Film Award Cologne

Claire Denis

French director Claire Denis is honoured as this years awardee of the Film Award Cologne, which is endowed with € 25,000 and donated by the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW and the City of Cologne since 2007. With the Film Award Cologne personalities are honored, who have made an outstanding contribution to the further development of film- and medialanguage through their work.


The first shot opens wide onto a beach and the sea. Two figures are emerging from it, a black man and a child, laughing and chasing each other in shallow waves that come rolling in. Then the camera pans until a white woman appears in the frame. She watches the two from afar. A little later, the local resident and his son offer the woman a ride in their car. The foreigner is called »France« – a highly symbolic name. However, there is also a personal connection between her and the history of the country. As the landscape of Cameroon drifts by, we initially believe we are looking at it through the eyes of the adult woman, but then realize she has traveled back in time: in the back of a jeep, France as a child is sitting on the floor next to an African boy. The sequence has come full circle and has arrived at the beginning of her journey.

The film is called CHOCOLATE. Born in Paris in 1946, director Claire Denis has spent parts of her childhood in Cameroon as the daughter of a colonial officer. Her mother’s stories about movies sparked her interest in cinema: films became something beyond her imagination, a great promise – but when her grandparents took her to see animated features, she found the experience wanting (as she has said in an interview in Marjorie Vecchio’s 2014 book, THE FILMS OF CLAIRE DENIS). In the late 1960s, she successfully applied to the French state film school in Paris. She shot a few short films, jobs she was hired for. However, after graduation, she entered the industry as an assistant director, working with Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and others – partly because, for a long time, she remained convinced that the prevailing production conditions would not allow her to pursue her own projects on her own terms.

In May 1988, Claire Denis’ feature film debut CHOCOLATE has its premiere screening in competition in Cannes. (The Golden Palm goes to Bille August’s PELLE THE CONQUEROR that year.) Her fifth film, NENNETTE AND BONI, wins the main prize at Locarno in 1996, with the two acting awards also going to Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Grégoire Colin. In 1999, the out-of-competition world premiere of BEAU TRAVAIL is celebrated at the Venice Festival. A captivating free adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel BILLY BUDD, this film puts the director on the global map for good as a significant auteur in contemporary cinema. Letting go of all inhibitions as he dances to »The Rhythm of The Night« in front of a mirror in a disco, Denis Lavant as Foreign Legion officer Galoup adds a lasting image to the collective visual memory of cinema.

Classic film narratives guide the audience along invisible lines through the story. The films of Claire Denis do not follow such patterns of dramatic containment and conventional scenic resolution (from the long shot to the close-up, etc.). Her movies are agile, they feel erratic and unpredictable at first, and they entice the audience to focus on details. They require a willingness to see and only later understand, as recollections come together to form context and coherence – as is the case with France in CHOCOLATE. Some things are left unsettled. Denis likes to say that she is in the camp of filmmakers who trust the image.

Her films seem to be composed of a string of moments. Who is watching – that is ever subject to change; the camera lens has its own life. All of this creates great atmospheric density and intensity. Daydreaming in bed under floral sheets, a young man called Boni imagines himself as the dominant lover of the gorgeous girl next door – until he climaxes. The sequence is very sensual and sexually charged, though very subtle at the same time. The camera primarily shows Boni’s back, muscles moving under his bare skin – and at the very peak of excitement, the rhythmic gurgling of the coffee machine heralds the return to a mundane setting. NENNETTE AND BONI is a study of adolescence and all its contradictions, reflected in the city of Marseille. This is not Denis’ first film that frames France very naturally as a postcolonial, heterogeneous society.

After CHOCOLATE, her films stick to the here and now. Sometimes they take more obvious cues from genre cinema: from horror movies in TROUBLE EVERY DAY, or from the »polar«, the icy French equivalent of film noir, in BASTARDS, showing abuse driven by a cold, hard fusion of economic and sexual prowess. A science-fiction film is currently in production. The films intertwine – owing to their elliptical narratives and themes along similar lines. Again and again, family ties between brother and sister (US GO HOME, NENNETTE AND BONI, BASTARDS) turn out to be closer than those between generations or lovers. That said, 35 SHOTS OF RUM follows in the footsteps of Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu and shows how an extremely close bond between father and daughter must change over time. One might consider this a (blissful) variation on the muddled relationship between Nénette and her father. In a similar vein, the coffee farmer played by Isabelle Huppert in WHITE MATERIAL, who is firmly rooted in her African home, may, in a way, reprise and continue the story of the character France.

The working relationships Claire Denis has established over decades also contribute to such correlations: actors like Isaach de Bankolé, Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas or Michel Subor can be considered Denis regulars. She has also repeatedly worked with Béatrice Dalle, Nicholas Duvauchelle, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri and Vincent Lindon. Others on »Planet Claire« include frequent co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau and the Tindersticks as composers and performers of original film music. Behind the camera, Agnès Godard is an indispensable congenial director of photography in almost all Denis movies, responsible for setting up, lighting and shooting singular images that appear to breathe. In a bonus feature on the BASTARDS DVD, Claire Denis explains: »My cinematographer Agnès Godard and I share this ritual that helps us understand the film – that is the test shoot. The table readings are done. Everything is prepped. The locations are set. And then we do test shoots that allow us to become engrossed in the film. We can try out the decor, the original locations, as well as the rain, the costumes, the colors. The crew can get to know each other and the cast. We can find out how they fit into the clothes and spaces of the movie without feeling uncomfortable.« And then things can get started. Isabella Reicher

To honor the director and her work the festival dedicates a retrospective to Claire Denis.

On October 14th at 5pm Claire Denis talked about her work at a public workshop discussion.


Laureates of recent years:

2015     Paolo Sorrentino
2014     Lars von Trier
2013     Harmony Korine
2012     François Ozon
2011     Tarsem Singh
2010     David Lynch
2009     Roman Polanski
2008     Jean-Pierre Dardenne und Luc Dardenne
2007     Paul Haggis