“Creating gives me the feeling that I’m alive—wrong or right, I’m alive—because when I feel nothing, I would rather be dead,” said Claire Denis in a talk at Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival earlier this fall. “That’s a little exaggerated, but I like to be emotionally involved in things, you know? Otherwise I feel terrified by life.” But as one of cinema’s most audacious and fascinating directors and personalities, Claire Denis has built an oeuvre of films that vacillate between the deeply human and the coldness of a razor’s edge. Through her early work as an assistant director on films like Paris, Texas, Sweet Movie, Down By Law, and Wings of Desire, Denis was impressed by the absolute power that the poetry of images could possess—which has informed her stunning work from Chocolat andBeau Travail to White Material and her latest haunting feature Bastards (Les Saluds).
As perversely sensuous as it is frighteningly chilled, Denis’ penetrating new feature explores a kind of darkness that lurks close to the surface of everyday life, culled from the stories that read and see everyday that have become second nature to us—their painfulness barely leaving a mark on our skin. It’s a jagged and powerful work inspired by everything from Akira Kurosawa and noir male archetypes to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and recent French sex ring scandals involving men of wealth and power. Starring Vincent Lindon as Marco, the Parisian noir thriller plays out in the aftermath of his brother-in-law’s suicide when he seeks to rescue is estranged sister and young niece (played by Lola Créton).What follows is a sinister decent into the bleeding heart of darkness that’s tight enough to leave you gasping for air but never fully exposes itself, leaving corners cloaked in shadows with an enigmatic wink.
A few weeks ago, at the tail end of the NYFF, I got the chance to sit down with Denis to discuss her desire to inhabit this kind of story, the lessons she learned from Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, and her feelings on the move from shooting on film to digital.
I went to your talk on Saturday, which was really lovely. Is this one of the festivals you enjoy the most? You’ve been coming for quite some time now.
It’s a very special festival. It’s a place where you can discuss film, and it’s a place where you have time to think about the film you just finished. You’re not under the pressure of publicity or competition. It’s an open space with people I like and people I like to meet, and so it makes me a better filmmaker.
What initially intriuged me about Bastards when I read reviews and such, they described the film as nightmarish, and yet the plot seemed to be taken from everyday stories we’ve become accustomed to hearing about so regularly.
Yes, in France too. You can read that in the newspaper and hear that on TV.
Was exposing the sinister undercurrent lurking behind our everyday walls something that interested you?
Well, I’m not a teacher or a priest that wants to show the darkness of the world—the inferno and flames of the inferno. I just thought that it could be very near and very close to us, but maybe you don’t see it. I always thought about a mother that prefers to be blind. When I read the newspaper, what strikes me is the position of women in those stories—they are victims, and yet, they are always the one to defend the husband or the brother.
And that requires a kind of strength that then men often don’t possess.
Yeah, and they are the victim, but they have the bad role and they are misjudged often. I hate when people say, “Oh, the mother should have done something.” I’m sorry, but I don’t know how easy it is to be a mother in that condition.
And in this film, you have these women in positions of victims, but without the underpinnings of that. They’re not victimized by the situations. Like Lola Créton walking down the street naked in heels, she has a power to her.
She’s trying to lead to the very truth, but she cannot speak it. So she kind of shows little aspects of the truth—but of course she cannot say exactly the truth.
You’ve mentioned the influence of Kurowsawa and of course The Bad Sleep Well—this very particular kind of tried and true noir man.
It comes from Vincent Lindon, and it made me think of those characters of men in very masculine films like Kurosawa or Michael Mann. I wanted him to be the ideal man you can lean on, the man you can trust but whose in charge of vengence and becomes a victim.
As a filmmaker, literature has informed you a great deal, especially the work of Faulkner, which you return to. In this film, the essence of Sanctuary and the character of Temple is so present. How did that work play a role for you and what is it about Faulkner’s sentiment that has shaped so much of your own life?
I like that all the women in Sanctuary, whether they’re prostitutes, the one in the farm that is having this baby, or Temple—this little rich girl who is suddenly turning into a woman. In the end, she has nothing to say to her father anymore because she’s been through something that made her know so much about what a woman is that the father will never understand. That’s why I love so much when she’s just opening the powder box and powdering her nose—that’s what a father expects a woman to do and nothing else. But she’s been through something. And I love that in his books, he creates, for the reader, a sense of life that—Christian or not Christian— says you have a burden, that you have a fate and then you have to deal with it. And yes, it is mostly a tragedy, because to be born also means to die and destiny is not so kind. Maybe it’s because he’s from the South that he knows what it means to be on the right side of society and to be on the wrong side of society without judging.
I was just watching US Go Home and I noticed before the party where they’re supposed to be these grown up women they arbitrarily stop and powder their nose for a moment.
[Laughs] Oh, yes. So I thought that was a nice circle.
But you talk a lot about fate and destiny, especially in regard to Faulkner’s work—is that something that’s important to you as a person and as an artist, to examine the aspect of fate in all of life’s tragedies and that no matter how we try to understand ourselves and avoid these tragedies, they’re out of our power?
I will not say I had William Faulkner’s life, I’m just a reader, but he helped me to understand myself as a human being more than many other writers. Like something I always guessed, even a child knows he’s part of a destiny—he has a certain family, he has a certain life—and a child could be very satisfied with that, but he knows he’s not choosing. I think Faulkner is rather unique for describing a world where redemption is not really that important.
It’s more about how just to live through it.
Yes, it’s how to go through. You don’t have to be redeemed at the end, because life is so uncertain.
You tend to favor the reflection of monologues over straightforward dialogue—
I like monologues, yes. Sometimes I don’t use it in film, but it’s true that I like monologues when I can. I like it because it expresses something else.
A more open window into the soul.
Yeah, yeah a window.
When I think about the best monologues on film, Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas is probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. In that scene, and in that speech you learn so much more and feel so much deeper than could have been shown any other way. It’s devastating.
Oh yeah, the peep show. Oh, so wonderful. [cluthes heart] Yes, I remember it broke my heart. And because Harry Dean Stanton is a singer, I think you find there’s such a melody to it. That…oh [cluthes heart].
When you began your career it was a pretty amazing start, assistant directing Wenders, Jarmusch—
Yeah, I was lucky for sure.
How do you find that those directors—Wim and Jim in particular—have inspired you and left a mark on you as a filmmaker?
I think in a very different way, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch gave me a trust in film. It was never a job. They have a certain way to be filmmakers, both of them. Maybe that’s why they’re both linked to Nicholas Ray. But although they are different, they both have a trust in the power of an image—either with humor like Jim, or poetry like Wim. Jim is also a poet and musician, though. But they gave me so much, and it’s hard to say how much I really owe them.
They’re also both filmmakers whose essence as a people is really the feeling of their work. You speak with Wim and it’s like being washed over in the feeling of his films.
Yeah, because their interest in film is complex; as artists they are not just filmmakers. I remember working with Wim, I was amazed at the way he trusted the power of image.
And getting back to Bastards, the images in the film are so striking and possessive in their darkness and world that feels existent in shadows. This was your first move to digital—was that difficult for you, and especially for a film like this, did you have to try harder to create that sense of darkness?
Yes, you can see everything. With digital you don’t need light, but to make digital dark and shadowdy and obscure, then you need light.
Is it important to you to create the aesthetic and feel of the film while it’s alive and happening, rather than in the editing room?
I cannot stand the idea that if you do digital you have rogue dailies, and then only when the film is edited suddenly we will give a look to the film. This to me is unbearable. I think it has to be before and after; we know exactly what we want—the colors, the texture. And so when they said, oh no it can be raw and we will time it after and then what do we do in the editing, in the editing you need the real image or else the cut is wrong. So the big fight for filmmaking with digital is to time the image before editing. So it’s costly, but it’s important.
Throughout all of your films, music is an integral element and adds to the psychology of the picture in a unique way. So as someone who seems so closely tied the sonic element of things, what is your relationship to music?
Well, it was always important for me. Music probably led me all my life and probably helped me a lot to accept the fact that I wanted to make films. Through music, I was experiencing such strong emotions, and then I was ready to go to filmmaking. But then I was lucky to work with a musician that understood me—to meet Stuart from Tindersticks, just to meet a person that’s an Englishman from the North of England, but that’s such a pure musician and someone that understands film so well. It’s amazing. I think sometimes he understands faster than I do.
In this film were you looking to juxtapose the image and the cold emotional distance of a more electronic sound.
Yes, yes. We wanted an inhuman music like Tangerine Dream that does not create empathy, but rather the opposite.