Cocks and men and buffalo soldiers

On Claire Denis’s No Fear, No Die (1990)

It begins with an epigraph from Harlem crime novelist Chester Himes:

“Every human being, whatever his race, nationality, religion, or politics, is capable of anything and everything.”

How do we live, day after day, facing all the quiet indignities of life? Knowing our existence probably won’t measure up to our dreams. That so much of our lives is determined by chance. That we’re already weathered from the start by circumstances set into place well before our birth. That of all who experience oppression, some manage to endure it and some don’t. And who can really say why?

Jocelyn (Alex Descas) holds a rooster in his hands, looking at it thoughtfully.

No Fear, No Die, Claire Denis’s second movie, is the story of immigrant cockfighting trainers in the working class outskirts of Paris. It’s an understated story that balances between the gentle moments that may carry you through your daily toil and the slow creep of indignity and despair that comes from an uncaring world. It has numerous scenes of Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas, longtime friends and frequent Denis collaborators who are two of the most handsome men on the planet, tenderly taking care of chickens. It is very good.

In its introductory scene, No Fear shows our main characters — two Black immigrants, one from Benin, a small country in West Africa, and one from the Caribbean — illegally picking up chickens to raise and train for an underground cockfighting ring run by the lecherous restaurateur Pierre. The delivery goes without a hitch. The chickens in tow and without saying much of anything the two men drive off again. And as they drive, sharing the silence, they put on Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” The song acts like something of an overture, establishing without dialogue or exposition the mood and background of our two heroes — displaced people fighting for survival.

Dah (Isaach de Bankolé) sits at a small table in their ruddy underground home, a green bottle of beer in front of him. He puts his right hand to his temple.

The movie continues following our protagonists Dah and Jocelyn (de Bankolé and Descas respectively) in scene after scene showing their humble, below-board life. They are over and over again exploited and undercut by Pierre. Tensions arise when Jocelyn develops feelings for Pierre’s wife. But the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Emotional pain is shown gracefully, intercut with moments of peace. Tragedy is respected with silence.

This premise could have been the start to a sleazy crime thriller, but instead it becomes a quiet examination of life on the margins. There is no explosive action, no dramatic twists. Toward the beginning of the film Pierre shows our protagonists the cockfighting arena and their living quarters, both of which are housed below his restaurant. The setting is constrained, cold, industrial. Jocelyn and Dah are clearly unhappy with the arrangement, but their faces are blank. They say little. They only indicate dissatisfaction with little looks at one another and in quick, measured comments.

Much of No Fear is spent with Dah and Jocelyn in their basement. While Dah handles the business side of their hustle, Jocelyn trains the chickens. You can see through little suggestions how Dah is a bit more hardened and worldly. Jocelyn, cooped up not unlike the chickens he trains, becomes more inward looking and vulnerable. Both are trapped in the same situation, but they react differently.

Jocelyn eventually falls into a depression after his prize cockfighter dies. We notice it only with slight changes of behavior. Descas plays the character as quiet and removed from the get-go, so we rely on his skill as an actor (as well as nudges from Dah’s film noir-like narration) to indicate the change.

Jocelyn and Dah, each holding a chicken, begin a training session.

The movie is inspired by the post-colonial writings of Franz Fanon, specifically Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Denis was interested in “exploring [Jocelyn’s] psychological weakness and the spiritual tragedy of his life,” she says as cited in a Senses of Cinema article by Gwendolyn Foster, referencing Fanon’s subject of “colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future.”

Certainly the tension between colonial subjects and colonial oppressors is right there on the screen, but No Fear is less politically overt than you might assume a movie inspired by Fanon would be. It does things with Fanon’s theory that only filmmaking — and maybe Denis — can do. It offers a layer of social commentary, most obviously shown in the music the characters play: Dah is partial to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” speaking to a sort of panafricanist self-determination — while Jocelyn often puts on 80s hip-hop (that I can’t for the life of me identify, anybody know?), which maybe positions him alongside the American Black Power movement. Or maybe just shows the anger bubbling under the surface for him, the feelings expressed through music when he refuses to let them show in himself.

Dah and Jocelyn are post-colonial expressions of Blackness, but the characters aren’t symbols. They are roles with underwritten depths, left to the performances of the two extraordinary lead actors to fill. As Denis says in the interview cited in SoC, “In my films, black people are never objects. They are subjects who actively choose what they want. Producers usually have a very exotic idea about what black actors should do and where they should be seen. Producers’ scripts would liken black actors to lions and elephants.” (That same SoC article speculates that No Fear’s less pronounced critical appreciation might have something to do with its specific focus on Black masculinity — comparing it with Denis’s later, much whiter Beau Travail, which is so well-recognized I regularly see casual allusions to it on gay Twitter.)

Jocelyn and Dah walk through the working class outskirts of Paris. Jocelyn says, “Men, cocks… Same thing.”

We see Jocelyn drift into despair and disillusionment, identifing more and more with these chickens he trains who are doomed to pain and eventual death within a system of senseless slaughter. (Note: While there are upsetting scenes of cockfighting, production notes indicate many careful steps were taken to assure the chicken-actors were not harmed.) Lily Majteles writing for Screen Slate argues that Denis weaponizes the intimate relationship she builds between audience and subject “to articulate violence underscored by the film’s deceptively gentle, pleasing rhythm. This is a study of insidious violence that corrodes every facet of daily life.”

Dah endures his oppression. Jocelyn does not. But Dah is not stronger for his ability to endure, nor is Jocelyn weaker. There is no indication that one man suffered more than the other, or that Jocelyn’s descent into hopelessness would even be justfied if that were true. It just is.

I came across a line the other day in the introduction to Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg, called “The Scorpion Garden,” that feels relevant here: “Oppression teaches us nothing. It weakens us and demoralizes us, makes us shallow and coarse. Under it, we may be forced to learn the limits of the survival of the human in us. But it is the human that does the teaching, not the oppression. And the learning justifies the oppression not one bit.” Dah and Jocelyn are both weakened and demoralized by their oppression. But Dah has not “learned” more from his oppression. It’s just that through chance and circumstance he has become the kind of person who endures it.

Denis can be a frustratingly subtle and deliberate director. Her movies are like spaces that actors inhabits rather than a linear series of scenes. Plot isn’t really the driving factor here. You get the sense that you’re viewing snippets of a larger story rather than a narrative with defined edges. Plot points come and go without fanfare. Scenes are never in a rush to end. These quirks and unconventional sensibilities make her work so interesting and captivating to watch, make them, to my mind, much more powerful and resonate. I feel when I look back on it that I’m still excavating emotion from it. Martine Beugnet says in a book on Claire Denis that “there are few filmmakers whose body of work encapsulates better than Denis’s the deep-seated malaise that inhabits the collective psyche of our post-colonial world.”

Dah sits in the corner of the cockfighting pit with a white rooster on his lap.

Of No Fear in particular, The AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky says that Denis’s “clipped visual compositions sometimes bring to mind a jazzier Robert Bresson, whose own Pickpocket is more of a genre piece than its reputation lets on, with shades of John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, one of Denis’ go-to reference points during the filming.” (Note: I’m not a Bresson fan, but I might try some more of his movies for this newsletter. No question I’ll cover Cassavetes.)

Denis was assistant director to Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and most of her movies fuse their styles pretty well — Jarmusch’s cool detachment and Wenders’s emotional sophistication. Majteles describes No Fear as “a critical gap in Denis’ filmography as she begins to hone her style, striving towards the potent subtlety and hypnotic lyricism of her subsequent films.” Her debut, Chocolat, is even slower and less focused, altogether less compelling (though still interesting in its own ways). In No Fear we see Denis settling into her own cinematic voice with more confidence and verve. Maybe it isn’t the strongest entry in her filmography overall, but the sense of it has resonated for me more strongly than many of her other, more high-profile features. Every time I hear “Buffalo Soldier” now I think of our two heroes listening to the radio as they drive at night, maybe envisioning themselves as the icon Marley so reverently sings of. Or maybe not.

Toni (Solveig Dommartin) sits in a booth in a red strapless dress, looking a bit forlorn.

No Fear also has the wonderful Solveig Dommartin, who had a criminally short career and mostly worked with Denis and Wenders. She’s the lead in one of my favorite movies of all time, Until the End of the World, which I’ll have another article about one day. Dommartin plays Pierre’s much younger wife, Toni, who is having an affair with her stepson Michel (incest or near-incest is a common sub-theme in Denis’ work). Jocelyn falls in love with her, causing friction with Pierre and Michel and eventually leading to the movie’s tragic, if muted, ending.

Some technical observations: While it’s fantastic this movie is available at all (I think now the only really difficult to find of Denis’ feature films is her third, I Can’t Sleep, which you can get if you can cough up $80 to buy a copy on eBay or rent it through Netflix’s DVD service), it wasn’t really restored or transferred to digital well and is stuck at 540p, which gives it a muddy, somewhat blurry look. The subtitles are also half-assed, which is too bad. A handful of lines go completely unsubtitled for some reason, and a good chunk of what is there is clearly translated merely literally. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but I would definitely rather return to it if it ever got restored with another, better translation.

No Fear, No Die is available to stream on the Criterion Channel here.

Bryan Cebulski tweets at @BryanOnion.

Journalist and writer of quiet queer fiction. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him. Contact @ bryancebulski@gmail.com

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