Claire Denis and the Art of the Pause

SFMOMA's "Claire Denis: Seeing Is Believing" showcases 20 years of her films — as well as those by directors she worked with, like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders.

Let the Sunshine In, Claire Denis’ latest film starring Juliette Binoche is “very dialogue-driven, very talky, and very much Binoche’s film,” says Frank Smigiel, the film curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

That’s a little bit of a departure for Denis, the latest filmmaker to be highlighted in Modern Cinema, collaboration between the SFMOMA and SFFILM. Denis grew up in West Africa, and her films often explore racism and colonial culture and tend to be heavy on visuals and tone rather than dialogue.

You can see for yourself in the series, “Claire Denis: Seeing Is Believing,” which begins Thursday, Feb. 1 at SFMOMA. Denis studied filmmaking in Paris and then worked as an assistant to directors including Costa Gavras, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders. The series includes the films she worked on with those directors, as well as ones that were influential to her.

Denis made her debut in 1988 with Chocolat, the story of a French family in colonial Cameroon that critic Roger Ebert called “a film of infinite delicacy.” SFMOMA is showing that along some of her most well-known films, including No Fear, No Die (1990), Beau Travail (1999), and White Material (2009).

Smigiel says although Denis is known for her focus on post-colonialism, her work ranges all over the place, including Trouble Every Day (2001), about incredibly violent lovers infected with a virus. Smiegiel calls it a film you need to see — but only once. Denis’ subject matter may be diverse, but her style is distinctive, he says.

“There’s this sense of pause in her work — so many of her films are about characters looking at each other as opposed to rushing in with a gun,” he said. “She’s more interested in a series of moods or tones and she backs into the story.”

The pause gives audiences a chance to catch their breath, Smigiel says.

“Films like Beau Travail and Chocolat put you in a charged political situation, but she’s not pedantic about it,” he said. “You’re not supposed to go and learn about how awful history is — it’s not the kind of journey you’re going on. I like the generosity in that.”

The idea behind the Modern Cinema collaboration is to have movies that show the dialogue between the present and the past. For this series, along with films Denis worked on, such as Jarmusch’s Down by Law and Wenders’ Wings of Desire, they will show movies that seem to fit with Denis’ work — including Lawrence of Arabia.

“It’s perfect for post-colonial context, and it’s stunningly visual,” Smigiel said. “We’re also showing Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear. It’s a visual feast, and so much of Denis’ work is based in literature — Beau Travail is from Billy Budd, and Bastards is partly a Faulkner adaptation. We shouldn’t dismiss how much of her film relies on literature.”

Claire Denis: Seeing Is Believing, Feb. 1-18, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $5-$12; 415-357-4000 or


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