Denis, Claire: French Auteur Filmmaker–Vision, Filmography

The French film director and writer Claire Denis is one of the most acclaimed and innovative filmmakers working today.

Her feature Beau Travail (1999) is one of the greatest films of the 1990s. Other acclaimed works include Trouble Every Day (2001), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009) and High Life (2018).

Her work has dealt with colonial and post-colonial West Africa, as well as issues in modern France, and continues to influence European cinematic identity.

Denis was born in Paris, but raised in colonial French Africa, where her father was a civil servant, living in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, French Somaliland, and Senegal.

Her childhood spent living in West Africa with her parents and her younger sister shaped her perspective on political issues. Their father told them that independence from France would be good for these colonies. It has been a strong influence on her films, which have dealt with colonialism and post-colonialism in Africa. Her father moved a lot with the family because he wanted the children to learn about geography.

Growing up in West Africa, Denis used to watch the old and damaged copies of US war films. As an adolescent she loved to read. Completing the required material while in school, at night she would sneak her mother’s detective stories to read.

At age 12, Denis was diagnosed with polio and returned to France for treatment. She lived in Sceaux, a suburb of Paris, for the rest of her teenage years. During that time, she felt unfit for living in France. She was educated for life in Africa, and felt different from everyone around her.

In 1969, Denis married a photographer she met at the age of 15, after being hired as assistant. Due to the complex nature of their bond, they divorced soon after.

Denis initially studied economics. She then briefly studied Oriental languages and married a photographer who encouraged her to quit. In 1969 Denis studied at IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques – now La Fémis) with her husband’s encouragement. She graduated from the IDHEC and since 2002 has been a film professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

Before being accepted into IDHEC, she worked as intern at Télé Niger. She was told: “no, don’t waste your time studying, all you need to do is make films here with us”.

After graduating in 1971, Denis began working as assistant director on Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), Denis Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974), Robert Enrico’s The Old Gun (1974), Eduardo de Gregorio’s Sérail (1976) and Costa-Gavras’s Hanna K. (1983).

After meeting Wim Wenders, Denis traveled to the U.S. to be assistant director on Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). Wenders has said, “Claire was more than ready to make her own films. It would have been a waste to let her continue working as assistant director.”

Denis’s feature film debut, Chocolat (1988), is semi-autobiographical meditation about a French woman reflecting on her childhood in Cameroon and her relationship with her family’s African servant. While making it, Denis began collaborating with Jean-Pol Fargeau as co-writer; they still work together. Chocolat was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and praised by critics as a remarkable first film.

Denis’s second film, Man No Run (1989), is a documentary that follows Cameroonian musicians, Les Têtes Brulées, touring France.

Her next two narrative were No Fear, No Die (S’en fout la mort, 1990) and I Can’t Sleep (J’ai pas sommeil, 1994). The former is about illegal cockfighting, the latter about serial killer who murders elderly women, inspired by real case.

Her next film, Nénette et Boni (1996) concerns the troubled relationship between an alienated brother and his unhappily pregnant sister.

Denis’s fifth and arguably most renowned film is Beau Travail (1999), loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1888). It is about soldiers in the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti. Beau Travail explores the themes of masculinity and obsession.

Trouble Every Day (2001) was a horror film about newlywed couple in Paris while the husband succumbs to sexually fueled cannibalism.

Of Denis’s next six films, five draw from preexisting texts and films.

Friday Night (Vendredi soir, 2002) is about two strangers who spend the night together the night before the woman is supposed to move in with her current lover. It was adapted from Emmanuèle Bernheim’s novel of the same name.

The Intruder (L’Intrus, 2004) is based on Jean Luc Nancy’s short memoir about a man receiving heart transplant and reconnecting with his son.

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, 2008), one of Denis’s most acclaimed films, about a father’s and daughter’s changing relationship. It was inspired by Yasujirō Ozu’s film Late Spring (1949).

Her film Bastards (Les Salauds, 2013) was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960).

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) (2017) is a romantic comedy inspired by Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977).

Of these, the only film not based on preexisting text is White Material (2009), which was co-written with Marie N’Diaye. It is about a white French woman in post-colonial Africa who stays during a rising civil conflict. She returned to Africa with White Material, set in unidentified country during a civil war.

High Life (2018) takes place on a prison spaceship.

With films such as US Go Home (1994), Nénette et Boni, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, and Vendredi soir, Denis established reputation as a filmmaker “able to reconcile the lyricism of French cinema with the impulse to capture the harsher face of contemporary France.”

Denis has also made short films spanning a multitude of subjects, such as Le 15 Mai (1969) while studying at IDHEC, Keep It for Yourself (1991) and Voilà l’enchaînement (2014). Her anthologies include Pour Ushari Ahmed Mahmoud, Soudan in Lest We Forget (Contre l’oubli, (1991).

US Go Home (1994) is a segment in a series of films commissioned by Arte. Nice, Very Nice is a segment in À propos de Nice, la suite (1995) and Towards Nancy (Vers Nancy) in Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002).

Denis Documentaries

Her documentaries include Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (Jacques Rivette, the Watchman, 1990), Towards Mathilde (Vers Mathilde, 2005) and Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded (2013).

She also made the short film Contact (2014) for a light installation by Olafur Eliasson, who helped on the production design for High Life.

Common themes in Denis’s work include obsession, desire, violence, sex, and the body. It also focuses on the feelings of being an outsider.

Motif: Evil Inside

Denis has said, “For me, the monster is invisible. If there is a small thread running through all my work, it is that evil is never the other, everything is inside and never outside.”

Denis is collaborative filmmaker, saying: “the film becomes a relationship…and that is what’s important, the relationship.” The importance of collaboration can be seen throughout her work.

She often recasts actors in multiple films, most notably Alex Descas, who has worked with Denis 11 times from 1990 to 2017, and Isaach de Bankolé, who appeared in 3 of her films from 1988 to 2009. Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Juliette Binoche and Grégoire Colin have also appeared in multiple Denis films.

She often collaborates with screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, composer Stuart Staples of the band Tindersticks, and cinematographer Agnès Godard, whom she met in the 1970s at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques.

Asked about her screenwriting process, Denis said, “I often realize I have Isaach or Grégoire or someone else in mind” when writing scenes. She has also said that usually she “holds no auditions” for her films.

Fargeau has co-written 10 of Denis’s screenplays.

Staples has composed 8 of her films. Denis has said that he “has a rapport with the body, with flesh, with desire which is very close to mine”.

Nelly Quettier edited I Can’t Sleep, Beau Travail, Vendredi soir and The Intruder.

Judy Shrewsbury has worked on every one of Denis’s features for the last 20 years.

Agnès Godard is one of Denis’s most important collaborators, having worked on 11 of her films as a camera operator to the cinematographer in every film except White Material and High Life.

By collaborating with many artists she has learned to trust the filmmaking process. She told Damon Smith: “What I got from Jacques Rivette was a complete trust in filmmaking, in actors, in acting…and a taste for endangering myself a little bit…From Wim [Wenders], I got another kind of trust, a trust in feeling very free with the camera and in designing a film not with an aesthetic, but with a complete trust of a location, in the light of the day.” She also gives actors considerable freedom. In Trouble Every Day there are two onscreen murders where she let Gallo and Dalle do what they wished after the first scripted bite.

Denis’s collaborations go beyond her own films–she has appeared in other directors’ films, such as Laetitia Masson’s En avoir (1995) and Tonie Marshall’s Vénus beauté (1999). She shares screenwriting credit on Yousry Nasrallah’s El Medina (2000).

She also worked as an assistant director with Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), and with Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986).

In 2005, Denis was a member of the jury at the 27th Moscow Film Festival.

In 2011, she was a member of the jury at the Deauville American Film Festival.

In 2006, Denis directed the video for the song “Incinerate” by Sonic Youth, from their album Rather Ripped.

Bastards was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Also that year, Denis was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Stockholm Film Festival.

Denis announced in 2015 that she was partnering with Zadie Smith for her English-language debut film, High Life. Smith eventually left the project, causing delay in filming. Denis went on to work on Let the Sunshine In, which starred Juliette Binoche, released in 2017.

In 2018 Denis completed and released High Life, her first English-language feature film, with Robert Pattinson cast as the lead. The film premiered at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival. It later had a limited U.S. release by American indie distributors A24. It was positively reviewed by many notable critics.

Denis has been a member of multiple film festival boards, starting with the Venice Fesr in 2005. In 2019, she was the president of the board of the Cinéfondation and short films at the Cannes Film Fest. In 2020, she was president of the board of the Orizzonti section at the Venice Fest.

Artistic Vision

Denis’s uses location work rather than studio work. She sometimes places her actors as if they were positioned for still photography. She uses longer takes with stationary camera and frames things in long shot, with fewer close ups.

Denis’s cinematic focus always remains relentlessly on her protagonists’ faces and bodies. The subject’s body in space, and how the particular terrain, weather, and color of the landscape influence and interact with the human subjects of her films maintains cinematic dominance.

Tim Palmer explores Denis’s work as a self-declared formalist and brilliant film stylist, an approach Denis has declared to be as much about sounds, textures, colors and compositions as broader thematic concerns or social commitments.

Denis rejects the marketable conventions of Hollywood cinema and frees the viewers of her films from the expectations of clichés.

Denis combines broad history with personal history, giving her films autobiographical element. This superimposition of the personal with the historical makes her an auteurist director.

She has worked in many genres, from horror (Trouble Every Day) to romance and drama (Friday Night). But critics have noted recurring themes in her films, even though Denis says she has no coherent vision of her career “trajectory.”

Denis is not concerned with film theory: “I am not at all interested in theories about cinema. I am only interested in images and people and sound… Film theory is just a pain in the ass.”

She focuses on “human” stories, no matter the setting of the film. Denis has said she does not aim to bring about radical social change or make the viewer feel better: “I’m not so sure films should be made to soothe people’s pain. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to share something that is a vision, or a feeling.” Her films’ main focus is on the characters, often in moments of intense violence and emotion. “Anger is part of my relation to the world,” she has said. “I’m filled with anger, I’m filled with regret, I’m filled with great memories, also poetic memories.”

The Body

The body is “central” to Denis work, and often uses skin, blood, and other bodily fluids to symbolize characters’ feelings, as well as highlight relationships between them. In Chocolat, skin is photographed prominently to accentuate the difference between the subservient and degrading nature of the dark-skinned Proteè’s forced outdoor bathing and the shameless confidence of pale, white Luc, who chooses to do so. In Trouble Every Day and High Life, bodily fluids are central to the stories, creating visceral disturbing images, and highlighting the films’ “sexuality”.

Denis has directed variety of films that span most known genres in her 30-year career, but is known for bending a genre’s rules, often not obeying traditional rules of pacing or cinematography for established genres like horror, science fiction, and fantasy, focusing instead on the characters, their psyches, emotions and relationships. Though she has made horror movies and romantic comedies and dramas, Denis has never been concerned with making the scariest, funniest, or most heartbreaking films; she is only interested in telling the human story.

Denis chooses the titles of her films carefully–they are meant to force the viewer to rethink a film’s imagery.

The title of Chocolat simultaneously refers to a racist term used during the film’s period, the cocoa exportation from Africa to Europe through slavery, and the 1950s French expression “être chocolat,” “to be cheated”.

Denis is known for “shooting fast, editing slowly.” She does a few takes on set and spends long time in the editing room, creating the film there. This post-production process often involves rearranging scenes out of the order.

She placed the dance in Beau Travail at the end of the film though it was not at the end of the script.

Denis has said, “I’m always insecure when I’m making a film. I have doubts about myself but rarely about the actors.”


Chocolat / Chocolate (1988)

S’en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990)

J’ai pas sommeil / I Can’t Sleep (1994)

US Go Home (TV, from the collection Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge / All the Boys and the Girls of Their Age, 1994)

Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996)

Beau travail / Good Work (1999)

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002)

L’intrus / The Intruder (2004)

35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008)

White Material (2009)

Bastards / Les Salauds (2013)

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

High Life (2018)

Fire (2022)

The Stars at Noon (2022)

Short films

Le 15 Mai (IDHEC film, based on Frederik Pohl’s The Tunnel under the World, 1969)
Keep It for Yourself (1991)
Contre l’oubli / Against Oblivion (1991)
segment: Pour Ushari Ahmed Mahmoud, Soudan
Monologues (TV series) La robe à cerceau (1993)
Boom-Boom (1994)
À propos de Nice, la suite (1995)
segment: Nice, Very Nice
We, France’s Undocumented Immigrants (co-director) (1997)
Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002)
segment: Vers Nancy / Towards Nancy
On bosse ici! On vit ici! On reste ici! (co-director) (2010)
To the Devil (2011)
Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded (2013)
Segment: Claire Denis
Voilà l’enchaînement (2014)
Contact (2014/III)
Documentary films
New Reports from France (TV Series documentary) (2 episodes)
Chroniques de France N° 77 (1972) … (segment “Magic Circus, burlesque”)
Chroniques de France N° 87 (1973) … (segment “Bibliothèque modèle pour enfants, Clamart”)
Man No Run (1989)
Jacques Rivette, le veilleur/Jacques Rivette, the Watchman (1990)

Vers Mathilde / Towards Mathilde (2005)
The Breidjing Camp (TV documentary) (2005)
Second unit director or assistant director
Sweet Movie (second assistant director) (1974)
The Secret (second assistant director) (1974)
The Golden Mass (second assistant director) (1975)
The Old Gun (second assistant director) (1975)
Surreal Estate (first assistant director) (1976)
Mais où et donc Ornicar (first assistant director) (1979)
Return to the Beloved (assistant director) (1979)
Zoo zéro (first assistant director) (1979)
The Imprint of Giants (assistant director) (1980)
Pile ou face (assistant director) (1980)
We’re Not Angels…Neither Are They (ass director) (1981)
The Passerby (first assistant director) (1982)

Le bâtard (first assistant director) (1983)

Hanna K. (first assistant director) (1983)

To Catch a King (TV Movie) (first assistant director) (1984)

Paris, Texas (assistant director) (1984)

Down by Law (assistant director) (1986)

Wings of Desire (first assistant director) (1987)