“It’s not fun to be in pain with film”: Claire Denis looks back on Chocolat and a life of cinephilia

Claire Denis’ parents would have preferred a different life for her than a career in cinema. As Chocolat arrives on Blu-ray, she sat down with us for a long chat about her childhood in Africa and how it led to her love of film.

Chocolat (1988)MK2

When I first call Claire Denis, there’s a misunderstanding. She’d thought I was calling only to arrange the interview. I was expecting to do it there and then. But, wearied by the remote phone and Zoom interviews that have become the norm since the pandemic, she insists that it needs to be face to face – and so, a couple of weeks later, I take the Eurostar to meet her in Paris.

She has suggested the Hôtel du Nord, a bistro on the banks of Canal St Martin with rich cinephile credentials. Built around 1912, in its days as an inn it provided the setting for Marcel Carné’s vivid 1938 poetic realist film Hôtel du Nord, where its guests include two young lovers intent on joint suicide and a sex worker played by Arletty. Although the hotel and canalside were recreated at Billancourt Studios by master set designer Alexandre Trauner, this little corner of the 10th arrondissement retains its proud links with Carné’s film. The picturesque footbridge arcing over the canal outside even bears Arletty’s name – Passerelle Arletty. It was on a replica of this ironwork crossing that her character, indignant at her pimp’s suggestion that he could find the change in atmosphere he needs in her arms, haughtily enunciates the film’s famous line: “At-mos-phère! At-mos-phère! Do I look like someone’s at-mos-phère?”

Hôtel du Nord and the footbridge later renamed Passerelle Arletty, as seen in Marcel Carné’s 1938 film Hôtel du Nord

The atmosphere today is hot and springlike, and most of the bistro’s customers are enjoying the sunshine from the pavement seats. But it’s inside in the quiet and cool that I find Denis, finishing off a dessert and coffee. There’s the remains of a glass of Coke on the table too. She’d warned me to expect “a ghost”, as she’s had lingering bronchitis since we first spoke, and now an eye infection too. It seems to be getting her down. But although we’d agreed to meet for 30 minutes, she’s unexpectedly chatty and unhurried with her time – though she’s busy doing corrections on her new script. I’ve brought her a copy of the new UK Blu-ray of Chocolat (1988), her debut feature, and we sit and talk about her memories of making it for an hour and a half.

“It’s like a day,” she says when I ask her to cast her mind back 36 years, apparently contradicting something I’d read her say before: that Chocolat was made by a different her. “It’s a different me, but it’s also not so different,” she explains. “Each film brings to the other. It’s not like one, then another, then another. It’s like a continuum of worries. I think the only thing that changes in a life is things like the death of a father, the death of a mother or having cancer then getting out of it. But with film, it’s like the same road: different movies, but the same worried mind.”

Chocolat draws on the very beginnings of this continuum: Denis’ own childhood, as a young girl growing up in 1950s Africa. Like the girl in the film, France, played by Cécile Ducasse, her father was a civil servant at the end of the colonial era, and Chocolat depicts France’s upbringing in a remote part of Cameroon – one of several African countries where Denis herself lived before being moved to Paris at the beginning of her teens.

It was something about the American West that first gave Denis the thought of revisiting this part of her life on film. In the early 1980s, she’d been travelling with Wim Wenders from Louisiana to LA in a station wagon – “let’s say a Dodge”. They were scouting for locations for Paris, Texas (1984), on which she was assistant director. “I was on the I-10, and seeing images that were so connected with filmmaking,” she says of the south-west’s red rocks, deserts and canyons. “I was amazed, but I felt I was not touched. I was amazed by the beauty or amazed by the history of those parts of the States. But each night I was thinking what is missing for me? Why am I not more moved?”

Paris, Texas (1984), on which Denis was assistant director

One day in the truck, she found among Wenders’ research materials a photography book by Raymond Depardon, including black-and-white American landscapes and a comment from Depardon linking those scenes to his memories of travelling as a photojournalist in Algeria, Biafra and Chad. “I realised that what was missing for me was something of my own,” Denis says. She’d been planning a first feature based on a harrowing true story of a mother who’d killed her own daughter, derived from a book of interviews she’d encountered with women in a jail in Rennes. But this encounter with landscapes prompted a change of direction: a plunge into her own past that she began by flying out to Cameroon in the company of her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau.

“I received money from the National Centre of Cinema to help me during the writing of the script, but instead I bought a plane ticket,” she remembers. “We went from south to north, because I wanted Jean-Pol to see the north. It was not location scouting, it was like taking a friend, a partner, and showing him the landscapes of my own childhood still existing. Even certain houses were still there. It was a very strange experience. Not like a pilgrimage, but showing someone images that I’ve had in my mind since I was four years old.”

This was a homecoming of sorts for Denis, who had made a few trips back to Africa since she’d left as a child – to Senegal and Ivory Coast – but “never to places I knew from my childhood”. Taking Fargeau along with her for the trip would be the start of one of the major collaborations of her career – they’ve since co-written 10 films together, up to and including their 2018 sci-fi High Life. She first encountered his work when she and her boyfriend had gone to a small independent theatre in Marseille to see a play Fargeau had written called Voyager. One or two months later, she drove back down to Marseille to ask him if he’d like to collaborate on a screenplay.

Given the film would be drawing on her own memories, why did Denis feel like the script needed a second pair of hands? “Because I wanted to be as far as I could from my own childhood. I remember when we were speaking with Jean-Pol, we had decided the little girl wouldn’t be the point of view. I knew right at the beginning, the main character was going to be Protée, the boy.”

“I was sure, because when I was a teenager I read a book written by a Cameroonian writer [Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono]. It’s about this man who used to be a servant in the time of white colonisation. And he describes how horribly those people behaved toward him. I was shocked because my parents were a very young couple, they were shy. We were living in the bush, not in the city. And I remember my mother was gardening, she was working with the cook. They were exactly the opposite, in a way. I realised I had to shift the real story of my childhood. I didn’t want to describe horrible white people like in the book, but I realised that my parents, the way they were, would maybe make the white people too nice. I wanted the boy, Protée, to be offended or to not be at ease. I didn’t want a perfect paradise.”

For the part of the boy, who becomes a friend to France but also the object of her mother’s sexual longing, Denis cast the young Isaach De Bankolé, right at the beginning of a career that would see the Ivory Coast-born actor become a favourite of Jim Jarmusch, Denis herself in her subsequent films No Fear, No Die (1990) and White Material (2009), and the worlds of James Bond and Black Panther. “I saw him on stage and he was irradiating… not beauty, but a young life with hope. Something that nobody could break. Even by being a servant. He was stronger.”

Chocolat (1988)MK2

Denis has become a filmmaker renowned for her sensuous, tactile treatment of bodies – the abstracted manoevres of the legionnaires in Beau travail (1999); the tender sway of the café dance in 35 Shots of Rum (2008). In Chocolat, a scene showing De Bankolé taking an outdoor shower in the grounds of the Dalens’ home acutely exposes the shifting dynamics at play. His moment of solitude is curtailed by France and her mother, whose attempt to seduce Protée during a lonely moment has been rejected, wandering past in the background. Instantly reminded of his now precarious place in the household, he retreats back against the wall – a visceral reflex of shame and anguish.

To watch Chocolat is to get to know this house and grounds. Red earth, a bungalow and its outhouses. Denis found a place to recreate her memories near the striking Mindif peaks in northern Cameroon, but had to build the house from scratch as styles had changed. “By the time I was shooting, everybody had AC in their houses, so the open-air verandas were no more,” she says. “I went to the small village I liked in the north and we decided to build the house. The bricks were made of earth, and we let them dry for two months. The village helped us to build it.” As of 10 years ago, the house they built was still standing, though the area is now under the control of Boko Haram.

Chocolat (1988)MK2

I ask her if there’s a kind of catharsis in recreating one’s childhood in images – a satisfaction in materialising her memories. “To be honest, it’s very naive what I’m going to say. I had the feeling I was, in a mysterious way, saying thank you to this country Cameroon, where growing up was so beautiful. I thought I owed them something [for an experience] I would never have had a chance to feel.”

France’s childhood is depicted as one of isolation, even a blissful kind of boredom. There are moments when she’s shown simply sitting, absorbing the sounds of nature. Herein perhaps are the seeds of Denis’ attentiveness to textures. Certainly this upbringing would shape her sense of herself as an outsider. “We were always sent to places in the countryside. The place I remember best was when I was three to five, and where we were the only white family.” But then in Paris too, when she and her sister would visit her grandparents, she felt an estrangement. “We were not ready for the suburbs. It was very strange for me to play at my grandparents with cousins and to feel so different. I thought maybe I’m not normal.”

Cinema itself was a kind of structuring absence in these early years. Miles from a theatre, her film-loving mum would recount the plots of films she loved as bedtime stories. “It was not to cheer us, it was really her missing films.” But in Paris, her grandparents would take Denis to see things, and “thanks to my mother, I had the feeling that the greatest thing in the world was to watch a film. There was no interest in television. Going to the theatre was something I knew was special.”

“I remember the first film my grandfather on my mother’s side took me to see was War and Peace (1956) with Audrey Hepburn. It was not for my age. It was very long, and I’m not sure I understood. But when someone like my grandfather took me to see a film, I thought he was probably right – there is something I should understand about War and Peace, and Napoleon and the war.”

Pather Panchali (1955), director by Satyajit Ray: “It blew my mind”

“I saw many different films. I remember I was maybe eight or nine when I saw Pather Panchali (1955). It blew my mind. I like all of the Apu trilogy a lot. Little by little, my taste for a certain kind of film grew.” Her cinephilia began to bloom in earnest after her family moved back to Paris in the late 1950s, Denis having been diagnosed with polio. “When I was a teenager, there was a cineclub in my school and I loved it. The teacher would screen 16 millimetre, and she had a strong collection of Russian movies. For her, there was nothing better than this. And it’s true, they were great. For a long time, I thought they were the best filmmakers. Alexander Nevsky (1938), Strike (1925), all those films. And then the ones of the ’50s too. Of course, she was communist and strongly militant.”

On my mention of a couple of Soviet films from the 60s, The Lady with the Dog (1960) and Walking the Streets of Moscow (1964), her eyes light up, this nascent love for cinema clearly undimmed. “Yes, all of those.” 

Since we’re here to talk about a Blu-ray release, and as her last film, the gorgeous, under-appreciated Stars at Noon (2022), went straight to streaming in many territories, I ask her how she feels about the home viewing experience. “I try not to [watch films at home], because if I’m home in bed or in my room or in the kitchen, I lose maybe 20% or 30% of my concentration. I can watch a film and think of other things. I’ve been sick these past weeks and feel the longing for going back to the theatre. Maybe, it’s my generation, but I’m not sure. I’m sure young people want to see [Kingdom of the] Planet of the Apes (2024) in a theatre. In a theatre, there’s the feeling of other people. I don’t like to be lonely when I’m watching a film.”

I’m interested in what excites her about contemporary cinema. What seems new? “Every new film is exciting, except when I decide I don’t like the movie. I remember three years ago, the first year after Covid, I was in Cannes and I saw Memoria (2021) by Apichatpong. It was an afternoon screening near the end of the festival, so people were tired. And when the film started so modestly – if I could say that – in the huge theatre, suddenly I felt, not panic-stricken, but I was praying the audience wouldn’t start moving, coughing, because I was afraid that any noise, any movement would hurt the movie. I had seen Uncle Boonmee (2010) in Cannes also, so I knew that to watch an Apichatpong movie one needs a sort of peace to let the mind go with the film. When the film ended, there was this huge silence in the big theatre. I felt this was a moment I would never forget.” 

Memoria (2021), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul: “I felt this was a moment I would never forget”

Although it’s a “different type of relationship” between the audience and the film, she had a similar experience with Tarantino’s Once upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – “When it works in a huge theatre like that, it’s unforgettable” – and, more recently, Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist (2023), which she saw in Tokyo and then went back to see when it played in Paris. “When I like a movie, I have the feeling it was meant for me, nothing else.”

Perhaps her own films can give her this kind of experience? “Oh no! No, they’re not meant for me,” she says. “I mean, I’m afraid. When you mentioned Stars at Noon, it was sad for me that it was not in the theatre. Sad for the actors. I knew they suffered from it. And the pain… It’s not fun to be in pain with film.”

Chocolat would have its own moment in the grand theatres at Cannes, when it premiered in competition in 1988. When it was selected, “I think my mind was still in the finishing of the film. I wasn’t sure I understood if it was good for the film, bad for the film, good for me, bad for me. But I remember the Cameroonians travelling to Cannes and cooking Cameroonian food on the beach.

“Cannes was enormous and I remember being very shy, but also I was completely incoherent – once I was waiting on the beach to be interviewed for TV, and I fell asleep before the interview started,” she recalls. “I was not naive. I was not a fool. But I had in mind that I had made the film and maybe there won’t be another one.”

As she orders more coffee, I ask what her parents made of the film. “My mother was a movie lover, but my father didn’t like cinema, so it was a duty for him to watch the film.” He’d pick her up on the colour of the earth, or say “I never had a truck like that” or “The house was not exactly like that.” “He was happy I went to Cameroon to make the film, because he had good memories in Cameroon and good friends, especially in the Ministry of Agriculture. In the north of Cameroon, there are a lot of meadows and a lot of cattle, so he was touched by that, but I don’t think he was interested in the film itself. My parents probably profoundly disagreed with me working in film. They would’ve preferred me to have a different life.” 

What might that different life have looked like for her? What would she have been? “A depressed woman? No, I don’t know. How would I know? Certainly not the same person, for sure.” Perhaps she recognised a kindred spirit in the film’s young star, Cécile Ducasse, who turned out to be similarly laser-guided in her life choices. She was cast in Cameroon, where she was living with her parents, but even then had dreams of becoming a vet. Today she’s a mother of three and lives near Lyon, where she has a clinic for animals and raises horses. “She’s exactly what she wanted to be. It brings tears to my eyes when I say that, because it’s so miraculous that she was so clear about her future.”

We drink the coffee and I’m sure I must be keeping her, but we talk about her working on the restoration with cinematographer Robert Alazraki and their efforts to digitally match the film’s special quality of light – captured with softer contrast with slow film. We talk about African cinema – about Touki-Bouki (1973), Ousmane Sembène and Gaston Kaboré, and about Mati Diop’s film A Thousand Suns (2013), the documentary in which Diop – Denis’ friend and collaborator – screens Touki-Bouki, directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, at an outdoor square in Dakar.

A Thousand Suns (2013), directed by Mati Diop, who made her acting debut in Denis‘ 35 Shots of Rum (2008)

I mention that that morning I’d wandered up to Place Dalida in Montmartre to find the park from the opening of Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), so we talk about Jacques Rivette, who she assisted on his abortive mid-70s Marie and Julien project and about whom she later made an on-camera feature-length profile, Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990) – “He told me, ‘I will never repeat a sentence.’” And she has a memorable characterisation of the late Jean-Luc Godard – who she met only twice – as cinema’s air-traffic controller. “I thought he was like someone somewhere in Switzerland taking care of cinema, like the airport tower controlling the planes landing and taking off.”

“When I was working with a French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, we were often travelling through Switzerland by train. And the train always stopped at Rolle [where Godard lived]. And I would always close my eyes and think, maybe he’s on the platform, maybe he’s there. It’s a very naive relation [that I had to him]. I’m very childish, I guess.”

Settling up, we glance at the wall-mounted stills from Carné’s film and head out into the afternoon. Paris looks bright and languorous. Denis is going back to her office: she’s looking forward to getting some antibiotics, finishing the corrections on her script (her lips are sealed, but it’s an adaptation of a play) and “then I can sleep for two to three days”. She asks if I’m walking to the station, but no, I have some time to wander. She bids me a safe return, and I cross towards Passerelle Arletty.

Chocolat is out now on BFI Blu-ray in a 4K restoration.