Like a maestro with baton poised Claire Denis begins her 2001 genre film with vague stirrings (couple making out in a car) then a confident if understated gesture: truck drives past hitchhiking woman stops reverses; the woman smiles. Driver climbs out of his cabin walks towards her the truck's rear flashing its appropriately named 'hazard' lights.
So far so what? Working class lump attractive woman--not much to see here. Setup for a rather lurid scenario the woman presumably asking for trouble when she raised her thumb at the guy--only why is the woman's smile so wide why does her eyes flicker with an unnatural spark? Why are we aware of the truck's flashers aimed directly at us, the driver--who turned them on in the first place--pointedly ignoring their warning as he walks towards the object of his desire and doom?
We don't know we're not sure; we're just vaguely aware that something's wrong. Later that evening a man on a motorcycle stops beside the truck (lights still flashing) looks around; finds the driver lying facedown in a nearby field with enigmatic smile on face; finds the woman sitting a short distance beyond jaws champing at a chunk of meat. He squats behind her caresses her hair cradles her in his arms.
Next a couple gazing out the oval of a plane window, she cute as a button he dignified ugly outjutting jaw under craggy brow--perfect pairing in their odd physiognomy. "I think those lights are Denver," he says in a startlingly fragile voice. "Yeah" she replies. "Those lights so geometrical. Like like a computer chip." We catch a glimpse of what they see and the lights are geometrical, suggesting a perfect order the rest of the film never quite achieves.
Denis that most tactile of filmmakers uses her gift for textures to evoke the sensuousness of surfaces--of skin of cloth of yes a vista of city street lights laid out like a computer chip--said surface implying the qualities of what lies on top what lies beneath. How say droplets of blood bead and roll down June's (Tricia Vessey) flawless skin; how as the panties across her rear stretch tight more droplets are squeezed out how the underwear suggests (her thighs rubbing against each other) the firm roundness beneath. That aforementioned couple framed in a perfect oval? While June sleeps her husband Shane (Vincent Gallo) sits in the plane's toilet stall, fantasizing his wife drenched in blood.
Later at Shane and June's hotel room their maid Christelle (the willowy Florence Loiret Caille) prepares their bed and they can't wait they can't keep their hands off each other; they frolic on the mattress while she's trying to spread the sheets and you know--from the camera angles observing Christelle's awkwardly careful poise--that maid and husband are aware of the other are checking each other out.
Denis doesn't tell a story so much as titrate it--we eventually learn that the trucker killer is Core (Beatrice Dulle); we learn that the man on the bike who followed is her husband Dr. Leo Semenau who usually boards up the door in her room to prevent more killings (occasionally he fails). We further learn as Shane visits Semenau's former workplace that Shane "works for a big lab" interested in a paper Semenau once published but that the latter is "no longer part of the scientific community" and has since vanished.
Big dollop of plot exposition raising as many questions as answers: why is Shane so insistent? Why did Semenau disappear? What's in that paper anyway that made the scientific community disown Semenau? But Denis doesn't seem as interested in connecting dots as she is forming aural and visual associations: as a glass cylinder spins in green liquid we watch a concave depression form from the centrifugal spin the tube striking a sharp ting against the dish every few seconds. Life nurtured in a lab? Balanced forces accelerating (as the conversation between Shane and the director of research grows heated) out of control?
The film takes its time the way a cat takes time with prey, and when most if not all of the film's scheme has unfolded you realize what you're looking at: a map of human response from pleasure to pain to adoration to avarice. The horror is that the map has no clear boundaries; the provinces have blurred into each other are easily confused with each other the lines--especially in Core's case--having vanished entirely.
Hence (skip the next five paragraphs if you haven't seen the film) Core's encounter with a young man who rips the boards off her door pins her down--in their lovemaking Denis surveys the youth's skin like an undiscovered country, noting smooth undulating valleys and stiff little peaks, tufts of blonde grassland and pockets of curly forest before Core swallows whole villages towns municipalities with her capacious mouth. When she starts applying teeth the boy's moans shade almost indistinguishably into howls and you realize Denis is also blurring our boundaries confusing our sense of pain pleasure beauty horror. And Core drinks it all in; while the boy screams her tongue flicks out to lap the welling blood like a kitten lapping milk from a saucer.
In a later mirroring scene Shane and June caress each other; when the lovemaking turns hot and heavy Shane suddenly pulls away locks himself in the bathroom and pulls on his pud with singleminded ferocity. You imagine he could rip his cock out by the root; you suspect that might have been his intention, to spare the wife weeping outside his murderous impulses.
The finale has Christelle--who in a handful of scenes we have come to know and like--going back to her locker at the end of shift to change into civilian clothes. We know what's coming as inevitable and symmetrically structured as any fairy tale, not so much the lush sentimentality of Hans Christian Anderson as Brothers Grimm, spare and unsparing in detail and tone.
I've heard viewers and critics express difficulty at appreciating the film, particularly Core and Shane's point of view: the lust for blood the hunger for living flesh. Must be true for some perhaps most viewers; me--absolutely I relate. The way blood (actually water mixed with myoglobin and other pigments) leaks out of a rare steak the way raw tuna feels supple on teeth and tongue the way fresh-sliced lobster shudders when your jaws bite down on the crisp sweet still-living meat.
And it's sexual; of course it's sexual. Color and texture deftly orchestrated to suggest aroma flavor the very sound of flesh being torn--whether you feed on it or fuck it there's little difference all your senses are engaged all your appendages engorged. Denis in effect knows exactly where I live can tell me what I dream of having for dinner (or making love to in bed). She reveals (the way not just horror filmmakers but great filmmakers can reveal) an unnerving truth: that the one thing separating us from these monsters is the big screen.
Recent years have offered a bouquet of innovative horror films, from The Babadook to It Follows to The Visit to The VVitch to Goodnight Mommy. In terms of spare technique graceful style unwavering horror Denis sweeps practically everyone else off the table. One of the best if not the best horror of the new millennium? I think so.
First published in Businessworld 10.6.17