I’m glad I saw Beau Travail before Nénette et Boni. Grégoire Colin, a prominent actor in both films, could not have taken a more different follow-up role. In Beau Travail he’s defined for his stoicism and domineering presence. He rarely utters a word and allows his physicality to speak for itself. Seen through the eyes of Denis Lavant, he’s a threatening hulk of youthful masculinity. In Nénette et Boni, that youthful masculinity is still there, but it’s distilled through a lens of delusion and anxieties. Colin, as the titular Boni, is consumed by thoughts of the baker’s wife from across the street. He plays out fantasies that are the work of erotic fan fiction and even has a sensuous moment with a roll of dough. It’s a particularly interesting subversion of masculine identity and the most un-Denis film I’ve seen yet.
When I say un-Denis, I refer to what has been characteristic of the films I’ve seen of hers. There’s an omission of black characters here, focusing mainly on the bond between a white Parisian brother and sister. The film is largely shot indoors as well and takes place in France, deviating from the African escapades of Chocolat and Beau Travail. The film is also much more motivated by dialogue and sound. I’ve always found Denis to have a firm grasp of how to deploy music in her films - “Nightshift” in 35 Rhums and Britton in Beau Travail - and Nénette et Boni follows suit, particularly in the interesting use of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys and a soundtrack produced by the band Tindersticks. But it’s the sounds of this film that are particularly exhilarating. A coffee maker waking Boni from a wet dream and his subsequent association with the sound of brewing coffee with carnal pleasure is a remarkable touch. Nénette’s (Alice Houri) own breathing rhythms enter the soundscape as something both intimate and distant, with Denis exhibiting such impeccable handling of craft and narrative. We know very little about Nénette’s situation other than she comes from a broken home, is pregnant, and is seeking shelter with her brother. These facts are only sporadically introduced as it takes the film well past its runtime to know that both Nénette and Boni are in fact brother and sister. Beforehand, the picture hints at the prospects but plays out a lot like the central relationship in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.
This sense of unknowing in Nénette et Boni allows Denis to tinker with expectations. As I mentioned, this is a film with a defined narrative structure, but it’s not one that you would expect. With Boni smitten by the baker’s wife, the sense that the film may be a battle between Boni and the Baker (played by Vincent Gallo) lingers. But while Denis teases a confrontation between the two, it never surfaces, in large part because Boni’s attention is now shifted toward his sister’s pregnancy. While initially resistant toward the idea of offering safe haven for his sister - perhaps because it will interfere with his attempts at wooing the Baker’s wife - the notion of raising his nephew grows increasingly appealing. It’s here where Denis simply allows the film to shift focus, modifying expectations and instilling a significant dreamy aura to the picture.
Nénette et Boni, like many of Denis’ early pre-Beau Travail work, wasn’t met with much acclaim, but it certainly warrants reconsideration. In many ways, the picture feels like a precursor to a lot of contemporary films from renowned directors, particularly Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (discussed in my Beau Travail review, the airy dreamlike quality of unknowing that film embraces seems to almost be lifted from Nénette et Boni) and Steve McQueen’s Shame (dealing with another brother/sister bond of questionable sexual politics). What Beau Travail and especially Nénette et Boni prove, it’s that Denis is one step ahead.