Marji Vecchio is keenly aware of nuances. Sipping a midday coffee, she rattles off a list of observations about what I’m doing when I think I’m doing nothing: “The way you’re holding your pen, the way you’re touching your nails, the way we’re looking at each other. That’s all a part of our conversation right now. There’s a lot of silence there, even though we’re talking. And there’s tons of communication.”
The way those nonverbal cues draw us in is exactly what attracted her to the films of Claire Denis. “They’re extremely visual,” explained Vecchio, former curator at University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery. “And they just sort of show, very quietly, without talking, how people communicate, what their fears are, what their psychologies are.”
Vecchio relates to Denis on another level too. They each have a lifelong experience with a half insider, half outsider status. Denis was born in France, raised in Africa until age 14, and returned to France with her family to find her sense of cultural identity confused. Vecchio was adopted as a child. Each of those circumstances, while it presents its own challenges, also provides the advantage of a broader perspective on cultures or families.
“Every single [one of her films] is about that kind of duality,” Vecchio said. “That’s why her work has a lot to do with borders and citizenship, migration, immigration, siblings, health, stuff like that.”
Denis began making films in her 40s, and at 69 she’s still making them. Among her best known are Beau Travail, “her most ’cult classic,’” according to Vecchio; Trouble Every Day, her most controversial; and Chocolat, her debut film about growing up in Africa (no relation to Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat with Juliette Binoche).
Vecchio met Denis in 2002 at the European Graduate School in Switzerland while pursuing a doctoral degree. “A couple years later, I was invited by the director to be a visiting scholar,” said Vecchio. “I could study any subject that I wanted, with any instructor that I wanted, and I just thought, ’Claire!’”
Denis has received awards from at least 10 international film festivals and has garnered the Stockholm Lifetime Achievement Award.
Vecchio decided her project would take the form of a book. After years of soliciting and editing contributions from writers around the globe—and more years of publishing delays—The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border was finally published in November 2014.
The book contains scholarly essays, interviews by Denis’ collaborators, and a forward by Wim Wenders that reads like a free-verse poem about meeting Denis in Texas. He’d sized her up as “frail,” then watched her rescue a film production from disaster after disaster.
Denis went on to make a name for herself as a woman who could compete in a man’s world, a barrier-breaking storyteller, and a collaborative leader.
Vecchio’s book has so far been well received. It landed her a positive review by the American Library Association and a lecture at San Francisco Art Institute. She’s a finalist for the UK’s Kraszna-Krausz Book Award, which means the book will be exhibited along with the work of nine other finalists at the London Science Museum. “That’s something, as a curator, I really respect,” she said.