Previously unavailable on DVD in the UK, the 1996 film Nenette et Boni hails from a moment when Claire Denis was building both a reputation in her native France, and the ensemble that would serve her so well in years and films to come; its tale of North Africans scraping by in latter-day Marseille now looks like something of a warm-up for the Paris-set 35 Shots of Rum. The focus is on a pair of teenage tearaways: posturing lad Boni (Grégoire Colin, a recurring figure in the director's later work), who spends his days shooting at cats with an air rifle and fuelling his own masturbatory fantasies concerning the local baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi); and his sister Antoinette, a.k.a. Nenette (Alice Houri), who turns up on Boni's doorstep, having fled the broken home she'd been sharing with her father.
Around this pair, you sense Denis refining her MO, moving further and further away from conventional narrative constraints and towards the kind of intimate moments that might well be set to a twinkly Tindersticks score - even if these involve, as here, no more than Boni knocking one out, or a slow, tantalising pan over the contents of a patisserie's front window, and the Bruni-Tedeschi décolletage. (The mouth, truly, waters.) This conjunction of masturbation and baked goods might now have Nenette et Boni pegged as a French precursor to American Pie, yet if anything, it's a teen sex comedy in slow-motion, guided by a filmmaker more concerned with character than anybody's instant gratification. The aggressively horny Boni soon finds family ties getting in the way of his boner; taking Nenette in forces him to co-exist with an actual (rather than fantasy) woman, and confront the consequences of all that thrusting.
"Your mother was never a real woman to me," admits the boy's father (the peerlessly seedy Jacques Nolot) when he, too, shows up; what Denis' quietly radical approach does is make time and space for the film's women to register, and for Boni to soften to some degree, like the dough he kneads in the film's indelibly abstract (non-)sex scene. This director's last truly playful film before she entered the pantheon reserved for Serious Filmmakers, it's a real charmer, earning an attachment to these characters such that Denis can negotiate a broadly smooth last-reel shift into darker territory - which, speaking of teen sex comedies, may just hit the spot for those who found Juno evasive and candy-coated. Even the Vincent Gallo cameo - as a baker who loathes croissants, and scrubs up delightfully well in sailors' whites - proves oddly winning.
Nenette et Boni is available on DVD through Artificial Eye separately, or as part of The Claire Denis Collection, reviewed here.