Denis paid her dues as an assistant director— on Sweet Movie (74, Dusan Makavejev); Serail (76, Eduardo de Gregorio); Hanna K. (83, Costa- Gavras); Paris. Texas (84, Wim Wenders); Down by Law (86, Jim Jarmusch)—probing documentary on the very shy Jacques Rivette (indeed, film nearly deserves to be included in Rivette’s own filmography, for it is so sensitive to his work).
In addition, Denis did the excellent I Can’t Sleep, which bears comparison with the unease of Paris Nous Appartient (60, Rivette); the comedy oí Nénette et Boni; and No Fear, No Die, a daring and graceful contemplation of male bonding that is less homoerotic than fascinated by all the fresh gender associations in modern society and film— Kent Jones has talked about this mood being due to the revolutionary impact of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (73). So it’s clear how far certain running ideas in French cinema— evident in the thirties and hurried forward in the New Wave—are still being pursued. Claire Denis reminds one not just of the wonder of French film, but of its sense of history.
Despite the enthusiastic support of Film Comment, Beau Travail didn't really “take" with American audiences—so much the worse for them. For plainly, this beautiful reverie on the culture ol men in a regiment, set in the Djibouti where Denis had spent some of her childhood, and managing to take in allusions to Merman Melville, and Benjamin Britten as well as Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (63), is a movie that makes Full Metal Jacket (87, Kubrick), sav, look adolescent and sheltered (as well as clumsy and underlined). Denis was doing Billy Budd in the context of the Foreign Legion, yet she was also making a kind of poem to the corps—both the body and the regiment. It’s a stunning, beautiful film that marked an important career.