Claire Denis’s white women live close to history. They’re not active agents on the world-historical stage that Denis’s films cagily present, but nor can they be called passive. They’re allowed to flaunt this contradiction, among others: quite often, men find their inconsistency charming. They’re not frivolous (they’re too determined, too hardcore), but neither are they fully implicated in the geopolitical events unfolding around them. They’re well-educated but resistant to learning, class-conscious yet relentlessly naive. They’re fiercely willing to assume bodily risk—a function of their myopia no less than their courage. We call this privilege. For Denis, it’s a font of cinematic material to which she has repeatedly returned.
If Denis’s auteurship has found a handy label or “brand,” it is not that of a white woman director or a director of white women. It is that of a postcolonial filmmaker. Across fifteen feature films, she has trained her gaze on colonial administrators in French Cameroon, Foreign Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, and immigrant families in Paris. Even the 2018 space odyssey High Life, Denis’s first English-language production, can be considered a postcolonial film: in interviews, she has claimed that she set the film in space because that’s where English is spoken.
But Denis’s focus on the jagged displacements and psychological aftereffects of imperial violence is always also a focus on white femininity—not least because she is behind the camera. A French filmmaker who was raised in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, French Somaliland, and Senegal, Denis was a traveling child of empire. And the hubris of white women sensing, consciously or not, that they are impervious to international borders and interpersonal boundaries is one of her persistent themes, even as her subjects have migrated from postcolonial Africa to the suburbs of Paris and the streets of Nicaragua.
In Denis’s two latest films, Both Sides of the Blade and Stars at Noon, her protagonists are firmly planted in a historical landscape that recedes from our view, just as it does from theirs. Self-deception is a weakness that they indulge because they can, and Denis indulges them too. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the white women of these films are beyond her reproach because moralizing is never her trade. But as her films become increasingly invested in tracing the contours of the white woman’s condition, Denis risks reproducing her protagonists’ compromised relationship to history, subordinating the war zones, black-market economies, and pandemics in which they circulate to their whims, and hers.
In the past five years Denis has made four films: two small-budget and francophone, set in Paris (Let the Sunshine In, 2017; Both Sides of the Blade), and two large-budget and anglophone (High Life, Stars at Noon). The latter films more obviously demonstrate her sustained investment in postimperial world forces: natalism and nativism, the entrenchment of state borders in a globalized economy, the exercise of power soft and hard. By contrast, history seeps into her Parisian films through visual and verbal asides. An advertisement on the metro protests the presidential candidacy of François Fillon; a grandmother reminds her grandson to take his mask as he leaves the house.
Both Sides of the Blade follows Sara (Juliette Binoche), a radio broadcaster caught in a love triangle between two men who share a thorny past. Sara’s attachment ricochets between them, as the men are alternately imagined to be Good or Bad depending on whether she seeks passion or stability. No man, it seems, can offer her both. Stars at Noon, meanwhile, follows Trish (Margaret Qualley), a journalist in Nicaragua with outdated press credentials and no reason to remain in the country beyond her twinned commitments to adventure and to an Englishman named Daniel (Joe Alywn), whose reasons for being there are even less clear than Trish’s own. So different in scale and scope, these are Denis’s Covid-19 films, prominently featuring the public safety precautions that no doubt marked their productions (PCR tests, temperature checks, masks). They are also among the director’s most explicit turns to the historical problem of the white woman.
Stars at Noon is adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel. Denis deletes the definite article of the novel’s title, much as she rubs out the historical conditions under which it was set. The Stars at Noon takes place in Sandinista-led Nicaragua, but she has transposed its plot to the present day. The transposition is uneven, leaving eraser marks of cold war politics smudged across her screenplay: Daniel is working in some unknown capacity for an unnamed political party that the CIA wants suppressed; a CIA agent purports to be acting on behalf of the delicate “balance” of power in Central America.
In the novel these historical forces have names, though the characters do not: “the Englishman” is aiding the Sandinista government by directing it to oil reserves on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; the balance that the CIA wants to preserve is no balance at all, but a stonewall against Castro’s Cuba. Without these proper nouns rooting the viewer in space and time, the film presents a hazy political backdrop—unspecified abuses of power, hangings and kidnappings, a sinking currency—for Trish and Daniel’s imperiled romance.
The couple’s fates become entwined after Trish sleeps with Daniel for “fifty US,” and the CIA agents hunting him begin pursuing Trish, too. She hasn’t really consented to being his accomplice; nor did she exactly consent to sleeping with the Nicaraguan state agents who were helping her secure a press card and safe lodging. Or, you could say—in a turn of phrase that fittingly equips Trish with agency, just as it takes it away—that her consent was never really meaningful.
Neither Trish nor Daniel has a plan for escape or a sense of direction beyond each other’s beds. Ultimately, they find their way to Costa Rica, leaving (by my count) four unnamed Nicaraguans dead in their wake, casualties of their recklessness. In a scene reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a swarm of American agents descends on their makeshift sanctuary in a Costa Rican church. But this is no countercultural romance—after all, we know so little about the culture they might be countering.
Who has Daniel been aiding? What hangs in the CIA’s state-crafted balance? Denis seems to care about these answers as little as Trish, who rattles off Nicaragua’s leftist political parties with a studied flippancy: “PS, Partido Socialista, MAP-ML, don’t ask me what that stands for.” (It stands for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement, whose breaks with the PS and the Sandinista National Liberation Front are precisely not the point.) Trish’s line, like most of the film’s dialogue, is pulled directly from Johnson’s novel, a devastating satire of American intervention in Central American life. Her knowing ignorance is the unmoored anchor of his book, which she narrates, vaunting her narcissism and nihilism at every turn.
But where Johnson’s novel can be called a satire, Denis’s film cannot. Trish’s gender and her first-person narration offer Johnson a wedge of difference—and distance—between his authorship and her rotten descriptions of Nicaragua (“This is hell, it’s hell”) and its people (“pestiferous urchins dirty as pigs”). In the film, no such device maintains the distance between protagonist and author. There are few, if any, shots from Trish’s point of view; instead, Denis’s camera remains tightly focused on the couple’s white bodies—sometimes set in relief against crowds of black and brown extras in a bustling mercado, sometimes highlighted by the splotchy red marks that Trish leaves on Daniel’s back as she clings to him in bed. “Your skin is so white,” she says. “It’s like being fucked by a cloud.” In a different film, these choices might be said to reflect without corroborating its characters’ naïve relation to their own whiteness as they float cloud-like around Central America, unbothered by conditions below. But by airlifting the novel’s plot from 1984 to 2022, Denis exacerbates the uncomfortable possibility that her sensibility is just as ahistorical—and her foray into Nicaragua just as arbitrary and exoticizing—as Trish’s own.
Denis has asked her audience to sit with this possibility before, most famously in her 2009 drama White Material. That film follows Maria Vial, ferociously played by Isabelle Huppert, who insists on harvesting her family’s coffee plantation even as the unnamed African country around her descends into civil war. All the French settlers have left, but Maria remains. By failing to identify the film’s war-torn setting—but not failing to represent the faces of child soldiers armed with machine guns, or the shady deals brokered between Maria’s ex-husband and the town’s mayor behind her back—Denis launches her unflinching portrait into the space of allegory. As a result, Maria’s white femininity is awkwardly presented as both a material condition—strapped to colonial power and domestic obligation—and an existential one.
As the film scholar Patricia White has written, “what is absent” from White Material “is not historical specificity, but historical consciousness on the part of the colonists.” The white women in White Material and Stars at Noon are, in other words, historically conditioned to an ahistorical sensibility. It suits their needs. And perhaps it feels true to their positions neither outside nor inside the state power that subjects and protects them. With their unspecified or resolutely underdeveloped settings, both films replicate the historical unconsciousness that marks their protagonists. We want to believe that Denis knows this—that her flights into ahistoricism are a form of self-implication—though she never quite reveals that she does. She never offers us that satisfaction, which could only be disclosed to us as knowing self-satisfaction.
What is most remarkable about Both Sides of the Blade is that it fully realizes the historical problem of Denis’s white women—double-edged as it is—without the visual or narrative sprawl of Stars at Noon or White Material. It takes place, almost exclusively, between four walls: bedrooms and offices, kitchens and living rooms, in Paris and the suburb of Vitry.
In her professional capacity as a radio broadcaster, Sara brings world events into these domestic spaces. She interviews Hind Darwish, a Lebanese journalist, about the political corruption that “gnaws away at every level of the country.” After the explosion of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in Beirut killed more than two hundred people and left many more displaced, “the Lebanese,” Darwish tells us, “are living in hell.” A second interview features the former soccer player Lilian Thuram, whose book White Thinking identifies white supremacy as “the ideology that constructed the idea that ‘white is better.’” Sara recognizes herself as someone caught in white supremacy’s snare: “It is in us white people…it [was] inculcated and integrated in us.” But when she returns home from these Zoom-mediated interviews, her white-identified “us” fractures into a battle between the sexes: me (Sara) versus them (Jean, her lover, and François, her ex). With these white men she shares intimacy but not recognition.
In this primary love plot, the historical consciousness of her interviews—however limited, picturing the movement of history as a nightmare from which we cannot awake—is displaced onto Sara’s personal life. She has cheated on Jean (Vincent Lindon) with François (Gregoire Colin): “It’s the past coming back, it’s weird, just a phase,” she says. History, personal history, presents Sara with a tidal wave of feeling to which she surrenders. As Jean confronts her, “hell” moves from Lebanon (which could just as easily be Trish’s Nicaragua) to her apartment: “You always cut me off! I can’t talk with you, it’s hell!” she says.
The ensuing fight, a tremendous performance by Binoche and Lindon, candidly presents what we might call the white woman’s five stages of deception: feminist indignation (“I’m sick of this…being under surveillance. I have no life, you have to control everything”); self-pity (“I’m sorry if I hurt you out of lack of self-confidence, out of fear”); denial (“I did nothing! What did I do?”); projection (“you think I want to go back to François?”); and self-exoneration (“Settle your scores between yourselves. Man to man, as if I have nothing to do with it”). Sara’s performance is a shocking display of emotional verisimilitude, even as she lies, because, after all, she is not faking it. Her deception is self-deception. She feels misunderstood, vulnerable, righteous, despairing, and wronged.
When Jean discovers Sara and François’s incriminating text messages, he presents Sara with an ultimatum, more compassionate and considered than the threat that word implies. In return, she says nothing. She is in the bathtub, caressing her cell phone, which sits precariously on the ledge. It falls, or she lets it slip, into the gray-green water. Her nonanswer is enough for Jean, who leaves her in the tub, her hands pressed over her eyes, as if the authority over her own life that he has granted her—“If you love him and he loves you, go and live”—is a burden she cannot bear.
In the film’s final scene, Sara tries to get her phone repaired, only to learn that “it’s fried…no nothing, no numbers…there’s nothing left.” She leaves the store, stunned but not necessarily distraught. Here again Denis’s portraiture toggles between materialism and existentialism. Sara is freed from her personal history and perhaps from history tout court. The final scene is a fantasy, offering her an improbable escape from the effects of her behavior, to say nothing of the realities of cloud computing. Now she can do whatever she wants—which is what she was doing all along.
At the end of Stars at Noon, Trish finds herself with an envelope full of money, given to her by the CIA agent she despises, and in the good graces of the Nicaraguan bureaucrat who had been validating her press card. She despises him too. He returns her passport, which for ambiguous reasons had been confiscated (Denis never has been very good at exposition), and she replies with the words that close the film: “In a way, you were good to me.” Trafficking in her beauty and the blunt instrument of her whiteness without ever recognizing it as such, Trish, like Sara, cycles through an apparently unalterable circuit of complicity and victimhood. The Nicaraguan bureaucrat, the CIA agent, Jean and François: they were good to her—they had to be—and they weren’t.