When I first heard Claire Denis would be in town for the première of her new film Les Salauds (Bastards), my heart started palpitating the way it does when you first hear that a former mistress with whom you had a sordid affair has returned to the city. I thought, What better time to take a lover?
I first met French filmmaker Claire Denis on a return flight from London in the early aughts, in a time when I watched esoteric art-house cinema expressly to say that I did; Chocolat was at the bottom of the foreign category. The story begins when France, a shy white girl, albeit rude, agrees to a ride from bourgeois black man. As stagnant as her surroundings may be, there is a slow but seismic shift in her perception—the kind you don’t notice until at the tail end. A friendship blossoms and inevitably dies. The story, bleak and authentic in every way a film should be, leaves you yearning for more.
So I guess it’s appropriate that Vendredi Soir (Friday Night)—an erotica about two unequivocally attractive strangers who have an unforgettable one-night stand—is perhaps Denis’s most memorable. (I still haven’t forgotten it.) What separates it from typical erotica and succeeds in humanizing an experience of ecstasy is that neither Jean nor Laure is a pillar of physical perfection; their encounters aren’t fervent nor are their engagements adroit. And they never saw each other again.
Nor did I see Denis, until a screener of Les Salauds made its way to my desk. With a clear recollection of how exhilarating evenings with her were, I watched with disappointment as a grisly story of a suicide leaves all of its coefficients to extrapolate clarity from a shower of shrapnel. I couldn’t help but think of all the great moments I had with Denis—how her films, to my once sophisticated and perhaps cerebral self, were a poignant reminder of the passing of time. Had I outgrown her in spite of herself? I continue to revel in both foreign and art house, now because I thoroughly enjoy its merits, which continue to surpass big-budget box-office toppers with its strong narratives and compelling character portrayals. Perhaps the only way I can now articulate my relationship with Denis, she already did in Chocolat, in which I was as embryonic as both France and her prescient creator.
Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis, a retrospective of the French auteur, runs until Nov. 10; tiff.net
Special Introduction and Q&A of Bastards with Denis Friday, October 18, 6:30 p.m.