Nenette and Boni, 1996

An early episode in Nenette and Boni shows a teenaged girl named Antoinette (Alice Houri), wearing an oversized shirt as she blissfully floats in a school gymnasium swimming pool before being summoned out of the water for improper swimming attire by an impatient instructor. Later in the evening, she bids an affectionate farewell to her roommate and sneaks out of a second floor boarding school dormitory window, eventually catching an overnight bus that is heading out of town. Meanwhile, in Marseilles, her older brother Bonifacio (Grégoire Colin) indulges in his own unproductive escapism by observing the sensual and alluring form of the local baker’s beautiful wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) as she passes by his vehicle, then later chronicles his graphically lurid sexual fantasies of her (sporting an unexplained, badly bruised eye) in his self-deprecatingly titled diary, Confessions of a Wimp. At nineteen years old, the brash and undereducated young man proudly rules over his personal domain – a modest, rundown home inherited from his late mother, Aline – with a confident and territorial swagger: cruelly chasing away a stray cat by shooting an air rifle, providing his transient, petty criminal friends with a place to stay after stealing a shipment of fishing rods, and idling about the house while boasting of his prerogative to set his own hours as the owner of a mobile pizza food service van [an enterprise that was charitably given to the unemployable Boni by a concerned uncle (Gérard Meylan)]. Spotting Nenette in the vicinity of the house as she attempts to make eye contact, Boni pretends not to see her and instead, leaves for work. In his absence, Nenette strikes up a conversation with Boni’s unwitting friend, who is immediately attracted to her, and invites her inside the house. It is a tenuous homecoming for the desperate Nenette, having run away from her (perhaps overly) doting father, Felix (Jacques Nolot) – a decorative light store owner with dubious business alliances – in order to enlist her estranged brother’s assistance in an unwanted pregnancy. Faced with the inevitability of his immature and emotionally fractured sister’s impending motherhood, Boni’s innate capacity for sibling devotion, selflessness, and personal responsibility are awakened.

Nenette and Boni is a highly evocative, hypnotically organic, and exquisitely sensual portrait of connection, intimacy, and surrogate relationships. Claire Denis uses metaphoric and representational bodies, surfaces, and allusive sounds to create tactile and intuitive sensorial manifestations of implicit human behavior and emotions: the serenity of Nenette’s swim that alludes to her innate desire for catharsis and return to innocence after realizing her pregnancy; her sentimental, gentle caresses of her late mother’s clothing that reflect her unrequited longing and profound grief over their separation and her untimely death; the tongue-in-cheek slow motion shot of generously filled, decadent pastries that switches focus to the baker’s seductive wife leaning over the display case to retrieve a fallen raffle ticket; Boni’s wordless erotic dream that is discreetly presented through an abstract, pulsing image and the ambient sound of intermittent, forced hot water gurgling through a pre-programmed coffee maker; his amusing, near orgasmic kneading of pizza dough. The theme of substitution and masking of natural instinct is further reflected in a seemingly vacuous conversation between Boni and the baker’s wife at a shopping mall as she attempts to fill the void of his enigmatic silence with an explanatory theory on the negational effects of strong-scented perfumes on the body’s emission of sexually attractive pheromones. By visually capturing the literal and figurative essence of suppressed and unarticulated emotion, Nenette and Boni serves as a densely voluptuous and sublime textural composition that sophisticatedly and uninhibitedly exposes and lays bare the underlying complexity of human interaction and individual psychology.

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