One never forgets Bresson. Admiration is a very complicated thing. It’s like alchemy; you admire something and then one day you realise that this admiration has permeated your skin. You don’t have to say, “Am I going to approach this situation as Bresson might have? Or not?” It’s there, it’s a reflex. Then afterwards you might say to yourself – “aha yes, perhaps that was a Bressonian moment” (1).
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Claire Denis’ second feature film, S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990), which received less critical attention and distribution than other Denis films (and remains unavailable on DVD outside of France), is immediately reminded of the films of Robert Bresson. Elegant, spare, poetic, uncomfortably quiet and, at times, inscrutable, No Fear, No Die is a little-known masterwork in the oeuvre of Denis, the French director who is better known for her more celebrated films such as Chocolat (1988), J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994) and Beau travail (1999). Denis’ Bressonian reflexes, as well as her other filmic influences, Godard, Ozu, and Cassavetes, are apparent in her work; but No Fear, No Die is perhaps most strongly influenced by the writings of Frantz Fanon, in particular Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952) and Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961) (2).
Working from a script co-authored by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, No Fear, No Die directly confronts the personal politics of race, capital, and especially masculinity, as they are marked by colonisation and its pathologies. While plot matters little in the work of Denis, the film follows the tragic consequences of colonised black masculinity in the story of two black French immigrants who survive by staging cockfights. Isaach De Bankolé plays an African named Dah, from Benin, while Alex Descas stars as Jocelyn, from the West Indies. Jocelyn is silent for much of the film, while Dah narrates the narrative action in a flat voiceover reminiscent of that found in early Bresson films, especially Pickpocket (1959). Relentlessly bleak, uncompromisingly honest, and unfolding like a harrowing early Dardenne brothers film, No Fear, No Die is a film that provides a glimpse into the dangerous and inhumane living conditions of many non-white male immigrants in modern France. As Denis told Mark A. Reid in 1996:
It’s a film that’s influenced by Frantz Fanon’s Peaux noire, masques blancs (Black Skins, White Masks) [sic]. I understood something in Fanon’s book that touched me immensely. I am a very sensitive person who can’t stand the feeling of humiliation, regardless if black or whites are the objects of this humiliation. When I read Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), it increased my anger over the social inequities that groups and individuals are forced to endure […]. In S’en fout la mort, I deal with a French West Indian man here in Paris, exploring his psychological weakness and the spiritual tragedy of his life. Fanon describes a special type of neurosis – colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future. (3)
While some may be inclined to attribute the success of the film to Denis’ personal observations as a white woman brought up in West Africa, clearly the film is far more understandable through a Fanonian lens. No Fear, No Die is not a pretty film; Denis is unafraid to push the viewer into an uncomfortable engagement with the subjectivities of two black immigrants as they are pathologised by modern French society in the grim bowels of Rungis, a cruel, dark, industrial Parisian suburb only seen here by night. Dah speaks (and he will survive), but Jocelyn (who almost never speaks), clearly suffers from that neurosis of colonisation described by Fanon. He is slowly and inexorably defeated psychologically and eventually (in an arguably suicidal gesture) is stabbed to death by a white man by the end of the film; but, as Denis told Reid, “Jocelyn wants to die and seeks death by looking for trouble […] Jocelyn’s role is based on what I found in Frantz Fanon […] a very pessimistic black man whose dignity is destroyed and who prefers to die rather than continue living.” (4)
While critics seem dazzled by the magisterial landscapes of Chocolat and Beau travail, the dark, neo-noir, industrial settings of No Fear, No Die are reminiscent of the relentlessly spare and grim prisons of Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956) or Pickpocket. Dah and Jocelyn, who hustle up work as dockworkers and cockfighters, live in a dark tiny boiler room, which is dominated by a low ceiling, and offers little or no privacy. It is a metaphorical prison in the dank cellar of a pitiless cruel white businessman, Pierre Ardennes, played by Jean-Claude Brialy. The cockfighting itself is clearly a metaphor for the relations between colonised and coloniser, immigrant and boss. The sound of the water heater and the rumblings from upstairs, where Pierre and his sadly flirtatious wife, Toni (Solveig Dommartin), operate a sordid drinking establishment, are only matched by the noirishness with which cinematographer Pascal Marti captures (in mostly handheld cinéma vérité fashion) the faces of the doomed and the damned, a crowd of cruel white male working class patrons; dockworkers, low-lives and the beaten-down. There is very little music, and the faces of men in this nearly all-male environ speak of death, misery, competition and confinement.
The cockfighting pit itself is a hellish mise en abyme, a darkly lit place of desperation where money changes hands. There are sparing medium close-ups of cash, whisperings of bets, and one particularly memorable scene in which the camera slowly pans around the room capturing a landscape of depraved and aggressive masculine “types”, a cast of characters who look a bit like the bettors in Géla Babluani’s 13 Tzameti (2005), only grimmer, less humane, and almost all white. These men are perhaps not much different, it is implied, than the cocks themselves, who are penned up in small boxes and kept like slaves in claustrophobic, clandestine and inhumane conditions, only to be taken out of their boxes for training, feeding and cockfights.
The scenes in which Dah and Jocelyn carefully train the roosters are comparable to the widely celebrated, beautifully choreographed scenes of men in training in Beau travail. There is a sense of dance, directly tied to masculinity and violence, but carefully choreographed. Dah and Jocelyn are at once harsh and loving towards the cocks. Dah and Jocelyn may live on the margins, but they treat the cocks very carefully as their livelihood depends upon the animals. Not much is said about the animals beyond the voiceover of Dah, who flatly tells us what vitamins and food they must have for the animals in training. The training sequences are magisterial, classic Denis, spare yet mechanised. The camera halts its handheld movement dead in front of Jocelyn, who repeatedly moves the rooster in training from left to right, obviously teaching it to move like a fighter. The sequences are lengthy, quiet and mesmeric. As Judith Mayne observes: “for Jocelyn the training of the cocks is an art form, and he is defined, throughout the film, in close proximity to the animals. This is both the beauty of his character and his undoing.” (5)
Jocelyn’s favourite cock is a white rooster, Toni, who bears the same name as the wife of his white boss, Ardennes. Toni is clearly attracted to both the black men, especially Jocelyn, though this is established through Denis’ usual oblique method. To make matters worse for Jocelyn, Ardennes frequently brags of his previous sexual relationship with Jocelyn’s own mother. Thus Jocelyn is not merely owned and objectified by his coloniser/boss, he is sexually unmanned and castrated by both Toni and her husband. Ardennes tells Jocelyn repeatedly that he sees his mother in his eyes. Toni often watches Jocelyn, and he is clearly made uncomfortable by her advances and her power over him in the living arrangements. It’s not clear if he feels hostility or desire towards Toni, but Toni’s desire for Jocelyn and her interest in him, as underplayed as the constant and quiet hum of the boiler heater, clearly jeopardises his life as a black immigrant male.
Most of these narrative developments are only hinted at through the exchange of looks, typical of Denis, “the mistress of understatement” (6). Midway through the film, the situation isn’t yet explosively violent, except for the cockfighting sequences, yet every frame of the film is rife with masculinity, sexuality, violence and danger. Denis ups the danger quotient when Jocelyn and Dah walk in on Toni who is clearly having sex with Michel (Christopher Buchholz), Ardennes’ own son. Toni looks directly at Jocelyn as if to taunt him as the couple dress. Their sexual encounters are held in the basement, further intruding on the space and limited power of the black men. Soon, Ardennes insists that Dah and Jocelyn make the cockfighting more brutal (to increase revenue) by using Mexican blades, small razors attached to the legs of the roosters. Jocelyn is clearly unwilling to accept these new terms and he attempts to walk out on Dah. But Dah finds Jocelyn, and the two return and capitulate to Ardennes’ new rules.
The cockfighting is now deadlier than ever, and the camera is unflinching in displaying the bloody battles between the roosters, who now wear actual blades. Jocelyn is clearly alienated by this development, and barely able to contain his fury. There is no reason for this new element of violence but Ardennes’ greed, the mark of the white oppressor. Jocelyn, now more than ever, behaves like a trapped animal. Whereas the animals earlier in the film survived the fights, and were cleaned and cared for after each fight, now they are merely bloody corpses, which are unceremoniously stuffed into garbage bags. Finally Jocelyn loses it, enters the cockfighting pit and lunges at Toni; as a result, Michel stabs Jocelyn to death with a short knife.
With very little actual violence between white and black men being shown on screen, Denis accomplishes an extraordinary feat in demonstrating that colonised black masculinity is almost always defined by the threat of white male violence, which may erupt at any time. No Fear, No Die ends with a touching and culturally significant scene in which Dah cleans the body of Jocelyn, his friend and his black brother. But Denis clearly captures the rage of Fanon as well as the writer’s understanding of the nexus of power at the centre of blackness, masculinity, and cold commerce in postcolonial France.
The general response to No Fear, No Die reflected the experiences and knowledge of colonialism of the viewers. Indeed, African-Americans at an early screening in New York were not happy with Descas’ portrayal of Jocelyn, feeling that his narrative trajectory was too downbeat. As Denis told Reid: “I presented the film in New York. At the second screening, a group of young African Americans said that they did not like the character Jocelyn, played by Alex Descas, because at the end he dies stabbed by a white man.” Denis told these “young kids” that “they should read Fanon to understand why Jocelyn seeks death”. Clearly, No Fear, No Die is a rallying call to arms. As Denis noted, “maybe I have gotten old, and my thoughts are out of touch with this new generation. But I still don’t think that serious social inequities can be solved by nonviolent means. I really believe this.” (7)
But within the black immigrant community in France, Denis found a positive response.
I received a lot of letters from the black community here in France, especially Caribbean people. They reacted strongly to this film and asked me how I came to know this secret of theirs. I told them about Fanon’s revelations in Black Skins, White Masks […]. I think the African community liked the film,
but notes that no matter how one looks at the finished work, S’en fout la mort is “a very weird film” (8). In many ways, “weird” seems an accurate word to describe the film, but this is only because so few films actually take on the psychic toll of colonialism and portray blacks and Africans as anything other than objects. As Denis told Reid, “in my films, black people are never objects. They are subjects who actively choose what they want. Producers usually have a very exotic idea about what black actors should do and where they should be seen. Producers’ scripts would liken black actors to lions and elephants.” (9)
As much as I admire the magnificent Beau travail, it clearly appears to be a more comfortably absorbed film, especially among white critics. Perhaps this can be tied to a general discomfort with black male sexuality, which is far less apparent in Beau travail than homoerotic male military masculinity. Nevertheless, both films are connected in fascinating, if oblique, ways in their treatment of mechanised colonised masculinity and male bodies. The directorial voice of Denis is strong and resolute. There are no shortcuts to understanding her films, which are best suited to multiple viewings. Perhaps if we are lucky, S’en fout la mort will become more widely available and we may gain a more complex understanding of the oeuvre of Denis. As Martine Beugnet notes: “in effect, there are few filmmakers whose body of work encapsulates better than Denis’s the deep-seated malaise that inhabits the collective psyche of our post-colonial world” (10).
- Judith Mayne, “Interview with Clair Denis”, Claire Denis, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2005, pp. 140-41.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles L. Markmann, Grove Press, New York, 1967; Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, Grove, New York, 1963.
- Mark A. Reid, “Claire Denis Interview: Colonial Observations”, Jump Cut no. 40, March 1996: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC40folder/ClaireDenisInt.html.
- Mayne, p. 50.
- Mayne, p. 55.
- Martine Beugnet, Claire Denis, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2004, p. 3.
S’en fout la mort/No Fear, No Die (1990 France/West Germany 90 mins)
Prod Co: Cinéa/NEF Diffusion Prod: Francis Boespflug, Philippe Carcassonne Dir: Claire Denis Scr: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau Phot: Pascal Marti Ed: Dominique Auvray Prod Des: Jean-Jacques Caziot Mus: Abdullah Ibrahim
Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Alex Descas, Solveig Dommartin, Christopher Buchholz, Jean-Claude Brialy, Christa Lang