1996's Nénette et Boni hails from a moment when Claire Denis was both building a reputation in her native France, and building up the ensemble that would serve her so well in the decades 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 fixture of the director's early work), who spends his days shooting cats with an air rifle and tending masturbatory fantasies about the local baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi); and his sister, Antoinette a.k.a. Nénette (Alice Houri), who turns up on Boni's doorstep, having fled the broken home she'd previously been sharing with her father. Around this pair, we intuit Denis refining her MO, moving further and further away from narrative constraints and towards the kind of evanescent moments of intimacy 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 across the contents of a patisserie's front window, and the Bruni-Tedeschi décolletage.
That conjunction of self-love with baked goods might now see Nénette et Boni rebranded on DVD as some sort of French precursor to American Pie, but 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 finds family ties fettering his boner; taking in Nénette obliges him to co-exist with a flesh-and-blood female, and confront the consequences of sex. "Your mother was never a real woman to me," admits the boy's father (the peerlessly seedy Jacques Nolot) when he, too, shows up; yet Denis's quietly radical approach makes 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 sex-scene surrogate. This director's last truly playful film before she entered the pantheon reserved for Serious Artists, 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 - is oddly winning.
Nénette et Boni is now streaming on MUBI UK.