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Locating the Racial and Gendered Other in Denis’ and Breillat’s Cinema of the Body

by Camille Crichlow

The recent rise of unsettling, often disturbing French arthouse films has formed the innovative Cinema du Corps movement, what Tim Palmer in “The Cinema du Corps” defines as “an on-screen interrogation of physicality in brutally intimate terms” (57). Characterized by their deliberately unnerving exploration of physical embodiment, such as features of “dispassionate physical encounters,” and the use of experimental style and technique, the films of the Cinema du Corps confront the viewer with scenes of corporeal violence and subjection (Palmer 57). These images assume a “viscerally engaged experiential participant” who rejects the conventional passivity of the traditional spectator (Palmer 60). In Catherine Breillat’s À Ma Soeur! (2001) and Claire Denis’s J’ai Pas Sommeil (1994), the cinema of the body gives the spectator a physical sense of what it feels like to encounter the subjection of the racialized and gendered other. Both engage in cinematic exploration of the violent and unsettling by foregrounding, in the extreme, various forms of contact between dominant and marginalized bodies entangled in abuse and pleasure. In filmic approach, À Ma Soeur and J’ai Pas Sommeil graphically illuminate spectacles of the violent embodiment of gender and race, generating for the viewer an affective, physical awareness of how power, love and aggression comes to actively shape interior worlds in societies of marginalization, displacement and inequality.

Writing in “Ticket to Ride: Claire Denis and the Cinema of the Body,” Adrian Martin suggests that Denis’ films propose the biopolitical question of “what distinction gets drawn, by those in power, between full, divine ‘humanity’ and disposable ‘bare life’”. Through the visual exploration of otherness and marginality, J’ai Pas Sommeil offers a valuable analysis of the power dynamics that operate through physical embodiments of race, gender, and migrant status. For example, the film’s opening shot reveals two white policemen overlooking the highways of Paris, laughing at an unexplained joke. Here, power and surveillance is not only asserted through the mastery of the policemen’s point-of-view, but also in how their dominant vision maps out and defines all physical space within their purview. As Daiga, one of the film’s main protagonists, drives down the highway, she is neither able to escape the gaze of the policeman’s authority from above, nor the gazes of the men in the cars around her. Beyond the symbolic of vision, this inability to evade the gaze gives the scene a chilling sense of physical claustrophobia for the viewer. Even in an effort to be mobile, Daiga’s body is accessible, vulnerable, and marginalized, revealing her inevitably precarious position as both a woman and a foreign migrant.  

Throughout J’ai Pas Sommeil, Daiga is confronted with uncomfortable, often violent encounters with French men. These encounters display an ongoing power struggle between Daiga, the ostracized female migrant, and the assertion of male nationalist domination and authority. In this sense, to occupy a body positioned as other is to be met with the threat of violence. In one scene, Daiga visits a café, but she is met with disdain for not being French. In another scene, she is forced to flee from a man sexually harassing her. Despite her vulnerability, Daiga is not merely passive or compliant, but rather exhibits the possibilities of resistance in her everyday battle against her own marginalization. For example, she curses at the policemen who come out of the café to patronize and question her; she flees into a pornography theatre to escape a man following her. It is especially in this latter scene that her acute otherness is physically manifested. Here, she is the only woman in a room of male pleasure, and her perversely embodied presence severs and disrupts this normative relation of sexuality and power. As she sits down, and eventually begins to laugh, seemingly at the unrealistic representation of women and their sexuality in the pornagraphic film, Daiga confronts and disrupts patriarchal senses of looking and being, demonstrated as the men turn to look at her. In framing this scene, Denis employs techniques of the cinema of the body to visually convey a typically gendered power struggle, dramatizing and revealing not only what it feels like to live in an ostracized gendered body, but also the bizarreness of normative physical representations of sexuality and gender. Here, the cinema of the body works to confront the viewer, forcing them to abandon normative narratives of women and their sexual roles. More directly, the scene depicts resistance and a moment of redress, however temporary, when the embodied other can performatively combat forms of domination and suppression.

With a similar concern for the dynamic of power and gender, Breillat, in À Ma Soeur, explores the violent realization of gendered marginalization through the sexual awakening of two young girls. In the disturbing and often violent representation of sexual encounters, Breillat’s film positions the embodiment of femininity as inherently othered, marginalized, and infantilized. As Palmer points out, the cinema of the body is deployed as “fundamentally aggressive, devoid of romance, [and] lacking a nurturing instinct of empathy of any kind” (57-58). These extreme tactics make the spectator’s experience uncomfortable. With dispassionate directness, the spectator is harshly confronted with the normalization of violent experiences of early sexuality. The intimacy with which these scenes are made borders on the pornographic, destabilizing any boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Nevertheless, À Ma Soeur, like J’ai Pas Sommeil, enunciates the feel of the female, othered body at the intersection of violence and sexual exploitation. A prime example of this tension occurs in the long, drawn out sequence in which Fernando tries to coerce Elena, one of the two young female protagonists, into having sex with him, and then again in the rape scene at the end of the film. These raw sequences with little camera movement are incredibly unsettling because, in the extreme, they point to the reality of sexual and gendered violence forced onto women every day. Depictions of sexual violence in the film, ultimately operating around systems of female subordination, marginalization, and shame, attempt to give a sense of how embodied femininity is violently shaped and negotiated, and how women are inaugurated into sexual embodiments whose violence-prone experience is reproduced on screen.

In J’ai Pas Sommeil, Théo, a struggling father from Martinique, also confronts his embodied otherness in his resistant collision with forms of racial domination. In “Decoding Unreadable Spaces,” Corinne Oster asserts that J’ai Pas Sommeil is characterized by a particular “‘colored’ invisibility of a borderland” in which race “is detached from the norms established by mainstream society, escapes traditional means of detection, and is no longer marked visible.”  However, this argument does not completely withstand the various ways in which embodied otherness is made visible by Théo’s multiple layers of identity as both a man and a racialized subject — sediments of subjugation, terror, and everyday compulsions that cannot be detached from race and attendant constructions of black masculinity. Like Daiga, Théo engages in various forms of power struggles between his own marginalization and performances of masculinity. For example, after a white woman attempts to swindle Théo of his fee for building her shelf, Théo threatens to dismantle the shelf if he does not receive payment for his labour. This long, seemingly dispassionate scene with little camera movement offers a characteristically visceral example of the cinema of the body. Here, the primal tension that operates between these two bodies ruthlessly confronts the viewer, making palpable both the strain and brutality of post-colonial racial domination. Racialized bodies in heated corporeal collision bring the viewer to the stark edge by which bodies, in their “blackness” and “whiteness,” so explosively shape physical experience within the filmic world.   

The Cinema Du Corps also foregrounds themes of otherness within struggles of communities coming into themselves. As Adrian Martin points out, J’ai Pas Sommeil, like many of Denis’ other films, often involves forms of “inoperative communities,” in which people “struggle to find and ground what they have in common (beyond useless ‘common humanity’), what they can share, and what is then still left over for each person’s solitude.” This struggle to find and maintain commonality in the face of socially constructed and politicized otherness can be seen in the relationship between Camille and Théo. These two brothers continuously struggle to find a plane of communication, often letting things go unspoken, especially around notions of Camille’s lifestyle and sexuality. This inoperativeness becomes evident in one of the first scenes of the film: Camille wakes up at Théo’s apartment, and in the bathroom together, Camille removes his makeup and takes off his fishnet tights as the camera focuses on his bare skin. Even while the two brothers converse in normal tones — even while the scene remains flat and dispassionate — tension is palpable. Camille’s fluid gender and sexuality is evidently something Théo chooses not to acknowledge, or something he cannot acknowledge but is nonetheless brutally present. Again, this inoperative communication is made visible in a later scene, when Camille comes to Théo’s apartment and then abruptly leaves; the exit implies that Camille came to tell Théo that he is HIV positive, and then changed his mind. The divide between the brothers is visually embodied as Théo follows Camille to the metro, and the train doors close between them.  Further, in the police station at the end of the film, Théo blankly confesses to never really knowing his brother, stating, “My brother is a stranger to me.”

In J’ai Pas Sommeil, as Palmer observes, the dispassionate portrayal of unbridgeable distance between these two brothers points to one of the many characteristics of Denis’ cinema of the body: “a nightmarish series [of scenes] in which personal relationships — families, couples, friendships, partnerships — disintegrate and fail” (58). This disintegration, or inoperativeness of relations, is echoed in Martin’s insight that, in Denis’s films, “Characters often move from positions of ‘untouched’ solitude into a drama that shatters their innocence, ‘soils’ and confuses them at the same moment as it compels them forward.” For Denis, as Martin observes, the post-colonial context is the place in which desire and loss is played out: “the space of the post-colonial…is the space of social contradiction, intimately experienced.” In this sense, multiple layers of identity, namely race and sexuality, bring Camille and Théo together in the same way that their differentiated experiences of otherness — inoperativeness — pull them apart. While Théo and Camille are united in their marginalized blackness, their lack of intimacy, communication, and understanding reveals what it means to occupy multiple layers of otherness and identity. In a film like J’ai Pas Sommeil, the viewer is exposed to how post-colonial and other marginalized identities are both violently and tragically destabilized within personal relationships.

In conclusion, Denis’ and Breillat’s cinema of the body offers a constructive medium through which forms of embodied otherness are synthesized, visualized, and physically felt through extreme affective force on screen. By direct, unyielding portrayal of what it may mean or feel to be Other through being gendered or racialized, the cinema of the body offers a particular opening for feminist interpretation on the possibilities of resistance and redress in the face of power structures of differentiation and violence. Through the remorselessness of these films, the viewer is implicitly urged to glimpse into how these structures of subjection can be overcome through embodied mobility and operative forms of collective social transformation. In other words, the cinema of the body has the potential to reformulate embodied forms of being in relation to the world, and to find new ways of overcoming structures of marginalization and otherness.

Works Cited

À Ma Soeur! Dir. Breillat, Catherine. Perf. Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian, Romain Goupil, and Laura Betti. Criterion Collection, 2004.

J’ai Pas Sommeil. Dir. Denis, Claire. Perf. Vincent Dupont, Laurent Grevill, Agnes Godard, Nelly Quettier, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Katerina Golubeva, Richard Courcet, and Béatrice Dalle. Wellspring, 2004.

Martin, Adrian. “Ticket to Ride: Claire Denis and the cinema of the body.” Screening the Past, vol. 20 no. 20, 2006.

Oster, Corrine. “Decoding Unreadable Spaces.” Kinoye, vol. 3, no. 7, 2003.

Palmer, Tim. “The Cinema du Corps.” Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema. Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 57-94.

Photo: “Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida dans A ma soeur de C. Breillat.”