Left: Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day, 2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Coré (Béatrice Dalle). Right: Cover for Tindersticks, Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009.


“IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE WORDS,” Claire Denis said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. “There’s sometimes no need for words.” Denis is a filmmaker who privileges sensory experience, but while she may often strip away words, she never foregoes music, and in fact views it as central to a cinema that strives to act on the unconscious. Since her fourth feature, Nenette and Boni (1996), she has collaborated with the great, perennially underrated British band Tindersticks. (The one exception is her Beau Travail [1999], which used the Benjamin Britten opera of the Herman Melville novel on which the film is loosely based.) Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, a five-disc box set out this week from the Montreal-based Constellation Records, brings together all six sound tracks (only two of them previously available) that the band—and two of their members, working solo—have composed for Denis.

As with all great director-composer pairings, from Hitchcock-Herrmann to Leone-Morricone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s associations with Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, the Tindersticks make film music that goes far beyond its traditional illustrative role. You could call this a match made in synesthetic heaven—critics have long tagged the Tindersticks’ expansive orchestral rock as “cinematic,” and Denis’s elliptical films certainly have a musical quality—and it’s telling that the musicians have described this artistic kinship in the most fundamental terms. Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples has said that their music and Denis’s films both create “a sense of space”; for violinist and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, the common factor is that they “don’t fit easily into standard time.”

Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard and the stable of actors that includes Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, and Isaach de Bankolé, the Tindersticks have become part of Denis’s creative family, long-standing collaborators for whom working together is largely a matter of shared intuition. When Denis says that the Tindersticks are in her films, she means it quite literally, given how deeply embedded each party is in the other’s process. They start when she shows them the script (which tends to be spare), and their music, as it evolves, helps her find the rhythm and shape of the films.

Denis met the band at a show in Paris in the mid-’90s. At that point they had made two albums (1993 and 1995, both self-titled, still their high-water marks), and the wide-screen sweep of their baroque romanticism made them naturals for film music (parallel to their relationship with Denis, the band has worked with the British filmmaker Martin Wallace on a series of “companion films,” among them a Super 8 charmer for the second album’s “Traveling Light”). Denis had just finished writing Nenette and Boni, an intimate brother-sister story set in Marseille, and had been listening compulsively to “My Sister,” a droll, delicate mumbled-word number from the 1995 album. The Nenette and Boni score, which largely riffs on the shimmering “My Sister” (beginning with a rearranged instrumental version called “Ma Soeur”), goes a long way toward creating the film’s daydream atmospherics.

The range of the sound tracks speaks to the band’s versatility, and of course to Denis’s appetite, her desire never to make the same film twice. Trouble Every Day (2001), her notorious tale of vampiric, cannibalistic sex, matches the Tindersticks’ predilection for orchestral gothic, right on the cusp of beauty and dissonance, tenderness and savagery. (Denis said of the film, “It starts with a kiss and ends with a bite.”) For Friday Night (2002), an altogether more civilized erotic fable, set in an enchanted (though traffic-clogged) Paris, Hinchliffe conjures an air of expectancy and quiet delight from a narrowed musical palette and a small string section. Staples, handling the more opaque and experimental The Intruder (2004), accompanies the hallucinatory final journey of a man and his fading, newly transplanted heart with a kind of cardiogram motif: a repetitive guitar loop, by turns lulling and ominous.

After making six studio albums, the band members took a break for solo projects, and half of the original sextet—Staples, keyboardist Dave Boulter, and guitarist Neil Fraser—regrouped in 2007. (Hinchliffe has gone on to a prolific scoring career in indie film, working with Ira Sachs, Debra Granik, and James Marsh.) The reformed band scored Denis’s last two films, the Ozu-inspired father-daughter drama 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and the roiling postcolonial African nightmare White Material (2009). As with their predecessors, these are sound tracks that easily survive the transposition to home listening even as they instantly summon a welter of indelible images for anyone who has seen the films. A wistful melodica refrain brings to mind the crisscrossing railway tracks of 35 Shots; slow-building crescendos evoke the stealthy progress of the child soldiers in White Material––a testament to the respective power of the images and of the music but, more than that, to their mysterious inseparability.

Dennis Lim

The Tindersticks will perform with scenes from Denis’s films on April 30 in Los Angeles at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex and at the Castro Theater on May 2 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.