NENETTE AND BONINR
Like Robert Bresson, Claire Denis deconstructs the conventions of classic narrative films, and creates a way of seeing and hearing that is uniquely cinematic. Her films, like Bresson's Mouchette or Lancelot du Lac, introduce you to the spiritual life of characters not through drama but through what surrounds them, through the materials that constitute their world. In Nenette and Boni, a brother and sister come to terms with what one sibling lacks and what the other possesses in excess.
Teenager Nenette (Alice Houri) is pregnant; desiring an abortion and with no place to turn, she shows up at Boni's apartment. At first, Boni (Gregoire Colin of Before the Rain), a pizza-maker whose life seems equally divided between making pizza and having sexual fantasies about the baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), pretends he doesn't see his sister when he drives by in his truck. After Nenette learns she can't get an abortion, Boni grudgingly allows her to stay with him. Ironically, instead of the baker's wife, Nenette is the only woman Boni ever touches in bed; he lovingly embraces Nenette's belly in order to hear the child moving. His desires are fulfilled in the material world, with the birth of the child, and in a sense so are Nenette's-she's free of that preoccupation with the physical that the baby represents for her.
For Denis, ellipses are as important as what's inside the frame. Her transitions aren't jarring, they're just different. She simply places her characters in settings that define them at any given moment-Boni on his truck hunched over the pizza dough, and Nenette, outdoors, alone, puffing on a cigarette. She then moves from place to place, without distinguishing, for instance, between Boni's fantasies and his real life, and with no thought as to what would make narrative sense. Like Bresson, she draws us into the spiritual lives of her characters through these physical transitions, their place-to-place movements, and not necessarily through scenes motivated by their emotional states, as we have come to expect in narrative film. The characters' physical discomfort-Boni's unfulfilled sexual desires and Nenette's unwanted pregnancy-represents some spiritual poverty, but you never have the impression of bleakness, of the idea that this is a permanent state for either Nenette or Boni.
The hilarious scenes of Boni's frenzied pizza-making-another form of masturbation-provide the film's comic relief, but they also represents Boni's yearning for physical contact. Nenette, on the other hand, has more of the corporeal than she can handle. She lives in the physical world only to the extent she needs to sustain herself. It's an ironic twist on the stereotypical preoccupations ascribed to men and women-the patriarchal wisdom being that women are tied to the physical world through their cycles and through childbirth, and that men, free from such concerns, live in a more abstract, and therefore loftier, universe. Nenette's refusal to name the father is a denial of the importance of patrimony, and her disgust at the pregnancy-which suggests that she was somehow violated-flies in the face of the ridiculous yet still widely held, patriarchal belief that women are somehow preconditioned to love the child they've conceived.
Houri gives an unforgettable performance in her cinematic debut-she was in Denis' TV production, U.S. Go Home-as a modern-day Mouchette. Colin is wonderful in his portrayal of an angry, resentful child-Boni's father ignored him while showering affection on Nenette. It is these performances which anchor the film, and provide a counterpoint to Denis' preoccupation with the ephemeral. It's as though the strong physical presence of both Houri and Colin are living proof of the unseen world of the spirit. Nenette and Boni captures the fragile and fleeting impression you often have of life, that's actually closer to life itself than the more comforting, linear perspectives of narrative film.