In the Midnight Hour

Claire Denis, US Go Home, 1994, Super-16 mm to HDCAM, color, sound, 58 minutes.

THE NOT-TO-BE-MISSED FILM in “Strange Desire,” the nearly complete Claire Denis retrospective at BAM through April 9, is US Go Home, made in 1994 as part of the French television series “All the Boys and Girls of Their Time.” Not only is US Go Home one of Denis’s most affecting and finely made films—it’s right up there with No Fear, No Die (1990), I Can’t Sleep (1994), Beau Travail (1999), and White Material (2009)—it is also the least available. You will never find it on discs or streaming, and it is doubtful it will play in a US theater again, unless a programmer is as willing to put in the time dealing with French television as the team at BAM has been.

“All the Boys and Girls of Their Time” comprises nine films, all by directors who would continue making films, some of them acclaimed worldwide. In addition to Denis, the directors included: Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas, Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, Olivier Dahan, Émilie Deleuze, Cédric Kahn, Patricia Mazuy, and André Téchiné. Each director was asked to make a film between fifty-six and seventy minutes, set during the years of their own adolescence. The budgets were around $1 million, and all the films were shot in Super 16 mm. The series was coproduced by the TV entity La Sept/Arte and Sony Music Entertainment (France). Sony insisted that there be one teenage party in each film (it saw the series as promos for Sony recording artists). While the directors were able to use music that would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive, the issue of music rights is sadly part of what has prevented the films from being distributed beyond their original television broadcast. The entire series was screened once at MoMA, in 1995. Assayas reedited his Cold Water into a feature, and Téchiné did the same with Wild Reeds; both were released theatrically with less costly sound tracks. Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ’60s in Brussels, one of her most extraordinary films, is sometimes included in retrospectives of her work, and hopefully the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be able to show Mazuy’s Travolta and Me during an upcoming series.

Claire Denis, US Go Home, 1994, Super-16 mm to HDCAM, color, sound, 58 minutes.

Denis had no interest in reediting, nor in changing the sound track. U.S. Go Home is set in the late 1960s and is saturated with the music she danced to as a teenager: the Animals and the Yardbirds and covers of memorably sexy songs by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and a dozen others. The story is simple. Fifteen-year-old Martine (Alice Houri) lives with her mother and her slightly older brother (Grégoire Colin) in a drab Parisian suburb near an American military base. Martine wants to lose her virginity, and for this purpose, and accompanied by her best friend Marlène, she follows her brother to a party at a rich kid’s house where the parents are never home and there’s lots of alcohol and sex. Marlène, who’s already been to these kinds of parties and knows how to signal her availability, finds one dance partner after another, but Martine sits on the sidelines, and as time passes with hardly anyone asking her to dance, she wanders around the house, encountering kids who, beneath their bravado, are as confused as she is. That includes her brother and her best friend, whom she spies lying on a couch together, half naked and yet weirdly miserable. As she heads out of the house alone, she meets her brother and they dance—not for long, but just enough for us to understand, as one always does by watching one person look at or touch another in Denis’s films, the place where desire meets repression. As they dance, we might remember how the quotidian fighting and bickering of siblings is a less-than-conscious strategy to keep sexual desire at bay. How extraordinary to see in a movie not only how the touch of a hand on the back of a neck sparks desire (that’s easy) but also the precise moment that it’s repressed, lest it becomes perverse. On their way home, Martine accepts a ride from an American soldier (Vincent Gallo). Her brother refuses, saying he won’t ride with a murderer. Aside from the film’s last shot, which shows graffiti spelling out the film’s title on a wall near Martine’s house, this is the only expression of the anger behind the May 1968 student uprising. Undeterred, Martine decides to lose her virginity by sleeping with the guy her brother has identified as the enemy.

Denis’s greatest films are fever dreams, arising out of a desire so strong that it becomes insanity—sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent. (Only two of her films are failures, and that’s not for a lack of nerve: Trouble Every Day, with its shockingly obtuse references to AIDS in Africa, and her most recent, High Life, which opens April 12.) In U.S. Go Home, the madness is hormonal, with its fullest expression in dance. Colin alone on his bed, with a ciggie dangling from his lips, or strutting and gyrating like Eric Burdon to “Hey Gyp,” rivals Denis Levant’s ecstatic release from the hell of his life at the end of Beau Travail and the nightclub performance of the trans serial killer in I Can’t Sleep, which may be the knottiest entry in this series and is the last in Denis’s trilogy about the residual damage of French colonialism in Africa. The first two of the trilogy are her debut feature, Chocolat, and No Fear No Die, which, like U.S. Go Home, is on my list of the most heart-wrenching films ever made.

“Strange Desire” opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 31 and runs through April 9. U.S. Go Home screens on April 6.