I watched Claire Denis’s debut feature while on vacation. It was interesting watching this while traveling in a foreign country given that the ‘outsider’ status seems to play an even more overt role in this film as compared to her latter films. Apart from this, issues of race and identity are very much at its core. In the very opening shot, however, Denis subverts these very notions by showing us images of a white woman lying on the beach (who we later learn grew up in Africa) and juxtaposes this against the shot of a black man who seems to fit perfectly against the African landscape but who we later learn is an American. Just like in this opening scene, most of what this movie says is through images, glances and gestures.
Most of the movie is told in flashback and revolves around a white French official and his family living in Cameroon. The story is told mostly through the eyes of the young girl who is looking back on her childhood years. Given this basic premise, Denis is able to create an incredible amount of tension around racial divide and social norms without ever engaging in anything overtly melodramatic or having the characters ever perceptibly transcend these boundaries while on screen. The black servant Protée seems to have the deepest understanding of the norms that govern everybody’s behavior and yet all his wisdom and understanding is conveyed largely by his silence and the fact that his face always reveals a quiet confidence and ability to do the right thing in any given situation. Despite this, there is also pain and frustration that Protée cannot complete hide from his glance given how bound he is both to the place and to his employers. The entire movie escalates and becomes really intense almost without warning and here again, as in [i]Beau Travail[/i], the sexual tension is unspoken and never really made explicit except for one scene which I think does a marvelous job of saying everything the film needs to say about how race and social status comes in the way of how we look at each other and the pain that we cause each other as we try and deal with this. Despite being a story about childhood, told in flashback, it never gets sappy or sentimental and yet remains perfectly evocative of the time and place. As in all the other Denis movies I’ve watched, I loved the ending — not as much fun as Denis Lavant dancing but perfect in its own way.