Monday, September 21, 2009
Nénette and Boni
Claire Denis' Nénette and Boni is a low-key, understated family drama, blending fluidly between observational pseudo-documentary scenes of lower-class life and the characters' stylized fantasies. The title characters are Nénette (Alice Houri) and her brother Boni (Grégoire Colin), who have been separated from one another for years, following their parents' divorce: Nénette went to live with her con man father (Jacques Nolot), while the older Boni went to live with their mother, carrying on alone after her death. Boni lives now in a big house that's he allowed to become rundown, sharing it with his friends as they deal in stolen goods, run a pizza van, and dream of something better. Nénette, meanwhile, has run away from home after discovering that she's pregnant, and she winds up running to the only place she can think of, to her estranged brother's house. This strained, difficult reunion is at the heart of the film: the pull of family, the desire for connections and stability and someone to care for you. Nénette and Boni are both essentially alone, without real support. Boni is living a minimal existence in a house that never seems to have any food, where even the pet rabbit has to scrounge around for bits and pieces, and Nénette, with her undependable criminal father, isn't much better off (especially considering the subtextual hints of incest and the film's pointed refusal to identify the father of her child).
They are fending for themselves, but they offer to each other the only real hope of finding some real family, some real support. Nénette is struggling with her burden, unready and unwilling to become a mother to her baby, but at times she nearly becomes one to Boni, watching over him as he sleeps, mashing up bananas and feeding them to him when he feels ill. There is a nascent maternal quality in her that she directs at her brother even as she tries to ignore the baby growing inside her. At the same time, her presence awakens an unforeseen nurturing quality in the immature Boni as well. He's an oaf and a horny teenager, obsessed with the neighborhood baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), immersed in fantasies of rape and domination in which he can be a very different person than the shy, quiet boy he actually is. He's a self-absorbed jerk, and his initial dismissive reaction towards his sister is very much in character, but eventually her persistence wears him down, and in his own weird, awkward way he actually begins to care, to protect her — at one point, in a bit of foreshadowing of the over-the-top denouement, he actually wards off their father by shooting at him with a BB gun.
The film is episodic and languid, drifting through these aimless lives. Denis is always attentive to the way people live their lives day to day and minute to minute, and that is especially the case here, with this film's emphasis on poverty, struggling for money and food, loneliness and disconnection. It's a true urban film, and a modern one as well. It's about a city where no one knows anyone else. When Boni first sees Nénette early in the film, he simply looks at her and then passes by her, as though he doesn't know her; and as far as the audience is concerned, he doesn't. There's a sense of how difficult it is to get to know people, to really connect. Later in the film, Boni meets the baker's wife, his ultimate fantasy, while she's out shopping, and unexpectedly she latches onto him as a familiar face "from the neighborhood." It's apparent that she's happy to see him, that she's just eager for some human connection amidst the holiday rush of Christmas shopping, the anonymous crowds crushing in around him. She's even flirtatious with the younger man, but he can only stare blankly at her as she nervously chatters to fill the silence. Denis holds a closeup on his glassy stare, a faint ghost of a smile dancing across his lips, for an uncomfortably long time, driving home just how empty his earlier bravado was, just how far he actually is from the crass, nasty persona he's imagined for himself. He's locked up inside of himself, unable even to hold a conversation with the object of his desire.
Throughout the film, Denis explores her central characters through small details, through the accumulation of such telling moments, as well as incidental observations, like the momentary shot of Boni and one of his friends playfully dancing to hip-hop while serving pizzas. There is also, as usual with Denis, a real sensual quality to the imagery, both in the gorgeous Agnès Godard-lensed street scenes and vistas, in the fantasy interjections, and in the moments of surprising, unusual sexuality scattered throughout the film. At one point, Boni kneads a ball of dough with the urgency of a lover's caresses, moaning and letting out sexual exclamations as he thrusts his fingers into the dough, beating and molding it in his hands and then finally thrusting his face into it in sexual exhaustion. In an earlier scene, he holds his pet bunny, that symbol of fecundity, in one hand, while thrusting his other hand into his boxer shorts. These incongruous outbursts of sexual feeling suggest Boni's out-of-control teenage hormones, his inability to channel his sexual impulses into acceptable outlets.
In contrast, throughout the film Denis inserts silent, lyrical interludes between the baker's wife and her American husband (Vincent Gallo), who if one such interlude is to be believed, was a sailor who stayed on in France to marry a French girl and become a baker. These scenes are outrageously exaggerated visions of a happy marriage, conjured up possibly from Boni's mind as a corrective to his own damaged existence and that of his sister. The baker and his voluptuous, sexy wife represent for Boni a kind of ideal, and he imagines them meeting and falling in love, having sex, having a baby together. Boni himself sometimes appears in these fantasies as well but his presence is ephemeral, as though even in dreams he can't really imagine himself coming between this couple. It doesn't matter that the real couple doesn't really warrant Boni's rapturous vision of them — they bicker, and the woman is often heavily made up and crass, as well as flirting suggestively with Boni when she meets him outside the bakery — all that matters is that Boni imagines them as a fairy tale perfect couple, happy and well-adjusted. Certainly nobody else in this film meets that description.
As a whole, Nénette and Boni is an interesting smaller work from Denis, evincing her usual concerns — sensuality, race and class — and exploring them in a decidedly relaxed, minor key. The film's observational subtlety is anchored by the fine, naturalistic performances of the leads, as well as the more stylized depictions of Bruni-Tedeschi and Gallo, whose worldly vivaciousness provides a contrast to the inward-looking siblings. The film simply meanders along, dealing as it does with growing up, with stumbling towards maturity and the dangers of falling back into the trap of immaturity. It's as poetic and elliptical as all of Denis' films, but lacks some of the punch and passion of her best work, and it's sabotaged by the melodramatic outbursts of the final fifteen minutes. Still, it's a typically fascinating film from a director who's always worth watching.