Like her only other film to receive any significant American distribution &emdash; Chocolat (1988), a meditative depiction of an 8-year-old French girl living in colonial Africa &emdash; Claire Denis' Nenette et Boni is less a story than a series of incidents, a sketch of a particular time and place rendered with seemingly random strokes.
The place is present-day Marseilles and the milieu is one that has become increasingly familiar to viewers of '90s French cinema, the multicultural world of free-floating young people living a marginal existence of petty crime and easy camaraderie against a backdrop of Anglo pop-rock and Gallic rap. It's as if reality has caught up with the fated peregrinations of such early New Wave scenarios as Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless (both 1959) &emdash; a rootlessness which once seemed willed and romantic now has a pervasive documentary feel.
Boni (Gregoire Colin), who is somewhere between being a big kid and a young man, lives in a large apartment that belonged to his late mother, sharing the space with assorted friends who seem to be part of a black-market ring. He fills his time driving a pizza van (a mobile pizzeria which some genius should import) and with masturbatory fantasies about the local baker's voluptuous wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi). Nenette (Alice Houri) is his 15-year-old sister, footloose and pregnant, who runs away from a boarding school to move in with him. When Boni isn't taking BB gun potshots at the neighbor's cat, he's using the weapon to fend off his father, a shady character who wants to reconcile with his estranged children.
All this may suggest a familiarly seedy slice of life, but this is a film in which a half-hour goes by before you realize that Boni and Nenette are actual brother and sister, and where the murder of one of the major characters is presented in such a sidelong manner that you're not quite sure it actually happens (let alone why). Denis has a way of easing the viewers into her subjects' lives, while at the same time mixing memory, fantasy and the present in an impressionistic blend. The result is a movie that is quietly seductive and as enigmatic as everyday reality.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].