that famous molecule: NÉNETTE AND BONI

john cribbs


It's always a pleasure and a surprise to hear what Claire Denis is up to, what her next project's going to be. Since Beau Travail, I must have thought of a hundred different things I'd love to see her try her hand at, from resurrecting the wrestling movie (Aronofsky stole that one) to directing an environmentalist kids film about talking woodland creatures (could be interesting.) She manages to come up with her own great ideas though, and I've been aching to hear more about this upcoming one White Material (pairing up Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert!) but in the meantime revisiting some of her earlier stuff is sufficient to maintain my Denis fix. And last month Nénette et Boni finally came out on disc, so I watched that one.

More than any of her other films, Nénette et Boni is rife with the in-between moments that exist within the cracks of the narrative and suggest (rather than exposit) what events have brought her characters to this moment in their lives. We pick up with Boni living with a group of petty criminals in a house in Marseilles he inherited from his mother, working a job in a pizza van his uncle set him up with. He's got a rough look and an antagonistic demeanor, but he's really just a pussy cat: a self-described "wimp" who lives in a private world of sexual fantasy and masturbatory fulfillment. The object of his desire is the buxom neighborhood baker's wife for whom his aggressive journal entries plot rape and domination but in person he deflates sheepishly in front of like a schoolboy, harmless as the baby rabbit he keeps as a pet. Typical Denis characters have intangible desires, and through Boni we see that even when one of them knows what he wants, he can't actually seem to get it.

For her part, Nénette has little use for daydreams. She's stuck in the reality of a pregnant 15-year-old runaway - she's dulled herself into a protective narcissism, occupying her time with half-assed hustling and making a general nuisance of herself to Boni, her estranged brother. We're introduced to her floating in a pool wearing a serene expression...and improper swim attire, which gets her ejected from her transient sanctuary. Nénette wants to be free but can't. The impending responsibilities of motherhood (beyond representing some unspoken turmoil - it's implied that the pregnancy may be the result of an incestuous relationship with her father, but Denis' not interested enough in such melodramatics to reveal it) threaten to exile her from contentment permanently. For her, a child means a life sentence to the same kind of oppression she's apparently felt all her life: the scene where she eats the meat of a McDonalds' burger and rejects the bun is an apt metaphor. It's not until later in the movie that she frantically backpedals in a dangerous eleventh hour effort to free herself from what she doesn't want... which is something that turns out to be exactly what Boni needs.

Denis regular Grgoire Colin (I failed to recognize him as the boyfriend in her latest, 35 Rums - he's all grown up!) has a brute face but soft dark eyes, and his quiet moments indulging himself in the bedroom are tender rather than distasteful: even after imaging himself accosting and molesting his dream woman he has to take a second to lovingly caress his black market Krups Italian coffee maker/alarm clock by the side of his bed. As Nénette, Alice Houri is absolutely lovely if not always as endearing as Colin's Boni. Her pregnancy becomes the driving force of the narrative, leading to her rejection and Boni's acceptance of the responsibility. The couple are stand-ins for two of Denis' common threads: Boni of sexual repression, Nénette of female entrapment. She'd explore these themes more fully in later films Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, respectively, but here she seems to suggest that the two problems can resolve each other. By the end, Boni has moved from his fantasy world into reality and, in her final shot, Nénette has found what was denied her in the beginning: serenity.

Denis' film came out the year after Benot Jacquot's A Single Girl, in which Virginie Ledoyen traipsed around Paris trying to decide whether she was willing to go through with having Benot Magimel's baby. Although this is a brother-sister situation as opposed to boyfriend-girlfriend, the titular siblings' closeness could easily be misconstrued. Their relationship lies somewhere between Denis' tension-racked actual families (Chocolat's colonists in Cameroon, the father/daughter of 35 Rhums) and her couples manufactured by fate (the cockfighters of No Fear No Die, the master sergeant/legionnaire in Beau Travail, the two strangers in Friday Night). What Denis wants to distinguish in this relationship is the difference between physical connection and psychological intimacy. Just as Single Girl was influenced by Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, so is Nénette et Boni a gentle reflection of Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. Denis is not as interested in fracturing time as Resnais, though she does slip in an unannounced flashback of the baker and his wife falling in love that stands upwith the most romantic moments in film history. I mean seriously, has anyone gotten better use out of Vincent Gallos eyes or Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi smiling?

And let it be said: Claire Denis is the only director who could possibly get away with using a goddamn Beach Boys song.

Denis films are peopled by characters indifferently stationed in go-nowhere jobs: mechanic, hotel maid, train conductor. Here Boni is content with his role as pizza van proprietor and his yearning for the bakers wife might have something to do with a subconscious ambition to move up in the world, eventually owning an established eatery. But more likely his fixation comes from the desire to feel something and confirm his own place in world. One of this movies motifs is food and eating, something you don't see much of in Denis other films. Here it's mostly used as jokey sexual innuendos (juxtaposition of the baker's wife's cleavage and two touching pastries for example) but the joy of snacking and the fantasy of fucking seem to Denis to be a confirmation of life. An entire scene devoted to the kneading of dough is enacted, yet the murder of a major character is committed off-camera and lasts less than 30 seconds of screen time. In this film, Denis is more interested in life than in death and, of course, the film ends with birth.

Pets and phone cards, babies and coffee makers, breasts and food: what does it all mean? Again, it's the little moments and mundane items that interest Denis. She believes that objectification is a surprising door to humanism: to want is natural, to need essential in any person. In the best scene of the movie, Bruni-Tedeschi's baker's wife has coffee with Boni after they've run into each other at the mall: she sits there objectifying the perfect non-smell perfume and its importance in allowing the pheromone (that famous molecule) to do its job, oblivious to him as he ogles her libidinous smile.

Ultimately he will covet his sister's child, leading to what may be the most adorable kidnapping in movie history. Afterwards, he hangs around the house watching the kid like his rabbit. Does it mean anything to him beyond something real that he can control? In gaining an infant without the enjoyment of sex, he seems to be asking himself "here's what I have: can I make it something I want?"

Thanks for bringing this one out Strand. Now let's release No Fear No Die and her short films (especially US Go Home) and get White Material into theaters!


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