Incest, affect, and ambiguous politics in two films by Claire Denis

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Abstract / Description of output

Motifs of incest and the father-daughter relationship recur across Claire Denis’s oeuvre. This article examines two recent films, 35 Rhums/35 Shots of Rum (2008) and High Life (2018), which centre father-daughter relationships. The films oppose the domestic and the political, as fathers and daughters form exclusive bonds governed by care and mutual devotion, in sociopolitical contexts of inequality and exploitation. Yet the risk of exploitation remains at the heart of the domestic, unsettling the clear division between care and domination. This article suggests that Denis deploys the spectre of incest as an affective strategy, creating discomfort via the indeterminacy of care and desire, intimacy and exploitation. Recent theorisations of the political possibilities of negative affect by Sianne Ngai and Nikolaj Lübecker offer frameworks for understanding this strategic ambiguity and ambivalence. Thus, the negative affect produced by the spectral presence of incest can be thought as a sign of the political dispossession, violation, and domination at stake in the films. Yet at the same time, the political critiques which the films pursue are complicated by the violence which hovers in the possibility of incest. As elsewhere in her work, while Denis remains emphatically engaged in social and ethical questions, in particular regarding marginalised and oppressed subjects, her vision of the political is one which refuses dogmatic agendas and moralistic representational modes, and instead privileges extreme or ambiguous models. Thus, in both films, Denis positions her political critique from within an ethical model which constantly asserts its potential for rupture and violation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-326
Number of pages18
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2022


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