It takes a while to get into Clarice Lispector. The novelist and short story writer, bemoaned as opaque by her critics, dodges meaning as though it were a rapier. She is the kind of artist who has never met a tangent she didn’t want to follow. In her story “Love,” for instance, a woman catches a tram, thinks a little about her children, worries about the rest of the day, sees a man, mentally prepares for her brothers coming over for dinner, sees a blind man, struggles to escape a rising panic attack, and then suddenly and dramatically falls apart.
The whole time that you’re reading the story, you’re sitting there wondering: yes, but so what? And you’re so busy fretting, flying through the words, searching for the point of it all, that you don’t even see the sentence that changes everything coming. You just stumble across it, and that’s that: the shift. Nothing has changed about Lispector’s story, or the way she is telling it. It is you, the reader, who has changed.
Claire Denis is a similar kind of artist. Denis spends a lot of her films feeding you tiny details, little tangential snatches of action, just like Lispector. Sometimes these details can feel irrelevant, or beside the point—the pottering daily routine that makes up much of The Intruder; the first third of Friday Night, with its shots of packed boxes, and busy streets, and brief, oblique snatches of conversation. Often, while watching her films, it can feel like nothing is happening. Then, suddenly, it feels like everything is.
Denis shoots her films for a short time, and then she edits them for a long one. In interviews, she has claimed that this is an issue of self-confidence. But watching her films, that is not what it feels like. With Denis’ movies, you get the sense that long stretches of the plot could be arranged in practically any order. Beau Travail’s famous ending, for example, was not designed to be an ending; it was written to conclude the film’s first act, shifted to the climax in the editing room. You can tell. It is a lost scene, full of the peculiar energy of a structural orphan.
So it goes with Let The Sunshine In: its parade of ill-fitting men could disappoint in whatever order that they pleased. The Intruder could finish with an ailing heart; White Material could begin with a beret being tucked into a pair of boxers; the inciting incident of Trouble Every Day could sit right in its center, a pivot. Denis’ narratives would rarely make less logical sense if they were flipped back to front.
Which maybe makes it sound like Denis’ films could be easy to edit, that they could be arranged arbitrarily. But of course, that is not true. As much as you get the sense that Denis’ films could be organized by a computer, programmed to place images at random, you get an equally distinct sense that there is some magic, invisible pattern—one that only reveals itself afterwards, in retrospect.
This, maybe, is why she edits for so long. Although Denis could arrange a sequence of shots—say someone listening to the radio, and then someone reading a book, and then some buildings, and then a bus stop—in whatever order she pleased, there is a precise way to do so that makes these ordinary moments catch fire. Somehow, all of a sudden, the order is determined: the film can be this way and only this way. Although everything is permissible, it is clear that only one thing is right.
This is how U.S. Go Home begins: a radio, a book, some buildings, a bus stop. Over it, a girl talks about being bored. There’s no music. Most of the time, the camera is static. When it moves, it moves very slowly.
Then again, maybe to say it “begins” is generous. U.S. Go Home doesn’t really begin, and it doesn’t really end. The film cuts into a plot, and a series of lives, and then it cuts out. We follow two young French girls, Martine and Marlène, for one day, one night, and a little of the next morning. We could have easily followed them for longer, or for a whole day less.
Unusually for Denis, who tends to stay far away from any kind of metatextual signage, U.S. Go Home echoes this structure within itself. Throughout, the girls hitchhike their way around town, and they flick through channels on the radio. Both activities are different ways of achieving the same thing, motivated not by boredom or laziness, but by singularity of vision. The girls ride with one song for a little while, and then they get off when it’s taken them where they want to go.
Men drive them to school; they attend one far too juvenile party, leave when it bores them, and then end up at one far too adult party, before leaving when that one bores them too. At the end, a miserable American soldier named Captain Brown drives Martine partway home, they stop, and then he drives her the rest of the way. The girls follow whims, pick up on the currents of men when they feel like it. They are instinctual. They turn off the song when it bores them.
Denis does the same. Early on, she is fascinated, suddenly fascinated, with Martine’s brother Alain as he dances to an American song on the radio. You keep expecting her to cut. Instead, she holds, and holds, and holds. Alain jerks, and sings along, and smokes a cigarette, and Denis doesn’t even stop staring when the song finishes, when he collapses into a chair and then turns to notice that Martine too has been watching him from across a table, her gaze flinty.
Other times, major plot points last about the length of a sentence fragment. Martine feels like she has to get laid. That’s what compels her to attend the first party, and it’s what pushes her away from it when she realizes it’s a dead end. It’s why she later stumbles into a house where all the men are named Alain, like her brother, and the women stand in the corners of the dark room, dabbing at their eyes. And finally, it’s what draws her to Captain Brown, who she finds sitting in his car in the middle of the forest drinking Coca-Cola and smoking Lucky Strikes like some overgrown, abandoned monument erected to American imperialism.
But when Martine seems about ready to fulfill her hero’s journey—when she and Captain Brown exchange a thick, coded look as he’s driving her home, and then stop the car, and then wander off into the forest once again, alone—Denis cuts away.
An implication is there: perhaps they sleep together on the dark forest floor. But it’s just as possible that they don’t. Maybe Captain Brown loses his nerve, or grows too sad, or Martine, who, despite how much she says she wants it, has seemed confused enough about sex anyway, stops the whole thing before it even begins. Both options are equally possible; picking between them seems of little interest to Denis.
After all, if there’s one thing she has bucked away from throughout her career, it’s the temptation to drop a clear thesis statement. There is no point on which her characters’ lives suddenly pivot; no startling moment of self-realization, or catharsis. Like life—like the magic patterns she uncovers in editing—the explaining comes afterwards, long after the fact.
The same goes for the suggestion, hidden throughout, that Martine and Alain might desire each other. Martine is jealous that Alain seems to have feelings for Marlène; she chides him over it, prodding him into a rage. And he, in turn, is prickly and jealous that she appears interested in Captain Brown.
Alain’s aversion to the American—“I’m Communist, I don’t drink Coca-Cola,” he snaps at the Captain when he offers a bottle as a peace offering—isn’t ideological. It’s as crude and unthinking as Martine’s desire to get fucked. It is the hot rage of a toddler who sees their mother talking to another; the instantly recognizable pang of pain that travels through a dog’s face when its owner ignores it.
So yes, there is the suggestion throughout that maybe this is a film about incest—about taboos. That it has the potential to end with Martine and Alain engaged in condemnable carnal embrace, their shame a product of boredom and self-hatred.
But then suddenly Denis stops exploring. Martine and Alain part ways after she stumbles across Captain Brown, and when they meet again, they do not even exchange looks. In the final scene, all three characters are arranged facing off into different directions. The film’s title can be seen spray-painted onto a nearby wall. Captain Brown drives off in his car. Denis holds the shot. And then we cut to titles.
There’s no final speech; no admission of pain, or guilt, or desire. That’s just it. Denis, like Martine and Marlène, has been hitchhiking. She has been channel surfing. And the song has taken her where she wanted to go.
Very often, and to her chagrin, critics have assumed that Denis’ films are self-portraits. She grew up in Africa, only migrating to France as a pre-pubescent, so those who watch closely and pore over the details of her life assume that movies like Chocolat and White Material must have some truth to them, that they are coded documents to be translated and understood. Denis has refuted this. The relationship between France and Protée in Chocolat is a fiction, she insists; the unnamed world of White Material a dramatic distortion of the one that she was raised in.
And so, it is perilous to assume that U.S. Go Home is the story of a young Denis coming of age, falling for older men, and feeling alienated. And more than that, it is thematically limiting. U.S. Go Home is not a story of one person. It is not a series of signposts, pointing out of the frame in the direction of its author. And to imagine it in this way is to reduce it to a biography. U.S. Go Home is not a film about one life; it is a little section of adolescence, ambiguous and important enough to feel like some private admission.
When people say that a film is true to life, this is usually a coded way of saying that its stakes are low; its goals minor. But this is a dishonest way to describe such movies, and our lives. Nobody actually believes the stakes of their existence are slight. Nobody thinks feeling embarrassed when touched by a handsome boy is “just one of those things.”
In fact, such moments are the meat of our lives. They are the worries and thoughts and memories that keep us up at night; that make us suddenly turn red, years later. That we hold onto. Everything is major, even when we are quite aware from the outside that it’s only a party going poorly, or a younger sibling watching us doing an embarrassing dance.
The grand structure that we give our lives is, to that end, mostly useless. The moral codes that we draw up for ourselves—that we deeply hate Americans; that they must go away and leave us be; that we are Communists—mean nothing unless they unfold in practice. And most of the time they don’t. Most of the time we dance to American music, and we let their soldiers give our sisters lifts home, and the moral fortitude of our lives is decided by what we do, and not by what we say.
U.S. Go Home is true to life not because it is about a little, but because it is about a lot. Because it is not the story of a specific life, but instead a portion of all of ours. It has no final summing up. Alain and Captain Brown and Martine have not learned a profound lesson, or decided to alter the direction of their lives. If they have anything to say about what has happened to them, they keep it to themselves. U.S. Go Home is a quote; a few brief days in which everything happens and nothing does, extending out in either direction, ellipses on both sides.