Claire Denis

One of the great living treasures of contemporary French cinema, 57-year-old director Claire Denis is a major artistic voice whose ceaselessly innovative experiments in narrative filmmaking have garnered the support and admiration of cinephiles, critics and many of her fellow imagemakers around the world.

Since 1988, she has made eight feature films (as well as video documentaries and segments for collective projects), including Chocolat (1988), her achingly exquisite portrait of a young French girl living in colonial Africa, and the highly acclaimed Beau Travail (1999), a visual tone-poem inspired by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative, which many consider her masterpiece.

Aside from their striking visual quality and formal dexterity, Denis’ films exude tender affection for, and solidarity with, a range of everyday people – exiles, immigrants, sexual transgressives and alienated urban dwellers – who thrive on the margins of society. At the same time, much of her work questions the self-serving assumptions and prejudices of the dominant white European culture. Whether she’s exploring the brutal ironies and tensions at the heart of the colonial imagination (Chocolat), impugning post-imperial attitudes in the modern metropolis (S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die) (1990) and J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep) (1994)), examining tumultuous family relations (Nénette et Boni, 1996), mapping the illicit codes of desire/repression in a militarised, homosocial environment (Beau Travail), or elaborating a poetics of desire both hyperviolent (Trouble Every Day, 2001) and sublimely empowering (Vendredi soir (Friday Night, 2002)), Denis has proven herself one of the most versatile, if categorically elusive, film artists in the world.

Working in tandem with a group of long-time collaborators – DOP Agnés Godard, editor Nelly Quettier and soundman Jean-Louis Ughetto – Denis has developed a highly individualistic style, favouring optical and sound elements over dialogue, psychological realism, scenic continuity and other traditional modes of narrative storytelling. Some have compared her editing technique, with its expository gaps and elliptical cutting, to jazz improvisation, since it has a decidedly rhythmic, musical quality.

Apart from the emphasis on intuitive storytelling, her films also give substantive narrative weight to pop songs (Bob Marley, The Beach Boys, Neil Young) and musical themes (courtesy of Abdullah Ibrahim and British cult-group Tindersticks) that often become characters in themselves.

Increasingly since Beau Travail, Denis has brought her filmmaking closer to a purely cinematic æsthetic, one in which the aspect of time floats unmoored, “like a boat drifting on the water”, with present moments often blending with dream images, nonsubjective memories, prophetic glimpses and intertextual references to literature (Chester Himes, Melville), as well as other films (Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, 1960). With the continual shuffling of regular players like Béatrice Dalle, Grégoire Colin, and Alex Descas in greater and lesser screen roles, Denis at times appears to be quoting her own work, creating a kind of virtual circuit between each of her films. Perhaps only in that sense could she usefully be described as a “postmodern” filmmaker, though her work shares more in common with avatars of modernism like Godard, Jacques Rivette, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, as well as contemporary luminaries such as Olivier Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Tsai Ming-Liang.

The Parisian-born Denis spent her formative years (1948–1962) in Africa with her father, a colonial administrator, mother and two siblings, an experience that markedly influenced her early interest in national identity and the legacy of French colonialism. After graduating from the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in 1971, she worked for 10 years as an assistant director to Costa-Gavras, Rivette, Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984), and Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984; Wings of Desire, 1988). Wenders helped to secure funding for her first feature, Chocolat, a luminous, slow-burning depiction of colonial dynamics in Cameroon starring Isaach de Bankolé as Protée, an African native patiently ministering to the demands of a sweet but occasionally insolent young girl, provocatively named France (Cécile Ducasse), her civil-servant parents and a houseful of arrogant, ill-mannered guests newly arrived from the continent.

Denis’s second feature, No Fear, No Die, marks a significant departure from Chocolat in its grainy, rough-hewn æsthetic and drab, claustrophobic mise en scène. De Bankolé plays Dah, a Benin native who, along with his West Indian partner, Jocelyn (Alex Descas), gets involved in an illegal cock-fighting ring run by a sleazy, grizzled discotheque owner (New Wave veteran Jean-Claude Brialy).

With I Can’t Sleep, Denis continued to explore the theme of cultural displacement in the very loosely connected lives of a group of outsiders in contemporary Paris whose fates are entwined by the mostly off-screen crimes of a serial killer. Nénette et Boni, starring Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri, studied the estranged relations between a brother and sister after their mother’s suicide, focusing mainly on Boni’s emotional solipsism and deeply erotic fantasy life. Though these four films earned Denis generous praise from critics and festival audiences who appreciated her adventurous spirit and Godard’s fluid camerawork, it was her 1999 breakout film, Beau Travail, which follows the obsessive, quasi-mystical rituals and male-bonding routines of French legionnaires in Djibouti, that brought her international adulation.

Trouble Every Day

Just the opposite response greeted her next feature, Trouble Every Day, starring Vincent Gallo and eacute;atrice Dalle as carriers of a gruesome, blood-hungry virus unleashed by erotic stimulation. Borrowing stylistic and tonal elements from body-horror eminence David Cronenberg and Italian splatmeister Dario Argento, the film scandalized Cannes audiences and earned vituperative reviews from irate critics for its admittedly gory scenes of sexual cannibalism. Yet, on a formal level, the film obscured the distinctions between high and low genres while examining such themes as the violence of desire and 21st-century anxieties about the ethics of scientific inquiry.

Adapted from a novel by Emmanuele Bernheim, and set during a public-transport strike in Paris, Friday Night is a simple but ravishingly beautiful, near-wordless depiction of a man and woman who meet and engage in a passionate, anonymous love affair over the course of one evening. In this film, as with so much of Denis’s work, communication occurs through a mere glance, and sexual intimacy is conveyed through gliding, nonvoyeuristic close-ups of intermingling bodies.

With her latest film, L’Intrus (The Intruder), which was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Film Festival, Denis has created her most mysterious, enthralling and strangely invigorating work since Beau Travail. The film tracks the global peregrinations of an enigmatic 68-year-old man, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), who goes looking for a long-lost son and a new organ to replace his ailing heart. From his isolated woodland compound in the Jura Mountains of France to the boisterous markets and shipyards of Pusan, Korea – where he buys a boat after recovering from a clandestine, possibly illegal, transplant operation – Trebor slowly threads his way back to his former home on a remote island near Tahiti. With its triptych structure, each stage of which corresponds to a different geographical region and atemporal narrative, L’Intrus is an allusive memory-puzzle of sorts, dreamlike, beguiling and visually poetic. Part of the film’s haunting quality derives from Trebor’s opaque identity – is he a former spy? an international fugitive? another incarnation of Subor’s multifilmic alias Bruno Forestier? – not to mention that he’s shadowed by an equally mysterious, unnamed Russian woman (Katia Golubeva) whose ominous appearance is a catalyst for his journey. The scenario is further complicated by the ambiguous, possibly imagined, ties between Trebor’s grown-up son (Grégoire Colin) – who lives near Geneva with his wife, a Swiss border guard, and rarely sees his emotionally distant father – and the Polynesian offspring he left behind long ago.

Taking inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin’s idyllic South Seas paintings and a 40-page memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, from whom Denis borrowed the title and heart-transplant motif, L’Intrus has yet another textual body double: Paul Gégauff’s 1965 adventure film Le Reflux, set in Tahiti and also starring Michel Subor. Footage from this old movie appears late in the film like the colour-saturated recollection of a nonexistent place.

A tale of inner and outer travelling, L’Intrus is an exemplary illustration of what cinema theorist Gilles Deleuze, in his two-volume analysis of classical and postwar conceptual practices, termed the “bal(l)ade” form, a pun on the French words for “voyage” and “ballad.” Under this rubric, a film introduces the theme of a wandering or journey that takes place through “external or internal necessity, through the need for flight”, one in which pure seeing replaces action. If L’Intrus presents a field of vision that is at once boldly subjective and all-encompassing, it also comes alive with exhilarating images of bodily sensuousness and nature’s own majestic vitality: tight close-ups of Trebor’s leathery, mask-like face as he basks in the winter sun; long-duration shots of ocean passages; the christening of a Korean freighter, its brightly coloured ribbons twisting in the wind; and the final image of Béatrice Dalle, as Queen of the North Hemisphere, dog-sledding along a snowy mountain path with joyous, adrenal exuberance. As always, Denis’s concern is to explore the literal and metaphorical borderlands where aliens and natives, intruders and guests go wandering, looking for signs of home within and beyond the barriers of nation, culture, sex and family.

Claire Denis is as charming, generous, and disarmingly honest in conversation as she is magnificently assured in the pursuit of her artistic vision. I met with her in March after a sold-out screening of L’Intrus at the Walter Reade Theater’s annual “Rendez-vous with French Cinema” series in New York to discuss the genesis and themes of this extraordinary new work, her thoughts on Michel Subor and other frequent collaborators, and the inspiration behind her æsthetic sensibilities. The second part of the interview took place over the phone from Paris.

* * *

Part One: “Paradise is where I feel in my world.”

Damon Smith: When one rather hostile viewer demanded that you explain, in plain language, what L’Intrus was “about”, you responded graciously.

Claire Denis: For me, I was not gracious. [Laughs.] I was bored and tired. But you know, I have to be gracious. I wanted to respect a question like that. It’s not easy to wave people off. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to defend the film. I think in a way people expect so much of a film, so many answers, that they are very much afraid to let themselves drift. My films are not highly intellectual, and L’Intrus is like a boat lost in the ocean drifting, you know? I think that’s the way I picture it.

That gentleman was furious, probably, because he thought it was a very arrogant film, that we didn’t care whether people understood. And if I would have had time, I would have told him, “The level is not as high as you think.”

DS: People typically don’t wake up from a dream indignant that they haven’t understood it, that there’s a lack of causality to what they’ve experienced. In so many of your films, because they allow for those gaps in exposition, it’s up to the viewer to provide some of the meaning and make some of the connections between the images and sounds they’re receiving.

CD: Often we do a first draft that has no gaps and then I feel it doesn’t sound musical or interesting to me. So then I cut, because I think it’s important to cut before [starting in] the editing room. It’s important to cut it already in the script. Maybe I’m wrong, but I do it because I think it’s more dangerous, in a way. Then everyone is aware – the crew, the actors – that there is a gap, so they don’t expect, “Well, in the next scene, I will explain more about myself.” They know there won’t be any explanations, so they act differently.

DS: When you first read Jean-Luc Nancy’s book, and subsequently sat down to write the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau, from what in particular did your inspiration spring?

CD: I could not sit and write with Jean-Pol immediately. It took me a year to consider and then I decided I needed more understanding of why I wanted to do a fiction inspired by the book. I decided to travel, so I showed him the locations in France and Switzerland … Korea, no, I couldn’t.

We made a long trip by boat from one island to another in the South Pacific, because I wanted to understand the attraction that has driven so many writers and painters and also very ordinary people to foresee those islands as a sort of paradise, as a blissful life. I wanted to feel that. As it costs so much money to travel with a crew, I thought this trip was necessary before writing the script. So it took me about a year travelling.

L’Intrus

Before I started working with Jean-Pol, I also decided it would be a film written for Michel Subor. But I knew deeply in me it was a bit more than that: it was almost about Michel Subor.

DS: About his previous experience filming in that part of the world?

CD: He told me later that he’d shot a film there. I didn’t know at the time. He’s a very intriguing actor. I knew nothing about him, you know. I knew him from Le Petit Soldat, but it was a way to, I don’t know, think about this Louis Trebor character as a sort of variation, my own interpretation of, what Michel Subor could be. And it’s strange because Michel really thought Trebor and he were very different. Now he realizes there is a connection. He said, “The film has changed me so much.” And I said, “Are you sure? Maybe the film clarified things, but I think you were that before …”

So, only after I’d spent time dreaming about the film and not writing a script did I ask Jean-Pol along. We made the trip and then I said, “Okay, let’s start.” But we had many drafts. It took us a year.

DS: You adopted Nancy’s motifs of the heart transplant and the idea of the intruder. But what inspired you to tell this story in a dreamlike fashion?

CD: Right away there was something completely unknown to me. Let’s say I wanted to do a documentary about Jean-Luc Nancy, a straightforward adaptation of his book. What is this mysterious thing he’s explaining in his book? Why a heart? Because, for a surgeon, a heart transplant is honestly easy. And for many surgeons, they say it’s like being a plumber. The metaphysical aspect is very heavy, though, because, number one, your heart is tired. The pump is going to stop. You don’t know when, but probably you have signs. And for every human, the heart is also a symbol: it’s life.

Number two, the heart that is going to save your life comes from a freshly dead person whom you don’t know. Maybe a kid who was crushed by a car in the street or a young woman who committed suicide … whatever. Then the dream starts, because whose heart is it?

And then, not only that, but my own body is going to reject that new organ because it doesn’t belong to me. In other words, it’s an intruder. Though it saves my life, it’s sort of making my body ache everywhere because all my cells are fighting against it.

So, if you take only that aspect, it’s already so big, so vast, you know? I think it means more than any realistic story.

DS: Well, it carries over so many of the themes that are present in all your films: the idea of foreignness and exile, in the sense that the heart is a foreigner and its new home is rejecting it. That’s also connected in the film with the idea of travel, with a long journey taking place.

CD: Yeah. Well it would very hard to start a new life with a new heart, to feel younger, to find a new love or let’s say a son to love. It’s a sort of very unrealistic thing. It’s already a trip. And if I was considering, for example, a man like Paul Gauguin or Stevenson, this voyage was, in the case of Stevenson, a sort of long goodbye, and, in Gauguin’s case, “My first life was not good enough, I want a better life. And I am going to make it perfect.” Therefore, “I will bring that boat to my son”, which is completely abstract in a way because Trebor never knew his son. Or, “I will go back to my island”, I don’t know.

Even if it’s the dream of a voyage, I think it was very important for me that the film offer the two sides of the globe, the north hemisphere and south hemisphere, as the two sides of the heart.

DS: Much of the imagery – those beautiful forested landscapes, the long shots of the ocean – reinforces that sense of place and the voyaging aspect. Did you have any cinematic reference points for this kind of imagery or the film as a whole?

CD: The South Pacific I didn’t really know, but I imagined it by reading books. And those forests of France, I’ve known them since I was a child. They are places for lonely people. What I like is not dramatically landscapy, it’s plain. But for me it was always expressing a lot of “What is a little valley of the North hemisphere as opposed to the blissful islands of the South Pacific?”, as if I were sailor on the Bounty, finishing my life on this poor little island of Pitcairn and regretting some little lake of northern England.

The film works like that. I wanted the crew to understand that at the end of the film everyone should think of this little valley [where Trebor lives] as the paradise, because for me that’s paradise. Paradise is where I feel in my world.

You know, I visited Marlon Brando’s island. It’s an atoll, so beautiful. But after a few days, I didn’t feel I belonged there. It’s better for a bird or a fish, I think. I don’t mean because I don’t understand the way of life. I really respect the Maori people, the way they are so harmonious with nature, the way they are so close to their elements, but it’s there, you know. And I don’t like to be a tourist. I’m not interested. I’m ashamed when I feel like I’m a tourist.

DS: And yet it’s almost impossible to visit an exotic place like that and not feel like a tourist, not feel a sense, ultimately, that you don’t belong there. That theme of displacement surfaces in most of your films. You said the landscapes we see in L’Intrus are for lonely people. For me, there was a feeling that you were also toying with the conventions of the political thriller in making Michel Subor’s character so enigmatic, a person who leaves traces of himself around the world, who throws his passports in the fire.

CD: I think he has enough money to be a really bad guy, with money in Switzerland – illegal money, which means he doesn’t pay taxes. I haven’t much respect for people who hide their money in Switzerland because Switzerland is a bank, nothing else. But, for me, it’s more than his being selfish. He doesn’t see, he’s not aware of the people still around who love him. He has no respect for that. The only woman he’s gentle to, the woman with the dogs played by Béatrice Dalle, it’s because she doesn’t care for him that he’s attracted by her beauty. I would imagine that if she would let him enter her house and open her heart to him, he would disrespect her immediately. So I think Trebor is not a very lovable man.

Politically, I would say he represents everything I dislike in my country, this sort of selfish-solitude mentality. “I care only for myself.” So I’m happy that he is condemned at the end: He is defeated, and I think it’s only fair. But it’s interesting to me that this main character is someone I do not respect. I understand I can suffer from his anxiety, but I don’t like him. When I wrote the script, I called him A Man With No Heart, a heartless man.

DS: Did you talk with Stuart Staples about how to develop the recurring musical motif?

CD: Well, Stuart decided that he was not going to work with the band [Tindersticks], that he would do it alone, and then he decided that he was in a brutal part of his life. Stuart knew Michel from Beau Travail and liked him very much, so he really wanted to participate in the film. But he wanted to be the ‘drill’ of the film: that is, to provide no melody. Every time I asked him to explain this idea, he said, “’No, don’t ask me to be nice. I’m going to drill the film.” And very soon he came to me and said, “I think I’m going to loop it.” I was kind of surprised because actually the film felt more like a ballad.

When I started shooting, Johnny Cash was still alive and I was forcing Michel to listen to his music. But I think it was fair to work like that on a ballad scene. It’s what really helped the film to be earnest, in a way.

DS: There’s an edginess to it as well, a kind of eerie, unsettling quality that underscores everything you were just saying about Subor’s character.

CD: I don’t understand the word “edgy”. I forgot what it means.

DS: Like an edge, sharp and dissonant.

CD: Like something brutal?

DS: Not necessarily pleasant.

CD: Yeah. Really, I think Trebor is not a pleasant guy and this is important, not to feel compassion for him.

Also the film was made with a very low budget. The experience was edgy, if I can say that. The making of the film was very violent, and hard, you know. You can make a lot of things without pain. I did Beau Travail without pain, but now travelling like that became very hard.

If I am honest about it, I’d say so many times I thought I was literally at the edge of my resistance, always convincing the crew that, even though we have so little, it’s great to do this, to travel from one island to another. I had to almost force them to follow me.

Part Two: “The film itself becomes alive.”

DS: One thing I wanted to ask you about was Katia Golubeva’s character. She seems a very torturous presence for Trebor. She hunts him in a way, pursuing him.

L’Intrus

CD: As we started writing the script, she was linked to reality and fiction because Michel Subor is Russian. And I thought at the very beginning that maybe there would be some conclusion about his past in Tahiti because at that time I had not seen the old film, Le Reflux, by Paul Gégauff.

DS: The one you used footage of …

CD: Yeah, because it took me three years to find a print. Michel told me he made that film and I knew which novel it was based on, but I didn’t know exactly how I could link the two films. As we were writing the script, and after I did some location scouting in Tahiti and some other islands, I came to the conclusion that maybe we would never get this old film. And so Katia became for me his Angel of Doom.

We finally found the print, but we had already started shooting in France. So it was too late for me to introduce her in the old film.

DS: What was Le Reflux about?

CD: Before I saw the film, I only knew the Stevenson adventure novel of which it’s an adaptation. It’s a story about three men in a way who have nothing to do with each other. One guy works on boats, one is a dropout and the third one, who Michel plays, is a more spiritual guy, but with a bad conscience. And these three men agree to take a boat that has been in quarantine to Chile. But they don’t know the boat has been in quarantine, and they don’t know what the cargo is. In fact, it’s champagne.

Right from the outset, the crew doesn’t want to stay with them. They are afraid of getting typhus because one guy is dying. So the three of them are left alone and they drink the load, drifting from island to island until a moment when they meet a bad guy, also French, who is a gangster working in pearls.

But the film was never completed. It had no ending. Then Roger Vadim, who played the bad guy living on an island, finished the film – beautifully, in a way, with voice-over – with Michel. He falls in love with a Polynesian woman, she asks him to stay, and he says no, “because I’m doomed”.

DS: And your idea was to use much more of that footage?

CD: Yes. But it was difficult because the rights seemed to be free for a long time, and then as we were shooting we heard that it had been bought by a company who sold it to us very expensively, so we couldn’t really use as much as I wanted to. But we were already well into the filming process.

We had prepared for a long time to find the location [of Le Reflux], but the film finally became an adventure in a way, because we weren’t sure we could use footage of the old film. So we were drifting, too. In fact, I had decided to use the footage only in the third part of L’Intrus, in Tahiti, and not to use it early on.

So the film is pretty close to the script in the first two parts, in France and Geneva and Korea. We had to change a few scenes in Tahiti because of the footage.

DS: Why did you ask Michel Subor to listen to Johnny Cash?

CD: He had read the script and I gave him those new songs to listen to because I wanted him to be inspired. I told him, “Probably I will never use this as music for the film”, but I wanted him to feel that death is coming closer, to hear that voice, that man in Cash’s last two records whose life has been rich and full of love and emotion. And there is a trembling, as if the moment is coming. I could have given Michel a book to read but I thought it was good that it was Johnny Cash songs. And I think it was so great for him.

You know, sometimes when people get older they surrender and they decide it’s time to put everything in order and to be a good person. And I wanted the character to feel that and yet not to surrender.

DS: You’ve worked for a long time and very closely with Agnés Godard, Nelly Quettier and Jean-Louis Ughetto. How have they contributed to your overall æsthetic and how did that relationship come together when you were working on L’Intrus?

CD: It started as a sort of reunion because a film was proposed to me by [Pierre] Chevalier from Arté [television network]. He was happy with Beau Travail and he told me, “I’ll give you carte blanche if you want to work with me again”, because he was about to leave Arté. I told him it would be great to make it a reunion of all the people who had worked on Beau Travail, including the scriptwriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau. I wanted to share that with all those people who have been collaborators since my first film. I didn’t want it to be a reward for Beau Travail, but more like, “Let’s do something together that will take us over what we have felt when we did Beau Travail, over another border.” It was like a sort of family trip – not in the sense of going on vacation together, but of testing something together. But I was afraid during pre-production and shooting because I knew the subject of the film was a man getting close to death. I was afraid because all the people involved – technicians, actors – were my closest friends. I wanted us to be all together, but I didn’t want to harm them. And I was always shy.

DS: With making demands?

CD: Sharing the inspiration I had, which I knew was in a way deadly. I didn’t want to be morbid with them. So I kept the tragic aspect of the film in me and didn’t share that too much with them. Of course, that was very naïve, because immediately when they read the script they knew where we were going to – first of all, Michel.

It was a demanding film for all of us, but it was opening something also, opening a gate to a land where it’s dangerous to go but we wanted to be there.

When I first went to Tahiti for the location scouting, I was also reading Gauguin’s diary. And it took a lot of energy to do a film with a tragic thing inside.

L’Intrus

DS: You say that you were crossing a border together and testing something. How closely did you work with Godard to achieve the kind of visual language you develop here?

CD: The hardest thing is to decide upon a project, to say, “Okay, this is it.”

With Agnés, she asked me if I would object to trying Super 35 and of course I was ready for it. It meant a little bit more money and I knew that the ratio of Super 35 is different, so I was a little bit afraid at the beginning for the breakdown of the scenes. I was trying to prepare myself as much as I could and I told Agnés not to be worried. And I told her one thing is important: because Michel is the flesh and the heart of the film, we should feel free to break up each scene as if even Michel wasn’t needed in the image, as if every image came out of his mind. Therefore, we decided that he could be in the frame or not in the frame and also that he could be in frame sometimes but not as the main object, not as the centre. I wanted each image to convey a sense that it was generated by his mind.

It seems a little bit theoretical when I say that, but in fact it’s very concrete and simple. It meant that we were free to film the dogs or the landscape with only one shoulder of Michel or sometimes without him. So it created a sort of pace while shooting that didn’t seem dangerous. It was exciting, but I was still afraid that it might not work in the editing room.

It took me two or three weeks to adapt and then I started to trust the way we had shot it. So sometimes I would tell Agnés, “Don’t be afraid if it’s only his back and only a piece of him at the edge of the frame because everything is his.” I think she understood. And also Jean-Louis Ughetto had to adapt himself to that. So the sound was not describing the landscape but describing a vision of a place.

DS: There’s an amazing shot of Grégoire Colin’s character, Trebor’s son, carrying his own infant son in a sling while hiking through the woods. And the camera lingers for such a long time on the baby’s face.

CD: I wanted to wait for the baby to open his eyes and smile at his father! This was in a way the most important scene in the film. It’s a father looking down at his son and giving him the warm breath of his love without saying a word – in his gaze, and the way he is carrying him, so they are face to face. And I thought this was exactly what the main character had missed. He could have beautiful landscapes, money, everything except that single moment of holding your child and making eye contact and seeing the smile of trust coming to his lips.

DS: You use a lot of the same actors repeatedly, which creates a kind of ongoing dialogue between each of your films.

CD: It’s not a career decision. When a film is over, I am missing those people, I want them a little more. One film is not enough with them, so we need another one. And it’s the same with the people I’m working with. Like Agnés. I never have enough of them. I think life offers a lot of variation and diversity, but I enjoy this diversity with the people I like. We glance at each other and we know what we are doing without a word because we trust each other. And this feeling is great. And it doesn’t mean it makes things easy, because also this sort of trust is very demanding. The need is always never to be frustrated, never to be tired of working together.

With Stuart, as strange as it is for me, Stuart seems to be so different from me. He is so different in his background, his experience of life, his relation to emotion. We are like the north hemisphere and south hemisphere together. But he understands things so well. Sometimes he is even ahead of me in understanding, ever since we met on Nénette et Boni.

On this film, the only thing I told him is I want a guitar. This is important. And that’s why you can see a short scene where Trebor is playing a guitar. I think the film is the sound of a guitar. And he said, “Okay.” And when he came back he said, “You’re right but I don’t think it’s going to be a ballad or melody”, because the film was like a loop in his mind. Little by little, as we were editing, I realized he was right. His taste for film and music is very refined and I really admire that very much in him.

DS: You made a documentary for French television about Jacques Rivette, whom you assisted back in the 1970s, along with Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. What did that experience teach you about storytelling? Were his methods something you took into your own filmmaking?

CD: I didn’t know it at the time, but you cannot use a method; it doesn’t work. What I got from Jacques Rivette was a complete trust in filmmaking, in actors, in acting, in trusting an actor, a general trust in filmmaking and a taste for endangering myself a little bit – but not in a masochistic way, in an adventurous way. I think Jacques Rivette is always trying to get somewhere. It’s an adventure always and this still inspires me very much when I think about him. He’s always somewhere in my mind.

From Wim, I got another kind of trust, a trust in feeling very free with the camera and in designing a film not with an æsthetic, but with a complete trust of a location, in the light of the day. It is necessary to imagine things in advance, but what I thought was great with Wim was when there was a drastic change, because of money problems or weather, things like that, he would never complain. He would take it as an opportunity to adapt the film. At that moment, the film itself becomes alive. It’s not a chair that will never move.

I remember when I was shooting I Can’t Sleep, it was written in the script that it was the hottest summer ever. Therefore, the main character wants to sleep on the roof because it is so hot. We started shooting in July and right from the first day it became the worst summer ever. It was as cold as winter. And for two days I was panic-stricken. Even the wardrobe was not right. But I took it for granted after two or three days. I thought, “Well, okay, we’ll take it as it is.” And that gives you an opportunity to look at the film from another angle, which is not the static angle of writing and pre-production where everyone tries to put everything on your side.

As for Jim Jarmusch, I have a lot of admiration, but he has something I don’t have: he has a vision of the world tinted with his humour. I would love to be like he is but I don’t think I have that quality. My vision is different, of course, and I know it’s something you can’t learn, because it’s also a mode of behaving. I would say it’s his elegance. I am a more dramatic person.

DS: He’s very deadpan.

CD: Exactly. But it doesn’t mean he’s deadpan and that’s all. There’s something behind it which is very melancholy. And it doesn’t mean he hasn’t inspired me. Some people told me when L’Intrus was finished that it has something in common with Dead Man (1996). I was very surprised. But probably, yeah, it’s my vision of a dead man. This man is not carrying a bullet in his chest, he’s carrying a new heart, but it’s like a bullet.

Until someone pointed it out, I was absolutely not aware of that, because a method would be a terrible thing to borrow from someone. It’s so much better to be inspired by the spirit of a director.

DS: Do you ever feel any pressure to fulfil a prescribed role or take on certain issues as a woman director?

CD: No. In a way, it’s impossible. Number one, I have no idea of how I can represent myself [in that fashion]. Number two, I think making films deals with something more important than a role and/or being only a woman director. I only to try to be the best I am as a human being.

It’s difficult to say that because it seems a little bit pretentious. But it’s not. In real life, when I’m not shooting, I’m as bad as I can be, as lazy as I can be, as violent as I can be. But when I’m starting a project, I want to be a better person. I think, if worst comes to worst, at least I don’t want to betray the actors and the people I work with.

About The Author

Damon Smith is a New York–based freelance writer and regular contributor to The Boston Globe. His articles have appeared in Time Out New York, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Boston Phoenix and elsewhere.