Nenette and Boni (1996)

After the complex characters of Chocolat and the subtlety of I Can’t Sleep, Clair Denis disappoints with a film that has neither. Denis presents the audience with more off-putting character and while it’s a bold move, without those elements that made her last two films shine, Nenette and Boni is a clear step down.

The core problem is that these two characters are so unpleasant to be around. While the protagonists of the film don’t have to be good people, here, they become an irritant from the earliest moments of the film. They’re selfish, self-absorbed, shallow and foolish. There’s little that makes the two likable, empathetic, only the occasional hit of desperate loneliness and vulnerability.

All the titular characters end up having is each other. Nenette (Alice Houri) runs away from home after she discovers she is pregnant, taking up residence with Boni (Gregoire Colin), who lives in their mother’s apartment after her death. The two are very harsh and abusive to each other, acting more like five year olds than teens on the verge of adulthood.

While this setup makes for a lot of frustrating moment where the entire film seems simply about watching these two inflict pain on each other, Denis does manage to shift and grow these characters and their relationship throughout the film. It’s not nearly as revelatory or powerful as her earlier films, in large part because the film almost embraces the superficiality of these characters.

Boni spends a good chunk of the film fantasizing about the local baker woman, which he desperately wants to bed. His sexual frustration manifests itself in the physical aggression he directs to his friends as well as Nenette. While there are certainly men who live life with little more direction than their libido, it’s frustrating to watch a character where it’s the only attribute that gets hammered over and over time again.

Nenette is a more interesting character from the onset, in large part because she is completely indifferent to the child inside her, almost as if all her emotions left the moment she heard about the pregnancy. But not all her actions align with her behavior. There seems to be some sort of tension there, but it never fully manifests itself or causes a deep insight into the character.

That’s the core flaw with the film. Much like Daiga in I Can’t Sleep, Nenette gets through the film with a stereotypical demure reaction to everything. It’s Boni who ends up developing into a stronger character, with some fantastic scenes later in the film. The disappointment that the character with the best setup gets the least interesting part of the story almost makes the film feel a bit misguided it its portrayal of the character.

At this point, one could simply call this another way of Denis showing the audience that sometimes the people that appear the least complicated can prove to be the most interesting, but in conjunction with the last film, it seems more an issue of portraying females as disengaged, which seems odd to say of a female director. If it weren’t for some fantastic moments, it would be easy to deem this film Denis’ first failure.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing