As we all know, when it comes to Christopher Lambert, there can be only one. However, writing about every movie in an actor's 30+ year filmography is a big job - too much for a single man who's got Marvel cards to organize and jazz trios to brawl with. So for this installment of the epic Lambertathon, John Cribbs passes the torch to Marcus Pinn, the best man for the job when it comes to covering Lambert's surprising, late-career collaboration with the great Claire Denis, White Material.

In addition to writing about various Lambert-instensive obscurities like Music and Words and I Love You, our Lamberthathon authors (in this case Marcus Pinn) have selected a supplementary film to pair with each installment of the Lambertathon. Today, Pinn weighs in on Denis' outrageously overlooked early career cockfighting should-be classic, No Fear, No Die.

When you have time, check out Pinn's various Denis-related articles over at Pinnland Empire, notably his interview with Denis herself (!) and his absolutely essential The Cinema of Claire Denis Told Through Images & Stills.

This article supplements Pinn's Lambertathon piece on White Material.


claire denis, 1990

~ by marcus pinn ~

Christopher Lambert and Isabelle Huppert weren't the only significant White Material casting choices made by Claire Denis. It also marked the first time she worked with Isaach de Bankolé in almost twenty years. Bankolé is an actor often associated with Denis, but I feel like people forget they stopped working with each other for a long time. I think the only reason Bankolé remained connected to Denis for the two decades he didn't appear in her films is because of his work with Jim Jarmusch, another figure associated with Denis (she worked as an assistant on Jarmusch's Down By Law and they remain close friends). I always found it strange that Bankolé took a hiatus from Denis' films just as her career started to get really interesting (they remained friends during this period too, there was no personal conflict or anything like that).

At the end of the day, Alex Descas is the Klaus Kinski to Denis' Werner Herzog, but Bankolé has a much more prolific role in the filmography of Claire Denis because he was there from the beginning (Chocolat) and was present when she really found her footing as a filmmaker (No Fear, No Die, which was also Denis' first collaboration with Descas). If Descas is her De Niro, I guess you could say Isaach De Bankolé is her Harvey Keitel, in that Keitel was with Scorsese since the beginning (Who's That Knocking At My Door) and starred in his first really important movie (Mean Streets, which was also Scorsese's first collaboration with De Niro).

I don't mean to downplay Chocolat. It's an excellent movie with themes that still show up in Denis' films almost three decades later: race relations between white people and black people, sexual tension between black men and white women, the troubled connection between France and Africa, etc. But style-wise, Chocolat doesn't have that moody/atmospheric feel we all know today. But then it was her first film. Most prominent filmmakers don't find their voice until a few films into their career (Kubrick, Scorsese, Van Sant, Cronenberg, etc.) Much like Wong Kar-wai's growth between As Tears Go By and Days Of Being Wild, Denis really started to come into her own with sophomore feature No Fear, No Die.

No Fear, No Die is the story of a two immigrant best friends, Dah (Bankolé) and Jocelyn (Descas), who form a partnership in a cockfighting rink owned by aging low-level criminal Pierre (played by French New Wave fixture Jean-Claude Brialy). There's also a subplot involving a love triangle between Jocelyn, Pierre and Pierre's girlfriend Toni that doubles as a comment on interracial relationships in France/Europe and the very real (although understated) relationship between Alex Descas and Claire Denis in real life - in my opinion, the character of Toni in No Fear, No Die represents Denis to some extent. Things start out fine between Dah, Jocelyn and Pierre, but as time goes on tension builds between all the parties involved and the whole cockfighting operation starts to fall apart.

Denis went through a few phases, and No Fear, No Die, along with follow-up I Can't Sleep, represented her gritty period where the subject matter shifted away from Chocolat's coming-of-age and reflections of the past to much more harsh subject matter like cockfighting (No Fear, No Die) and murder (No Fear, No Die and I Can't Sleep). This was also a time when her characters suddenly became much more complex and complicated.

Denis has this strange ability to make seemingly unlikeable people out to be likeable, a quality of hers I've grown to love and respect the older I get. No human being is perfect. We all have our faults. But in the case of Claire Denis, it gets a lot more complicated. It's easy to overlook that among her main characters are serial killers (Richard Courcet in I Can't Sleep), accomplices to murder (Alex Descas in Trouble Every Day), cheaters (Valerie Lemercier in Friday Night) and introverted self-centered jerks who neglect their children (Michael Subor in The Intruder).

You sometimes forget or turn a blind eye to the faults of these characters because you can't help sympathize (depending on your personal level of tolerance) with what they're going through. Sure, Trouble Every Day's Leo is covering up and hiding his wife's murders from the police. But she's suffering from an illness that compels her to kill and he's just trying to protect her, Denis showing us a warped sense of love and loyalty. Yes, The Intruder's Louis is an asshole, but he's in need of a heart transplant and is slowly trying to make things right with the people he wronged in the past, the film being partially about redemption. We're willing to accept that the main character in Friday Night cheats on her boyfriend because she’s kind of flighty and aloof. And although I'm not sympathetic towards Camille in I Can't Sleep, Claire Denis is kind of sympathetic towards him due to the fact that he's struggling internally with his sexuality and racial identity - take away the serial killer aspect and you realize it can be tough being a bi-racial gay man, depending on your insecurities and upbringing.

This development of complex/complicated characters really started with No Fear, No Die. Dah and Jocelyn (who is mentally unstable) are poor immigrants who live in a dirty basement of a restaurant with dreams of making enough money to have a better life. So it's tough not to feel for these guys on some level even though they're in the cockfighting business, which is absolutely wrong (and illegal) no matter how you look at it. But cockfighting is really their only (direct) fault. They aren't mean or shady. They aren't violent. They're actually quite honest and honorable in an unconventional way, especially Dah. In the final scene when Jocelyn passes away, Dah still puts thousands of dollars in Jocelyn's suit pocket for him to be buried with. You and I both know anyone else would keep that money, but in Dah's eyes that money belonged to Jocelyn.

Jocelyn's obvious mental illness doesn't get brought up much when people write about the movie, but it's a common thread that sews everything together in the Claire Denis universe. While topics like racial taboos, interracial relationships and sensuality are often associated with her work, her interest in mental instability is usually neglected. Just consider some of her most memorable characters. Beau Travail's Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) is clearly wound a little too tight. A serial killer like Camille in I Can't Sleep definitely needs help (Richard Courcet's performance owing quite a bit to Descas' performance in No Fear, No Die) and Maria's son Manuel in White Material slowly grows more and more unstable as the movie progresses. Even Boni (Nenette & Boni) is detached from reality more than the average person. But keywords like "Africa", "white women", "black men" and "France" seem to be the deepest certain critics want to go.

What's most interesting about characters like Jocelyn, Boni and Manuel is that their mental imbalance doesn't hit you at first, but by the end of the second act of their respective films you find yourself going "oh... this guy is insane." Not in a judgy kind of way, but still...

It's tempting to sum up Jocelyn's problems by labeling him an alcoholic, but it's much deeper than that. When he isn't drunk, he's still unpredictable and his choices are erratic beyond someone just being eccentric. The real person Jocelyn represents - a stoic black male immigrant from the Caribbean - is more than likely not going to get help or even know that he's clinically insane to begin with. With the exception of maybe Ballast, Bird and a few other films, mental illness and depression aren't often explored among black males in film.* Perhaps No Fear, No Die could be considered a better, more realistic example of mental illness and the stigma that sometimes comes along with it (along with the work of folks like Lodge Kerrigan).

This is one of the very few movies where Alex Descas expresses emotions beyond coolness and quiet stoicism (that's not a criticism either, that's his style and I respect it). In fact, there's one scene in the film where he completely loses his mind and screams at the top of his lungs (if you know Denis' movies then you know that's a very rare thing for him to do). The film is also an important artifact since it was Denis' first true connection to the previous generation of French Cinema (the New Wave) through the casting of Jean-Claude Brialy. Claire is usually associated with German and American cinema because she worked as an assistant for both Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, respectively. It wasn't until she gave (re)birth to Michel Subor's career with Beau Travail that her work drew a connection to older French cinema (prior to that, Subor was most known for his role in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat). With Jean-Claude Brialy’s presence in No Fear, No Die comes from the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard (A Woman Is A Woman) and Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee) as well as his appearance in Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (which kicked off the New Wave) and its immediate follow-up Les Cousins and even French films made by filmmakers apart from the New Wave like The Phantom of Liberty.

It's a shame that No Fear, No Die remains Denis' most elusive feature (U.S. Go Home being more of a long short/made for TV movie). For various reasons ranging from availability to just not caring enough, a lot of people often jump from Chocolat to Beau Travail, completely bypassing the director's most interesting period. If the Criterion Collection happens to come across this article, perhaps they could start the process of giving this film the resurgence it deserves instead of re-releasing pre-existing titles on blu-ray.

~ MARCH 30, 2016 ~

NEXT WEEK: We return to our regularly scheduled Lambertination, where John Cribbs has already implied in various capacities that he will be covering Highlander, Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, Fortress, some crummy proto-Tarantino garbage called Roadflower and/or Baby's Day Out.

* What's interesting is that Bird, Ballast and No Fear, No Die are all directed by white filmmakers.