Denis was born in Paris in 1946, and spent parts of her childhood in Cameroon, among other places, as the daughter of a colonial official. It was her mother who sparked her interest in cinema with stories about films. In the late 1960s, she successfully applied to the Paris film academy where she made a few short films, commissioned works and after graduating, initially worked as an assistant director with Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, among others. She thought for a long time that she would never be able to realise her own projects, in her own style, due to the strict status quo in productions of the time.
However, in May 1988, Claire Denis' feature film debut CHOCOLAT was shown in competition at Cannes, her fifth feature film NÉNETTE ET BONI won the main prize in Locarno in 1996, and in 1999 BEAU TRAVAIL celebrated its world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival. With this most recent beguiling, free adaptation of Herman Melville's story BILLY BUDD, the director was internationally established as a prominent contemporary filmmaker. The way Denis’ Lavant as the foreign legionnaire Galoup dances to "The Rhythm of The Night" in front of the mirrored wall of a disco as if no one is watching is one of the most shocking dance scenes in cinema.
After CHOCOLAT, her films stick to the present. 35 RHUMS follows in the footsteps of the Japanese Yasujiro Ozu and observes the change in an immensely intimate relationship between father and daughter. In WHITE MATERIAL, Isabelle Huppert embodied a coffee farmer whose life and livelihood is firmly rooted in Africa. Sometimes Claire Denis even draws heavily on genre cinema: in the horror film in TROUBLE EVERY DAY, on the “polar”, the icy French equivalent of film noir, in LES SALAUDS, on the science fiction film in HIGH LIFE.