The Sound of Sex


Claire Denis’s sensuous movies are less talk than texture. Storytelling is confidently subverbal, almost artisanal, distilled to elemental acts like the making of images and sounds. While the images have long been the province of Agnès Godard’s caressing camera, the sounds (with the exception of Beau Travail‘s skyward Britten opera and Eurodisco orgasm) have lately been entrusted to the British band Tindersticks, whose soundtrack work for Denis has seen these baroque depressives at their sunniest (confectionary piano shimmer for Nénette and Boni‘s teenage erotics) and most sinister (voraciously swooping strings for Trouble Every Day‘s cannibal sex). For the one-night romp of Friday Night (playing at the Quad), Tindersticks’ multitasker supreme Dickon Hinchliffe (violin, keyboards, guitar, orchestral arrangements, occasional lead vocals) provides a lovely, expectant score that enhances the flavor of skewed enchantment and nocturnal mirage, capturing the fantasy evening’s blushing irreality and weak-kneed tingle, down to the final note of bleary, dawning euphoria.

Hinchliffe says collaborating with Denis is often a matter of intuition: “You start with the script, but because there’s so little dialogue, you can read one page in 30 seconds and it might take 20 minutes of the film. Small things have great importance, so you have to use your imagination a lot.” (When I interviewed Denis a few years ago, she memorably remarked, “It’s better to film the film than to film the script.”) “The difference between Claire’s films is sort of like the difference between our records,” Hinchliffe continues. “They’ve got a strong imprint, but the tone keeps changing. Nénette and Boni was more of a band effort for us, very loose with some improvisation. Trouble Every Day was an orchestral piece, a lot more focused. It needed something explosive—there’s even a harp in there, to add a slightly gothic element. With Friday Night, it’s a very small world, always dark and a bit claustrophobic, and to get that intimacy, I narrowed the palette—a small string section, a piano, and a celeste. The images are so delicate and withdrawn we had to make sure the sound didn’t overpower them.”

A fan of Jon Brion’s music for Paul Thomas Anderson, Hinchliffe believes the prevalent cattle-prod school of film scoring has much to do with “people remembering Bernard Herrmann more for Psycho than Vertigo.” French directors have been notably forward-looking in their choice of musical accompaniment (Olivier Assayas teaming with Sonic Youth, Leos Carax with Scott Walker), and the Denis-Tindersticks pairing, in particular, is a synesthetic dream: It’s critical commonplace, after all, to describe Denis’s cinema as musical and the Tindersticks’ music as cinematic. (The band’s sixth studio album, Waiting for the Moon—a return to the expansive romanticism of the first two self-titled LPs after their recent soulman dalliances—is out next month. “Until the Morning Comes,” the gorgeous Hinchliffe composition that opens the record, is an alt-reality Friday Night, poised between murder ballad and cold-sweat lullaby.)

“There’s a blurring of boundaries in our work with Claire,” says Hinchliffe. “Most scores describe what’s happening on the screen. We’ve tried to draw out what’s already in there musically and also, because music has a more direct line to the unconscious, take the viewer somewhere that the image alone can’t.” He adds: “The obvious thing we share with Claire is that we have our own ideas of rhythm and pace. Her films don’t operate in chronometric time, and our music doesn’t fit easily into standard time either.”

Related Article:

J. Hoberman’s review of Friday Night