Published October 1, 1997
Nenette et Boni by Claire Denis is a rather enjoyable little meditation on the disjunction, in our late 20th century culture, between sex and context, between the act of coupling and its moral and biological consequences. Boni, short for Boniface (Colin Grégoire), a young man of about 19 or 20 who works as a pizza chef in a roadside van, has recently inherited his mother’s house in Marseilles after her death from cancer. There has been some kind of rupture of a permanent kind between him and his father, and his sister, Nenette (Alice Houri), has taken the side of his father. So the son, as his mother’s survivor and heir, is at daggers drawn against the father/daughter axis—an interestingly Freudian situation, until Nenette gets pregnant and, fearful of her father’s anger, turns to Boni for help.
At first hostile, Boni gradually begins to take on a quasi-paternal role vis à vis the unborn child and a marital one vis à vis his sister. Yet she breaks in upon his intense and ongoing sexual fantasies which he tries, not always successfully, to keep from her, in a separate compartment of his life. He keeps a diary full of painfully adolescent thoughts, alternately calling himself names and upbraiding himself for cowardice and timidity, and indulging himself in fantasies of power and sexual triumph. The chief object of his imaginary sexual attentions is a local baker, played by the stunning Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who has married an American sailor and opened her boulangerie with him. They have three children and seem to be very happy, though Boni of course imagines them otherwise.
The comedy of the film has to do with the images Ms Denis supplies to illustrate Boni’s lush adolsescent sexual fantasies—images of the baker’s buns, for instance, and double entendres based on the shape as well as the sound of the bread—or “French sticks”—that she so suggestively sells. There is also a funny bit in which a much-desired coffeemaker supplies the sound effects to one of Boni’s erotic dreams, and we see him waking up with the first smile of satisfaction we have seen from him when he finds the coffeemaker, already responding to its timer and busily making coffee, on the table beside his bed. In another hilarious scene, Boni treats an obscenely suggestive lump of pizza dough as he wishes to treat the bakeress.
But the best scene in the film is when Boni runs into the baker-woman by chance in a different part of town. She recognizes him from the shop, though she doesn’t even know his name, and good-naturedly invites him for a coffee. All oblivious to the role she has long been playing in the young man’s nightly fantasy life, she chatters on about “those famous molecules” she thinks are called “pherenomes,” that responsible for human and animal attraction. Having read about them in a magazine article, she has now stopped using perfume for fear of masking her natural attractive power. Poor Boni is simply dumbstruck. He sits and listens and stares at her and cannot bring himself to utter a single word. “You’re not a big talker,” she observes to him blandly.
Another nice metaphor for the disjunction mentioned above is a phone card scam being run by some hustlers among the immigrant community in Marseilles. We don’t see what this might have to do with the main action of the film until one of the social service workers whom Boni and Nenette consult about what to do with the baby (she is just telling them that if they opt for the “Jane Doe” adoption, they must simply sign away all rights in the child in perpetuity), interrupts their conference to take a call from the phone company to whom she has been loudly complaining about getting huge bills for calls to Vietnam when she knows no one there. Like the sex without consequences and the consequences without sex that are the main theme of the film, here is an image of connections being paid for by those who do not make them and being made by people who do not pay for them.
At the climax of the film, having done so much so right, Ms Denis goes slightly off the rails, I think, by imposing on this amusing yet tragic situation a dramatic conclusion which is not sufficiently justified by what has gone before. Yet her ending allows her to leave us with a final image of the perpetually gloomy and tight-lipped Boni happy at last and dreaming, however implausibly, no longer of the baker’s wife but of some ultimate reconciliation, some hopeful rejoining of the sexual and the familial sorts of love, which hitherto have seemed to be torn asunder in perpetuity. It is very poignant.