Fem­i­nine mys­tique

You have to be care­ful with Claire De­nis. Send a te­dious or ill-judged ques­tion to­wards the French film-maker and the merde will cer­tainly hit the fan. But she’s also an ab­so­lute hoot

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE

‘My gen­der is ir­rel­e­vant’ says direc­tor Claire De­nis

‘W hen you say ‘fe­male direc­tor’ I al­ready want to stop this con­ver­sa­tion!” Claire De­nis al­most yells. “Fe­male direc­tor? I feel like I am an an­i­mal. I am a fe­male direc­tor like this is a fe­male bird. No, I am a direc­tor – good or bad I don’t know. But I am a woman.”

The un­avoid­able cliche here is “roller­coaster ride”. That creaky metaphor does cap­ture the joy and ter­rors of in­ter­view­ing De­nis. The dis­tin­guished French film-maker – at a lean 71, now prob­a­bly a “le­gend” – cer­tainly en­gages with the in­ter­locu­tor. She likes a laugh. She re­sponds to your lame jokes with bet­ter jokes. But … well … can we also drag “tread­ing through a mine­field” into the bas­ket of cliches? You al­ways feel you’re in dan­ger of be­ing blown arse over tit.

Here’s what hap­pened. Af­ter 10 min­utes of ami­able roller­coaster fun – oc­ca­sion­ally scary, but with no sense the car­riage was about to leave the tracks – I ad­dress her early ca­reer with films such as Cho­co­lat in 1988. Was French cinema wel­com­ing to a fe­male direc­tor then?

I don’t think she’s really about to end the in­ter­view. But I make flus­tered noises about this con­ver­sa­tion be­ing more rel­e­vant than ever. She knows what I mean.

“I don’t want this thing about We­in­stein and women in film. It’s bor­ing. Ph­h­hh­ll­l­l­llbt!” she says. (If that last noise, some­thing be­tween a rasp­berry and a retch, has a name in French I have yet to en­counter it.)

“I made my way,” she con­tin­ues with­out prod­ding. “I made my films and I am a woman. No­body raped me for mak­ing a film. The prob­lem with this story is that peo­ple are vic­tims when some­body has the power over them. But I was not really in that po­si­tion. I had al­ways a free­dom. I was not obliged to go to a ho­tel room with some­body to get a film pro­duced. I should have, maybe. To get a big­ger film. Har­vey We­in­stein never asked me. I made my life dif­fer­ently. I don’t want to com­ment on this story of fe­male film-mak­ing. Oh, all those f’s.”

It’s prob­a­bly best to leave that an­swer as it stands and at­tempt no spec­u­la­tive gloss. Any­way, she will ac­cept that it’s a story that’s not going away.

“Of course it won’t go away,” she says. “Be­cause it’s the story of hu­man­ity. It didn’t start with Har­vey We­in­stein.”

De­nis, whose lat­est puzzler, Let the Sun­shine In, reaches us next week, has more ex­pe­ri­ence of hu­man­ity than most. The direc­tor of the hyp­notic mar­tial reverie Beau Tra­vail and the riv­et­ing so­cial drama 35 Shots of Rum was born in Paris but largely raised in bits of colo­nial French Africa. Her fa­ther, a civil ser­vant, moved the fam­ily from Cameroon to French So­ma­liland to Sene­gal. Those ex­pe­ri­ences have long coloured her work, most con­spic­u­ously in Cho­co­lat and the ex­cel­lent 2009 drama White Ma­te­ri­als. She did not prop­erly re­turn to France un­til her teenage years. Many crit­ics

‘‘ I am proud to be French. You know? I think it is good to recog­nise where you come from. My cul­ture is French and that’s that. I am un­happy when we lose a rugby game. But we beat Eng­land two weeks ago. So I was happy with that

have sug­gested that she must have felt like an out­sider in France. She, per­haps, looks upon the coun­try with a for­eigner’s eye.

“No. I was not a stranger in France,” she snorts. “I was raised like a French per­son. But my fa­ther was born and raised in Bangkok. My mother is half Brazil­ian. I was raised in Africa. But of course France is my coun­try. I am proud to be French. You know? I think it is good to recog­nise where you come from. My cul­ture is French and that’s that. I am un­happy when we lose a rugby game. But we beat Eng­land two weeks ago. So I was happy with that.” Ev­ery na­tion likes to beat the English. Right? She pos­i­tively cack­les in (I as­sume) agree­ment.

“Oh, I am talk­ing to an Ir­ish jour­nal­ist. That is going to be the bor­der of Europe soon. Right?”

We laugh some more about that. She rem­i­nisces mer­rily about time spent at the Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. The woman really is a hoot.

A slip­pery aes­thetic

She first stud­ied eco­nom­ics, but then drifted to­wards a course at the fa­mous French film school IDHEC. Fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion, she set forth into the world and found her­self work­ing as as­sis­tant direc­tor on Wim Wen­ders’s Wings of De­sire and Jim Jar­musch’s Down by Law. Cho­co­lat, about a French fam­ily in Cameroon, emerged shortly af­ter those ex­pe­ri­ences. That time with Jar­musch and Wen­ders must have proved use­ful.

“I hate to an­swer this ques­tion,” she says. “You don’t learn from a per­son – un­less you’re get­ting drunk with them and things like that. You are not an as­sis­tant to learn from some­body. You are phys­i­cally next to them. Driv­ing next to them. Drink­ing next to them. Eat­ing with them. It is not a monastery where the monks are learn­ing from a prayer book. It is hu­man­ity. It is sex­i­ness. They are sexy.”

I am sure they’d be de­lighted to hear her say that.

“Oh, they know. Damn well. But it’s also true.”

De­nis has de­liv­ered films at a con­sis­tent rate ever since. Her ad­mirably slip­pery aes­thetic – ap­plied to a hor­ror films such as Trou­ble Ev­ery

Day and dark thrillers such as The In­truder – has gen­er­ated end­less reams of tor­tured analysis. Cer­tain com­mon themes emerge. She has favourite ac­tors. But it has re­mained dif­fi­cult to pin down the cin­e­matic voice. To add to the con­fu­sion, her next film, High Life, from a script co-writ­ten by Zadie Smith, is a sci­ence fic­tion ad­ven­ture star­ring Robert Pat­tin­son. It is her first in English.

“In space the lan­guage is English or Rus­sian,” she says. “So that made sense. Well, it’s true. They speak Chi­nese, maybe.”

She has not al­ways seemed in har­mony with the French cin­e­matic es­tab­lish­ment. The Cannes Film Fes­ti­val has, for ex­am­ple, been re­luc­tant to place her films in the main com­pe­ti­tion. Bas­tards from 2013 played in the Un Cer­tain Re­gard side­bar. Let the Sun­shine In opened down the Croisette at Di­rec­tors’ Fort­night. No De­nis film has com­peted for the Palme d’Or since Cho­co­lat. (She tells me High

Life will not be ready for this year’s event.) “I take what I am given,” she says. “I am al­ways con­sid­er­ing maybe my films are not good enough. Maybe they are bor­ing. Maybe there is some­thing Cannes doesn’t like. I never asked them, by the way. I don’t care.”

Let the Sun­shine In con­tin­ues De­nis’s ex­per­i­ments in the un­pre­dictable. Juli­ette Binoche plays a di­vorced woman seek­ing mean­ing. The pic­ture com­prises a se­quence of con­ver­sa­tions that – ac­cord­ing to the notes, any­way – ad­dress is­sues raised by Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Dis­course: Frag­ments. With char­ac­ter­is­tic spik­i­ness, De­nis dis­misses any mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion with Barthes. But what about that English-lan­guage ti­tle? Ref­er­enc­ing a song from Hair, it could hardly give a less help­ful im­pres­sion of this in­tel­lec­tu­ally dense film.

“No, no. I hate that ti­tle,” she says. “The ti­tle in French is like ‘A great sun­shine in­side’ [Un

beau soleil in­térieur]. I don’t know why sud­denly – with­out telling me, strangely – it was Let the Sun­shine In.” She says some­thing I can’t quite make out. “THEY LIED TO ME!” she thun­der­ously clar­i­fies.

Many of the an­glo­phone reviews have made sar­cas­tic re­marks about the stag­ger­ing French­ness of the pro­ject. The ar­gu­ment seems to be that only that na­tion’s film-mak­ers rou­tinely struc­ture their films around philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions. Even the snooti­est US film-mak­ers are wary of such an ap­proach.

“Why do French film-mak­ers make films about phi­los­o­phy?” she says in a tone that warns of im­pend­ing hur­ri­canes. “I have to tell you some­thing. I don’t care a damned shit! I do what I can. French peo­ple do what they want. Ital­ian peo­ple do what they want. I am not wak­ing up in the morn­ing think­ing: ‘Oh my God. I am a French film-maker; my film will be philo­soph­i­cal. No, no.’ This is not like that.” She’s half-jok­ing now. “We are nor­mal peo­ple. Even though we are French.”

I ex­plain that she’s just de­liv­ered the line that will surely ap­pear at the top of the pub­lished in­ter­view. She laughs her gut­tural laugh.

By now you’ll know if that’s true.

■ Let the Sun­shine In is in cine­mas from April 20th


Left Claire De­nis with Juli­ette Binoche. Above: Binoche in De­nis’s lat­est film Let the Sun­shine In.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.