The French director Claire Denis grew up in colonial West Africa, where she learned what it’s like being privileged, resented and an outsider. She sensuously evoked that hothouse of emotions in her semi-autobiographical 1988 debut, Chocolat, one of several Africa-set films she’s made over the course of her career. But even in the heart of Paris, where the protagonist of Friday Night (2002) is locked in a symphonic traffic jam at a pivotal juncture in her relationship, Denis can convey passion along with the sense of being utterly alone.
Friday Night (Feb. 1) and Chocolat (Feb. 2) are the perfect openers for Claire Denis: Seeing Is Believing (Feb. 1–18 at SFMOMA), the latest and most profound of the Modern Cinema programs curated by the museum and SFFILM. Each series explores one contemporary director across three weekends through several works as well as those of influential predecessors (Ozu, Godard, Fassbinder, Cassavetes and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others, in this case).
The lineup is brilliantly chosen from beginning to end, though I am surprised at the omission of the late Maurice Pialat, the unflinching, unsentimental French director whom Denis seems most akin to. Her films are about people trying to cross over, to find a home of their own, to connect with another human being, in a world devised around baser motivations. The opening weekend includes Denis’ entry in last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Let the Sunshine In (Feb. 3), an intimate study of a new divorcee (Juliette Binoche) assiduously embracing her freedom. Like so many of Denis’ characters, she’s willing to take exceptional risks to get what she needs.