Claire Denis: An Interview Aimé Ancian December 2002 Spotlight: Claire DenisIssue 23Translation by Inge PruksThis interview was originally published in Sofa, Issue 17. The English translation is republished here with permission.Part One: Invitations to TravelAimé Ancian: As a child, you travelled a lot…Claire Denis: I lived in Africa and I had an itinerant childhood; I changed houses every two years. My father couldn’t stand our not knowing about geography. So, even when we were in France we tracked through the whole territory with the family. I have lived in Africa, but with him even travelling in France was exotic.AA: What was your first contact with cinema?CD: My mother, instead of telling me stories, ‘told’ me films. She loved the cinema very much. Later, my first memories of ‘true’ cinema were King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Otherwise, in Africa, I would see war films: America flooded us with stocks of damaged, awful copies. In a way, I loved these films; it was always Japanese planes being shot down by American pilots, Pacific islands swarming with cruel Japanese. I think that made us quite anti-American: we were scandalised to see the Japanese with their little leather helmets being beaten all the time. That was enough to make us suspicious.AA: Your films are packed with literary references. Did you read a lot?CD: I went to school like other children. But yes, as an adolescent I used to read more, adventure stories for example.AA: Conrad, Stevenson?CD: My father found Stevenson too cynical, too cruel. I used to read Jack London. Stevenson I discovered later, by myself. Conrad, I think through my father. My mother was a reader of detective stories, the Série Noire (Black Series), the Masque. At high school I read the classic literature that I was required to read. Then, at home, I pinched my mother’s detective stories and I read them in bed. I adored the Série Noire because it was very erotic, because there were women with enormous breasts. I adored Ed McBain…AA: Jim Thompson?CD: I discovered Thompson later, when it became fashionable. With Thompson there was less pleasure, it was more a critique of America. Whereas with Carter Brown, Chester Himes, James Hadley Chase… it was very erotic and when you’re an adolescent, that’s very important. They talked about America too, but differently. When I was about 14, Faulkner made me leave the Série Noire. It was a wrench. With Faulkner I was struck dumb with pain, even to this day. Quite a lot of people tell me that for them Dostoyevsky was a revelation…I read Dostoyevsky a bit like a task. Whereas with Faulkner, it was a plunge into the senses, into terror and into the pain of his characters. It was unheard of especially at high school to read Faulkner, where we were immersed in French literature. To go to Faulkner from there was like going back into something so violent. Sanctuary is terrifying, this young girl from a good family who is raped in a brothel. But you don’t have the rich and the baddies. The poor sell depravity to the rich, it’s more complicated. I found Stendhal or Balzac great, but more in terms of satisfying a literary taste; whereas with Faulkner, Chandler too, these were shocks of an incredible intensity. I felt my life take a somersault.AA: Despite this, you didn’t pursue literary studies…CD: I studied economics, it was completely suicidal. Everything pissed me off. And at the same time I had this kind of crazy way of doing things. I wanted to go and live in England so I could be Eric Burdon, the singer from The Animals. There too, a terrible shock. And then, in fact, I went and enrolled in oriental languages, I got married…AA: And you did the IDHEC [today the FEMIS, the French film school, the Fondation Européenne des Métiers de l’Image et du Son]…CD: My husband was a photographer, and I was helping him. One day he told me that I should seriously think about what I wanted to do. I did an internship for Télé Niger – an educational channel teaching literacy via the cinema – then in the research department, which became the INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel). One day I told everyone: “I’m going to get into IDHEC”. I didn’t even really know what that was. They replied: “No, don’t waste your time studying, all you need to do is make films here with us.” But I don’t know what got into me, I fronted up to the entrance exam and I was accepted. I didn’t at all think I would make films, it was a point in my life where I just told myself: here I am, let’s take advantage of it. The idea of having a project, for example, of becoming a director, the very idea of having any sort of ambition, I found that quite abject. To be honest, it wasn’t only me, it was the times also.AA: Was it after 1968?CD: Yes, it was in 1972. So I came out of IDHEC like a zombie. I still didn’t have the desire to be a director; I just wanted to take part in events and experiences. I did training work on films; I met people. And I had this unimaginable chance to work for Rivette. It took me many years to appreciate the New Wave. Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, I found them sectarian. The only one who seemed absolutely incredible to me was Rivette. At the same time I also did training work with a director called Robert Enrico. That was a much more professional approach. But I didn’t feel myself loved, I think he’d appointed me because I had intrigued him, but it was a very masochistic experience.AA: Why?CD: Because I was so non-conformist that I was always being yelled at. After a while, I was seized by a kind of anguish. I realised that I wanted to make films but I continued to find that immodest. At the same time I was telling myself: I’ll have to change. The world was changing, it was less fun to be rebellious – if you could say I was rebellious – it was less fun to be “floating”. All of a sudden, everything solidified but I continued to live differently. I had a Jamaican period. But I clearly saw that the years were passing and that I’d have to accept my desire.AA: What made you want to make films?CD: Not at all the very fine films I had seen as an adolescent; sometimes it was documentaries or encounters. Perhaps it was [Jean-François] Stévenin that I understood best of all. He was a bit like me, not in a hurry to get results. He was an assistant; we saw each other during filming. He really wanted me to become a singer; he even wanted to write lyrics for me. And then, there were these two stars above us, Rivette and Eustache.AA: Passe-Montagne (1978 debut film by Jean-François Stévenin) seems to have made an impression on a lot of people.CD: When I saw Passe-Montagne, I had already decided to stop playing at false modesty. But Passe-Montagne is unique. You know, we often make fun of the intellectual content of a certain kind of cinema. It wasn’t at all that kind of cinema – Passe-Montagne was a film of flesh and blood, which resembled ourselves. After all that, I worked for a year in Israel, on a Costa-Gavras film, at the beginning of the Intifada. There I lived through something which was more intense than cinema. I came back home, I had written a screenplay but I was very disoriented. The era of Passe-Montagne had passed.AA: You ended up meeting Wim Wenders and working with him.CD: One day he called me and said: “Come to the United States”. I discovered a very different form of production: there wasn’t on the one hand the screenplay, the budget, the choice of actors, the music… Everything was absolutely connected and deep down that’s what I was looking for. To also have the time to drive, drive, drive whilst listening to music, and dreaming up the screenplay which was being modified day by day by calling Sam Shepard. It was something indescribable for a little French girl.AA: And through Wenders you came across Cassavetes…CD: Yes, he had the same type of script as Wim on Paris, Texas (1984). But Cassavetes was more inaccessible, his films were already a little out of reach, like La Maman et la Putain (Eustache, 1973). Whereas with Wim, we were actually making them, there was no need to admire.AA: People often speak of Cassavetes’ energy…CD: Yes, but it’s not like charging round with a camera on your shoulder or whatever, it’s above all the energy of being the man he was. I think there’s no actor I’ve liked as much as Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/8). When we were filming the death of Alex Descas in S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990), I was all the time thinking of that same death, this death which in the same way is expected, which brings relief but is also painful. It’s true, I can say that S’en fout la mort could be dedicated to that film.AA: Let’s come back to your travels through the United States.CD: When I was working with Wim I rushed off towards landscapes I had always dreamed of crossing, without realising that, finally, they didn’t interest me as much as all that. I liked crossing the United States, to drive along listening to Bob Dylan or the Pretenders, but I’d been born in a different world, where relationships with the landscape, with the people around you, are different. And I told myself: that’s it, I dreamt of America but, deep down, it doesn’t concern me. The best thing that happened to me was in fact to have met John Lurie and Jim Jarmusch. I became friends with them, and it’s thanks to them that I liked America. Otherwise, even if there were magnificent landscapes, I was too much of a foreigner. You know, I was twice asked to make films in the United States. I was even offered Boys Don’t Cry. That was six years ago, but I didn’t like the idea of making that film. I had just done J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1993), I got the impression that they were offering me yet another news-in-brief item: “Oh her, she likes news items, that’s her thing.” What further bothered me was to be forced to proclaim at the outset that because I was a foreigner I was going to see things more clearly. As far as that’s concerned, I don’t believe in it at all. I think that you can only feel yourself an outsider if you are part of a community. The outsider’s view, I don’t believe in it… Me, if I’d done it, that’s how I would have seen these little Americans, these tragic communities, everyone is unemployed, people are living in caravans, girls of 14 committing credit card fraud, brawls every day and first babies being born to girls who are 13 years old. To come along in black jeans and make a compassionate film, I could not have done that.Part Two: The “little commando”AA: Is it from Wenders and Jarmusch that you have sort of inherited a concern for music?CD: Jarmusch organised his life like a rock artist. I think he’s conscious that there isn’t an art of living inherent in the cinema, there’s only music which gives the taste of a certain kind of life. Cinema is a battle with people you don’t want to meet, with constraints you don’t want to have. I wasn’t really sure that I liked white rock. White rock for me was The Animals, Eric Burdon, because deep down I would like to have been Eric Burdon. When he left for Los Angeles and when he formed a group with War, with black musicians, that to me seemed magic. So I have in some sense stopped at Earth, Wind and Fire. I can go and listen to Sonic Youth and I’ll like it but my alchemy has already been cast.AA: Murat and the Tindersticks have meant a lot to you and your films.CD: With Murat, I was disturbed by his songs and I wrote to him. I am an assiduous reader of Bayon (writer and chronicler with Libération, French leftist newspaper), who had a childhood somewhat similar to mine. So, I’d read his novels, we pursued a correspondence and he spoke a lot to me about Murat, who was his friend. Bayon sent me some demos, and one day he said to me: “why don’t you write to him, why don’t you go and see him in Auvergne?” And that’s how it happened, thanks to Bayon. Murat comes to see my films, we swap critical advice; he means a lot to me. When I look at the weather report on TV, I always check the temperature in Auvergne, even if he is not there. Because, I don’t know, I feel that I understand what he does, that he understands what I do. And then, it’s very nice, because Murat is always kind of on the crest of erotic tension, and for me that’s great, that disturbs me. With the Tindersticks, that was pure chance. I went to a concert and I was bowled over, I could no longer do anything else, I thought only of them, I no longer listened to anything but the Tindersticks.AA: The first scene of Trouble Every Day (2001), the scene of the kiss with the Tindersticks song is of such beauty…CD: That’s not where it was in the screenplay – that kiss – it was elsewhere, during a nocturnal ramble by Vincent Gallo, which incidentally wasn’t filmed. But I still wanted to shoot the kiss because the kiss is the film. In the screenplay, the first scene is the scene in the plane. Stuart of the Tindersticks wanted to write a song, but not for the beginning of the film. And when I heard his song, I said to him: “Stuart, I think it should be at the beginning, you can’t put it in after.” And so we can’t begin with the plane, everything has to be pushed back for Stuart’s song. In fact, I think Stuart channelled everything into the song: he had not seen the rushes, but he had read the screenplay, he had come to London to see Beau Travail (2000), at the time of a retrospective of my films…I think he had understood that I was ready for a lot of things. And he brought me this song. Stuart is an English man with a lot more humour than I have, but he has a rapport with the body, with flesh, with desire which is very close to mine.AA: You work a bit like Wenders, where as you were saying, everything is connected…CD: You know, in Trouble Every Day there is this scene where Vincent Gallo is looking at his wife taking a bath, and you can see pubic hair moving in the water. That’s one of Stuart’s songs. On his second CD there is a song called Sea Weeds and the story is just that. I truly wrote the scene because of that song. There is a lot of criss-crossing in my films.AA: And at the same time you give a lot of importance to the screenplay and to your long-standing collaboration with Jean-Pol Fargeau.CD: I have been working with Jean-Pol Fargeau since the beginning, since Chocolat (1988). I had at first been in other African countries, then we wrote the screenplay in Marseilles and then we went off to Cameroon. Meeting him was decisive for me.AA: How do you see the articulation between the screenplay and the filming itself?CD: I don’t at all like the idea of a screenplay being a cage and that inside the cage you have to direct the actors. It seems to me that a screenplay is a kind of take-off and that the best moment is to see the characters taking off. They can turn left, or right, loop the loop, whatever. And at the same time you’re always a bit afraid. As long as they don’t crash. Because if filming means you have to control everything, I’d shoot myself. You already have to control the framing, the colours, the costumes, the sets and all that. But that’s done before, the control’s done before.AA: For Beau Travail you had written “booklets” rather than a screenplay…CD: It was Jean-Pol’s idea, because since we didn’t have the authorisation to shoot in Djibouti, and so as not to be bored to death, we wrote Galoup’s remembrances, Galoup’s diary. And I was able to have it read by Chevalier (director of the fiction unit of Arte) or by Denis Lavant, to give them an idea of what the film was like. After that, we wrote the screenplay based on these booklets.AA: There is also Agnès Godard, your Director of Photography, with whom you have not stopped working.CD: I knew Agnès, in fact, from before; we had worked on The Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987), in Berlin. But it was on Chocolat that something really happened. It was hard in Cameroon; I was not seeing the rushes. It was so distressing that Agnès and I told each other we were going to look for something simple. So we worked with only two lenses. I realised that that’s what made the film, that we shouldn’t try anything else, but rather look for the film inside of these framings. I thought that it was better to have time for reflexion than extra material. That’s how our relationship began.AA: And it has become stronger ever since, notably on Nénette et Boni (1996) and Beau Travail.CD: Yes, Nénette et Boni was very important: Agnès and I both understood to what point we had progressed together, to what point we each wanted to continue making films. I understood that I wasn’t just asking Agnès to frame the image, but that quite simply I wanted to make films with her.So that when Grandperret and Chevalier said to me: “If you’ve got three or four months, come and do this ‘Foreign Lands’ collection with us”, I was so strong in my relationship with Agnès that I accepted. So that she and I could go further. Not in experimentation, but in the pleasure of working together.AA: But the shooting of Beau Travail was very trying.CD: Yes, it was much longer and more complicated than we’d foreseen and we had no guarantee about completing the filming. Fortunately, I had had time to work with Bernardo Montet (the choreographer), I had rehearsed with the actors, Agnès and I were ready. We had so many problems that each day we would say to each other: well, well, we’re still filming! And as a result, paradoxically, this freed up something very joyous in our little commando.AA: Another impetus for your films is your very strong relationship with the actors. One feels for example that you made Nénette et Boni in order to continue your relationship with Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin, which you had entered into in US Go Home (1994).CD: I met Gregoire for the casting of US Go Home and straight after that I wanted to make Nénette et Boni with Alice and Grégoire. I had loved those four weeks of filming with them so much that I wanted more. I wanted to re-film with them.AA: Consequently there are many recurrent figures in your cinema. Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas, Béatrice Dalle, Vincent Gallo…CD: Isaach is someone who gave me courage. For Chocolat, I wanted to find the main character, the boy, in Cameroon. But the actors found the subject of the film degrading…I was a bit taboo, because in my head it was the inverse. Fortunately, Isaach, whom I had not met but whom I had seen in Black micmac (by Thomas Gilou), came to see me. With Isaach, it’s a pact, an alliance, which continues. He is in New York, he has worked with Jarmusch, and together we’ve got plans.AA: Another important encounter came next with Béatrice Dalle.CD: Béatrice Dalle, that’s when Jim Jarmusch wanted to make Night on Earth (1992). He was looking for an actress to play the young blind woman. He asked one or two actresses that he quite liked, knowing all the time he wanted it to be Béatrice. I was already very dazzled by Béatrice since Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986). And during Jim’s shoot we got to know each other. When we began J’ai pas sommeil, the role of Alex Descas’s young wife had been written for another French actress. And then, almost the night before filming began, she decided not to do the film, she found it too sordid, it was bad for her career…I was knocked flat because after all I had written this role for her. That’s when Béatrice said to me: “Listen, Claire, I heard that you’re in deep trouble, I’ve got two free weeks.” It wasn’t at all written for her, it was the story of a child-woman, not of a very beautiful woman. Of someone still a little girl, a bit fragile. I told her this, but she answered: “Who cares, we can change it.” From then on it was almost normal that we should work together again.AA: Béatrice Dalle drags along her myth…CD: She gives very little indication that she’s an actress. Her behaviour always has this kind of dilettante feel to it, she never speaks about work; she has this way of making everyone believe she’s a ‘natural’. That’s a bit of a defence. From that, to see only the mythical part of her, or her rather scandalous declarations, or her unbelievable beauty… You know, it’s hard to have her physical attributes and to also be frank; it has created a kind of quid pro quo about her. Whereas behind all that, she loves to work, she likes and defends the films she makes. In fact she invades her films.AA: I also very much like Katerina Golubeva in J’ai pas sommeil. Her role is very surprising, it’s a character who runs parallel to the narration of the news item. Why did you introduce her?CD: It seemed essential to me, because I did not want to use the old woman’s killer as a character, as the thread we follow. I wanted us to discover him, as we do when we open a newspaper and discover a foreign universe. When I worked on the screenplay with Jean-Pol I always imagined that Paris with its ring road was like the goose game (French spiral board game). And I saw a foreign woman arrive and enter this Paris which arouses fear. I think that I would not have made the film without this structure. At the start it was supposed to be a young Spanish girl whom Isabelle Huppert wanted to play. But the dates kept changing and one day in Berlin I met Katerina. So the film was made with her and today I find it hard to imagine it without her.AA: You often say that about your films and your actors. Denis Lavant in Beau Travail, for example.CD: You know, I did believe in it for a moment with Isabelle, and I think that when you believe in something, it works. A film is an expandable structure, where space is invaded by the actors. So everything is possible. If we had made the film with Isabelle, I think that afterwards we would have said: “Without Isabelle, there was no film.”AA: You have a particular rehearsal method: often you rehearse other scenes…CD: There are films where you need to rehearse, but it’s true, I don’t like rehearsing scenes that I’m about to shoot. So there are times when you need to rehearse something a little different. Jean-Pol and I write scenes which are not in the script, just for rehearsal purposes. Because I’m too afraid, if I rehearse a scene, that I’ll find myself saying during the shoot: it was so good earlier, now it’s gone. I think what’s painful for me when I’m not shooting is to have to exist. I don’t mean ‘to live’, because that’s something else again. You have to justify everything you do. What I like during filming is that these are moments when you have the right not to reply and to let things happen. Before the shoot, after the shoot, you have to account for everything.Part Three: Vendredi SoirAA: Your films have always been nourished by literature, but with Vendredi Soir you surrender yourself to a faithful adaptation. Why choose this book by Emmanuèle Bernheim?CD: I love Emmanuèle’s books, her way of describing sensations. A manner so precise, so meticulous, which contains in the same phrase both the conscious and the unconscious, as well as that which is experienced and that which is desired. Actually, at the time we were both working on another project. And I think we went round in circles for a year, because neither of us was brave enough to admit that we didn’t like the project. We went to see the producer and told him we couldn’t manage it. Emmanuèle said to me: “but deep down, what do you want to do?” I said to her, “I would like a small space with the town all around. A man, a woman”. She laughed and set up a meeting in a café. There she handed me a manuscript she had just completed, ‘Vendredi Soir’. It was unbelievable for me. I said yes, even though I felt that a lot of people didn’t believe in it and thought that you couldn’t adapt it to the cinema. Everyone thought it needed more fictional detail, narrative, incidents. But I said no. Emmanuèle thought like me, that we needed to stay completely with the book, that nothing should be added.AA: What I like in Vendredi Soir is the refusal of all psychology, or at least psychology such as it is conceived in the majority of films. I think it would have been a mistake to want to “psychologize” the story.CD: That’s what I told myself. I think Emmanuèle had more confidence in me than I did myself. At the start I said to Emmanuèle: we’ll have to write a voice-over. And we began to write a version with a voice-over. I think that in the third session working on the film I reread what we had done and I said to her: Emmanuèle, what do you think about it? And we told each other, no. I think that the fact of working without a safety net forced me to have absolute faith in the cinema. To have absolute faith in the actress and actor with whom I wanted to work. I thought that she, he and the director were all, that nothing else was needed. I tried the voice-over for three or four days, but it emptied out what was at stake in the film.AA: There is very little dialogue in Vendredi Soir and what’s more, it is deliberately a bit silly…CD: When people read the book, they all said: “Ah, for once there’s going to be dialogue!” But in fact, it’s often internal dialogue. There isn’t much spoken out loud in the film, even though we retained nearly all the dialogue from the book. There are perhaps one or two bits of dialogue which we suppressed during the filming, because the actors did not want to deliver them.AA: You have said that you consider dialogue akin to noise…CD: Yeah, I might say that, but it’s theoretical and I’m not at all theoretical and even less a theoretician. For Vendredi Soir, because the film had to be an adaptation of the book, I didn’t even ask myself the question. I thought about the book all the time, that’s all. So when the film was edited, I said: “Yes, there’s not much dialogue”, but I had not been conscious of this. In Nénette et Boni the dialogue came out in spurts, not because I didn’t like it but because Grégoire was sulking. I don’t know, that’s how it is, I don’t try and explain it. Still, there was a bit of dialogue in US Go Home. I liked that dialogue, it was almost comedy. I found that quite good. And then, there have been times when Jean-Pol and I got cold feet and wrote dialogues which were explanatory or psychological in other screenplays.AA: In ‘Vendredi Soir’ the book, an enormous number of things are communicated through smell. How did you envisage rendering that through the means available to cinema?CD: You know, I’ve always thought about smell. I’ve always thought that to be attracted to someone had to have something to do with smell. And there is even a scene in Nénette et Boni where Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi speaks at great length with Gégoire Colin, and she’s speaking to us about smells. See, there are dialogues in Nénette et Boni after all! And that particular dialogue is very good. But smells, you can imagine them in the cinema. You can speak of smells in the cinema because you do have bodies present.AA: The book seems to be more daring in the love scenes…CD: The book is more daring because it’s in words. Whatever is written in words, needs to, or has to become cinema. But the book is both daring and modest. The words are daring but the form is modest. So for film, what’s the point of being daring when the form is modest? And the man is respectful of this modesty. It would be a misinterpretation. And anyway, whatever is daring in the cinema is pretty awful, there isn’t much. Once you have shown the sexual parts of the man and the woman…AA: Why Vincent Lindon and Valérie Lemercier?CD: Vincent Lindon because Emmanuèle and I first thought of the man, that seemed more logical to us. I thought again of his role in Le Septième Ciel (Seventh Heaven, Benoît Jacquot, 1998) and I found that Vincent was so much like that man. Whereas in the book, he is older. But for me, from the outset, it was he and no one else.AA: Why was his name changed? In the book it’s Frédéric and in the film it’s Jean.CD: It was Vincent who did not want to be called Frédéric. He hated Frédéric, which I can understand. And then we chose ‘Jean’ because I told him he looked like Jean Gabin in profile with his cigarette…He had read the book, I sent him the script. He said yes at our first meeting. And Valérie Lemercier, I realized that all these years I’d been going to see Valérie’s shows, her films…She seduced me enormously. I’m a bit of a Valérie Lemercier groupie, so I already knew her a little bit too. I told myself that for that particular role, there was a certain logic.AA: You know, a lot of people won’t be able to stop themselves thinking of In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) when viewing your film.CD: Really? I sincerely thought of Emmanuéle above all and her book, and then I think the presence of Valérie and Vincent voided a lot of cinematographic references… Someone made a remark which made me laugh: someone told me that in between the softness of skins and the bodies of cars he had thought of the (David) Cronenberg film, Crash (1996). Yeah, well, that I understood. In the Mood for Love is a film I like very much, but I know Wong Kar-Wai and for me there is an enormous difference between the two films. In the Mood for Love is a film in the past, a film of memories, a nostalgic film. Whereas it seems to me Vendredi Soir is a film in the present, and very concrete.AA: I very much like the slightly Hitchcockian section where Valerie absconds…CD: That’s because the music is by Shostakovich and Bernard Herrmann was very much inspired by Shostakovich. It was deliberate, because in the novel there are two or three Hitchcock quotes. The young man in the hotel, for example. But it’s best not to talk of Hitchcock references because everyone’s doing it. All those who believe that cinema is image and sound are stating the obvious. I have always made films with desire. I think it is the primary material of my films. Basically, Hitchcock films are about desire becoming twisted. Except perhaps for Notorious (1946), at the beginning, but you feel that the disaster has already been set up earlier. That is to say, Cary Grant is obliged to tame Ingrid Bergman before beginning to desire her. So already there is something more subtle than desire. It’s because he despises her that he is going to desire her. I think that I am less subtle than that.