Rozie and Laurence Geannopulos, Cultural Services of the French Consulate (Chicago); Jake Perlin, Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy; Graham Swindoll, The Cinema Guild; Nathan Faustyn, Strand Releasing; Brad Deane, TIFF Cinematheque.

—Martin Rubin



Buy a ticket at our regular prices for one Claire Denis film on any Sunday in November (or Saturday, November 30), and get a ticket for a second Denis film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only.)



Sun, Nov 3rd at 3:00pm
Thu, Nov 7th at 8:30pm
Average: 4.5 (2 votes)

New 35mm print!

  1. 1988, Claire Denis, France, 105 min.
  2. With Giulia Boschi, Isaach de Bankolé

“Miss Denis's mastery of film-making technology is equaled by her splendid control of narrative...She is astonishing.”
—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“One of those rare films with an entirely mature, adult sensibility; it is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story...CHOCOLAT evokes Africa better than any other film I have ever seen.”
—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Based partly on her childhood experiences in French colonial Africa, Denis’s acclaimed first film centers on a young French girl; her liberal-minded, colonial-official father; her beautiful, restless mother; and their handsome house servant Protée (de Bankolé). The film’s most remarkable passages deal with the unacknowledged sexual tension between Protée and his mistress, and with the special companionship between Protée and the young girl. A grounded airplane brings a group of outsiders who upset the household’s precarious equilibrium. A remarkably complex and subtle first feature, CHOCOLAT (the title plays punningly on French slang for both “black” and “cheated”) is one of the most insightful and valid films ever made by a westerner about Africa. In French with English subtitles. New 35mm print courtesy of The Film Desk. (MR)

Twitter: @TheFilmDesk

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Sun, Nov 3rd at 5:00pm
Wed, Nov 6th at 8:00pm
Average: 3.8 (4 votes)
  1. 2009, Claire Denis, France, 100 min.
  2. With Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankolé

“Simultaneously poetic, dramatic and realistic, WHITE MATERIAL is an altogether stunning work.”
—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“Denis’s strongest movie in the decade since BEAU TRAVAIL, her tense, convulsive WHITE MATERIAL is a portrait of change and a thing of terrible beauty.”
—J. Hoberman, Village Voice

Denis returns to Africa--the setting of her first film CHOCOLAT (and of her own childhood)--for a harrowing heart-of-darkness tale about white colonialists losing their grip on both sanity and political power. Based loosely on Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing, the film gives Huppert a tailor-made role as a settler in an unnamed African country who refuses to abandon her coffee plantation when a violent rebellion overruns the area. The film’s fluid, fragmented use of subjective camerawork impressively captures the sense of disorientation that occurs when internal and external chaos feed off each other. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm widescreen print courtesy of the Institut Français and IFC Films. (MR)

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Fri, Nov 8th at 6:00pm
Sun, Nov 10th at 3:00pm
Average: 5 (5 votes)
  1. 1999, Claire Denis, France, 90 min.
  2. With Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin

“A gorgeous mirage of a movie.”
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Considered by many to be Denis’s finest film, BEAU TRAVAIL is a haunting tragedy drenched with male eroticism and cast in the form of a languorous tropical dream. The story is based loosely on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, transposed to a remote East African outpost of the Foreign Legion and told from the villain’s point of view. Brooding, craggy Sgt. Galoup (Lavant of HOLY MOTORS) recounts his obsession with a pure-hearted recruit (Colin) who attracts Galoup’s attention, then his jealousy, and finally his murderous hatred. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français and New Yorker Films. (MR)

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Sun, Nov 10th at 4:45pm
Wed, Nov 13th at 6:00pm
Average: 3 (3 votes)
  1. 1996, Claire Denis, France, 103 min.
  2. With Grégoire Colin, Alice Houri

“A sibling drama of unsentimental urban grit and swooning lyricism...Denis's elliptical narrative style has seldom been this graceful.”
—Bill Weber, Slant Magazine

“The most striking thing about NENETTE ET BONI isn't its stylishly rough look or the superb acting. It's the movie's emotional honesty.”
—Ken Fox, TV Guide

Denis’s style is at its most supple and sensuous in this impressionistic portrait of a spiky sibling relationship. Boni (Colin of BEAU TRAVAIL) is a pizza maker whose crude erotic fantasies about the luscious wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) of a doting baker (Vincent Gallo) are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his 15-year-old sister Nenette (Houri)--runaway, resentful, and irrevocably pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby, but it may be the catalyst to bring Boni out of his shell. Denis’s ace cinematographer Agnès Godard keeps the camera close and loose, capturing allusive details on the fly and evoking Marseilles with splashes of pastel color. In French with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Strand Releasing. (MR)

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Sun, Nov 17th at 3:00pm
Thu, Nov 21st at 8:00pm
No votes yet
  2. 1994, Claire Denis, France, 112 min.
  3. With Katerina Golubeva, Richard Courcet

“Wholly eerie, edgy slice of contemporary French life.”
—Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

“The highpoint of Denis’s ‘90s cinema.”
—John Orr, Senses of Cinema

A lithe Lithuanian actress (Golubeva), a beautiful black drag queen (Courcet), a restless West Indian musician (Alex Descas), and his estranged wife (Béatrice Dalle) are among the characters in this moody neo-noir inspired by a real case involving a “granny killer” who preyed upon elderly women. I CAN’T SLEEP makes resonant use of its summer-in-the-city atmosphere and its locations in Paris's 18th arrondissement, a patchwork district of steep, skewed streets, where the ivory spires of Sacre Coeur float above the tawdry neon precincts of Pigalle. The "I" of the title refers to no particular person, evoking instead a general sense of uneasiness that afflicts all the characters. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)



Sun, Nov 17th at 5:15pm
Mon, Nov 18th at 8:00pm
Average: 5 (1 vote)

New 35mm print!

  1. 2001, Claire Denis, France, 101 min.
  2. With Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle

“A haunting and terrifying film.”
—Andrew O’Hehir,

“Startlingly original...Denis creates a horror film unlike any other, buttressing the shocks with an eye and an ear for beauty.”
—Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club

TROUBLE EVERY DAY is Denis’s most controversial, divisive film, an audacious change-of-pace that transposes some of her recurring themes and performers into the framework of an erotic splatter film. The film parallels two characters—an American (Gallo) on honeymoon in Paris, and a Frenchwoman (Dalle) imprisoned by her scientist husband (Alex Descas). Both are struggling with a drug-induced affliction that yokes sexual hunger with a literal hunger for flesh, so that consummation inevitably leads to cannibalism—seen in two harrowing scenes whose over-the-top blood-letting led one critic to compare them to action-painting. In French and English with English subtitles. New 35mm print courtesy of The Film Desk. (MR)

Twitter: @TheFilmDesk

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Sun, Nov 24th at 3:00pm
Wed, Nov 27th at 6:00pm
Average: 4.3 (3 votes)
  1. 35 SHOTS OF RUM
  1. (35 RHUMS)
  2. 2009, Claire Denis, France, 100 min.
  3. With Alex Descas, Mati Diop

“Sublime...Denis's warmest, most radiant work.”
—Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s LATE SPRING, the story centers on the close bond between African-born train engineer Lionel (Descas) and his devoted daughter Jo (Diop)--a bond that he realizes must be severed for his daughter’s good. Complicating matters are Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), an exuberant cab driver who used to be Lionel’s lover, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a restless young man who has a yen for Jo. One of Denis’s best-reviewed and most audience-friendly films, 35 SHOTS OF RUM retains her elliptical narrative strategies and political preoccupations but clearly subordinates them to the deep emotional currents among the characters--beautifully displayed in a rainy-night gathering in a Jamaican cafe that ranks among the director’s greatest scenes. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français and Cinema Guild. (MR)

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Sun, Nov 24th at 5:00pm
Mon, Nov 25th at 6:00pm
No votes yet
  2. 1990, Claire Denis, France, 90 min.
  3. With Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas

“Exquisite...the work of a daring, accomplished, unpredictable artist.”
—Caryn James, The New York Times

Denis’s rarely screened second feature introduces her deep and abiding interest in black immigrants in France, as well as marking her first collaboration with key actor Alex Descas (I CAN’T SLEEP, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, 35 SHOTS OF RUM), whom she has called her muse. Filmed in a documentary-like, hand-held style, the story centers on the bond between two black men, the volatile African Dah (de Bankolé) and the quietly intense West Indian Jocelyn (Descas), who are hired by a sleazy French restaurateur (Jean-Claude Brialy) to stage illegal cockfights. The distinction between man and animal becomes muddier as the fights become bloodier and Jocelyn becomes distracted from his rigorous training regimen by the boss’s alluring wife (Solveig Dommartin). Note: The film contains potentially disturbing cockfight scenes, although, as stated in the final credits, “no animals were harmed during the making of this film.” In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)

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Sat, Nov 30th at 3:00pm
Thu, Dec 5th at 6:00pm
No votes yet
  1. (L’INTRUS)
  2. 2004, Claire Denis, France, 130 min.
  3. With Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Béatrice Dalle

“Denis’s most gorgeous film...a fearless filmmaker’s boldest experiment yet.”
—Dennis Lim, Village Voice.

“Denis is one of cinema's greatest narrative poets, and THE INTRUDER, the story of an adventurer, is her most adventurous cinematic poem.”
—Amy Taubin, Film Comment

A metaphysical adventure tale by a supremely adventurous director, THE INTRUDER is an indescribably rich and strange mixture of Robert Louis Stevenson, F.W. Murnau, and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The title might refer to the burglars and smugglers who bedevil an aging loner (Subor of LE PETIT SOLDAT and BEAU TRAVAIL) in his snowy mountain retreat, or to the heart transplant he obtains on the black market, or to the hero himself, as he sets off to the South Seas (ravishingly photographed by Agnès Godard) in search of his lost son. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm widescreen print courtesy of the Institut Français and Pyramide. (MR)

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Fri, Nov 29th at 3:30pm
Sat, Nov 30th at 5:30pm
Sat, Nov 30th at 7:45pm
Sun, Dec 1st at 3:15pm
Sun, Dec 1st at 5:00pm
Wed, Dec 4th at 8:00pm
Average: 3 (3 votes)

First Chicago run!

  2. 2013, Claire Denis, France, 97 min.
  3. With Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni

“Claire Denis is at the height of her powers.”
—David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

“A hypnotic nocturnal thriller…exerts a dreamlike pull rooted in Denis’ rhythmic layerings of image, sound and music.”
—Scott Foundas, Variety

Written by director Denis in response to a challenge, and loosely inspired by Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, BASTARDS introduces themes of infidelity, suicide, corporate greed, revenge, and incest along with some of the most startlingly beautiful imagery of her career. One man’s death sets off the chain reaction that puts others in scheming motion and threatens to uncover dark family secrets. The lobby and marble staircase of an atmospheric Paris apartment building are symbolically central to a story in which characters rarely penetrate the inner spaces of each other’s lives. In French with English subtitles. DCP digital. (BS)

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