Are the films of Claire Denis French cinema's best kept secret? It certainly seems so in the UK. While her work is regularly praised at film festivals around the world, her last film to be distributed here was her Cameroon-set debut Chocolat in 1988. None of her subsequent films has made more than a festival appearance until now, yet she remains highly regarded.
Denis describes herself as “une fille d’Afrique” (a daughter of Africa): born in Paris in 1948, she was two months old when her family moved to Africa and until the age of 14 she lived in a number of countries during the dying years of French colonialism and the coming of African independence. When we met in Paris in March to talk about her most recent film Beau Travail it became clear her childhood is still a key influence.
Chocolat was the fictionalised account of Denis’s experiences as a young girl told from the perspective of a woman named France who returns as an adult to her childhood home in post-colonial Cameroon. Denis’s second feature S’en fout Ia mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990) opens with a quote from Chester Himes: ”All men, whatever their race, colour or origins, are capable of anything and everything.” The statement resonates across Denis’s subsequent cinematic forays into extreme physicality, rendered with an increasing attention to the sensual details of flesh, the body and the borderline between desire and violence.
In S’en fout Ia mort the underworlds of illegal cock-fighting and French immigrants overlap and feed off each other in a portrait of exploitation and barely buried desires that find shape in the savage ritual. Denis’s controversial 1993 film J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep) was based on the notorious case of Thierry Paulin, a serial killer who murdered 21 elderly women in Paris between 1984 and 1987. Denis’s film is as much about the anonymity that the murderer, a prostitute, drug-dealer and drag artist played by non-professional Richard Courcet, was able to maintain within a fluid demi-monde of drifters and immigrants as it is about his crimes.
While the social canvas of Denis’s films has tended to depict uneasy micro-communities of underbelly-dwellers, her filmic style has increasingly moved away from a traditional French realism towards more elliptical, poetic and sensual structures. U.S. Go Home (1994) and Nenette et Boni (1996) indicated that she was developing a startlingly singular style – cinema as an aching reverie of sweat and flesh – that reaches its most refined expression in her most recent work.
Beau Travail is Denis’s sixth feature but only the second in which she has revisited the territory of her childhood. Freely inspired by the work of the 19th-century American writer Herman Melville, in particular the novella Billy Budd, and filmed in the former French colony on the north-east coast of Africa that since 1977 has been the Republic of Djibouti, Beau Travail immerses the viewer in the world of the French Foreign Legion as seen from the perspective of Galoup (Denis Lavant), a legionnaire devoted to his CO Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). The names Forestier/Subor will be familiar to Godard aficionados; the actor played a character of the same name in Godard’s 1960 film Le Petit Soldat whom Denis has revisited some 40 years later.
Galoup’s devotion to duty and the life of the legion is tested by the arrival of new recruit Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) whose selfless heroism Galoup sees as a threat to his authority. A war of nerves ensues, culminating in Sentain’s near death in the desert and Galoup’s court-martial. But this synopsis doesn’t begin to do justice to the way Denis tells her story of hothouse emotions igniting under African skies.
Since Nenette et Boni (which also featured Colin) she has developed an extraordinarily sensuous style of filmmaking whose impact derives from its combination of music (Beau Travail mixes dance music and Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd), editing rhythms and the cinematography of her long-time collaborator Agnès Godard.
When we met in Paris Denis was hung-over, having just wrapped the shoot of her next film, starring Vincent Gallo [2001’s Trouble Every Day], the night before. Small, wiry and, after a couple of aspirins, alert and forthcoming, she told me how a daughter of Africa found a new home in cinema.
Chris Darke: What made you want to make films?
Claire Denis: I was absolutely unfit for anything else. Cinema appeared to be a territory where I could survive. In Beau Travail Galoup says he’s “unfit for civilian life”. Well, when I came to France after having lived in Africa I felt I was unfit for life! The directors working then who interested me were Godard, Bresson, Antonioni and, later, Fellini. But I was just a spectator – I didn’t imagine that I would one day make a film.
Did you have a classical French cinephile background?
Not classical because I’m not French but a daughter of Africa. I grew up in Africa where there were no cinemas so I discovered cinema late, at 14 or 15 years old, all at once and indiscriminately. Cinephilia, in the classic sense of the Cinemathèque and Cahiers du cinéma, was something I came to much later, perhaps when I was 25 years old.
You say you’re not French but a daughter of Africa…
It’s a bit romantic. I feel like a bit of a foreigner, but I know I’m French. When I was very young I regretted this, I wanted to be anything but French.
Your childhood in Africa must have given you another perspective on France.
Yes, because I came to live here reluctantly. I was already nostalgic for another world. Usually, when one is an adolescent, the feeling is that life is just beginning. I felt I’d already finished one life and was mourning it heavily.
Was this feeling shared by your parents?
I think so, though we never talked about it. It wasn’t that we regretted decolonisation – we weren’t ‘pieds noirs’ [French people born in the colonies]. Politically, my father was a supporter of African independence. However, for my mother there was a feeling of a lost world that she’d never find in France. It was something to do with the plastic beauty of the landscape, the immensity of it and the sense of being slightly apart from the world. We weren’t Africans, we were blond Africans so we were slightly transient people. I think I liked that.
Beau Travail is your second film set in the former French colonies. But what attracted you to Herman Melville?
I always thought of Herman Melville as a brother in the sense of sharing his feelings of sadness, nostalgia and disappointment, the sense of having lost something. For me Africa is like the seas Melville missed so much.
You worked as an assistant to Jacques Rivette. Did you learn much from his methods?
Rivette has principles rather than methods and these are less his own than those of the directors he admired: Renoir and Rossellini. Perhaps these principles have to do with duration, sequence-shooting, rewriting during the shooting and never considering the screenplay as complete.
When you shoot a film is there already a highly refined screenplay?
Yes. I need to write a well-worked-out screenplay but I also need to be able to modify it, to separate myself from it during the shoot. I’m not proud of this – it’s not a method I’d recommend. But it’s my own way of being adventurous and for me a shoot has to be an adventure. If it’s too comfortable I feel it’s not cinema. There has to be an element of risk.
Are there other ways of attaining this?
Yes. With the camera. I hate it if it’s all worked out in advance. Sometimes when I write the screenplay with my collaborator I’ll have certain shot breakdowns in my head but I can never think of them as final. I need to remake them in the shooting, which lends that element of risk. It’s the same when I’m shooting sequence shots – I don’t shoot cutaways or coverage. It’s idiotic, but it’s my way of feeling alive in the filming.
Since Nenette et Boni there’s been a real sensuality to your work as well as great attention to the rhythms of the film. Do you have an idea of the feelings you want the spectator to experience?
I want to share what’s troubling me, to convey that to others. If there wasn’t this slightly insane desire to share things that are fleeting I think I’d change jobs, write books or plays. No other artform is as simultaneously trivial, vulgar and sublime as cinema. The film industry lives for the idea of profit, so how can one have an approach that’s as egotistical as wanting to share with an audience something that’s an intuition, a fragment? Yet real cinema is a way of transforming the technical and industrial material and making the sublime coincide with it. And I think sensuality is the key. Cinema cannot exist except through eroticism. The position of the spectator is like a kind of amorous passivity and hence is highly erotic.
Often in your films there’s a fascination with watching men fighting or working.
I like writing stories about men not because I want to dominate them but because I like to observe and imagine them. A man is a different world and this masculinity interests me. French cinema is so full of talk – I couldn’t care less about these people talking about their lives. Godard said that in cinema there are women and guns and I agree completely. That’s to say, there’s sex and violence. Cinema functions through these even if one is highly intellectual. And Melville functions on exactly the same elements.
But in Beau Travail the violence and love between the men are expressed as camaraderie rather than through sex.
Sex between characters doesn’t interest me. What’s important is the sexual charge that passes between the actors and the spectators. Filming sex scenes is very difficult. There must be violence for there to be desire, I think – and that’s what’s so beautiful about Oshima’s films. I expect if I went into analysis I’d be found to be abnormal – I think sexuality isn’t gentle, nor is desire. Desire is violence.
Often in your films ritual is a way of blocking or diverting this desire, as in the cock-fighting in S’en tout Ia mort or the choreography of the legionnaires in Beau Travail.
What interests me is often what precedes the sexual act – which, despite everything, has very few variations. One can’t really film sex unless one pretends or one works with actors who specialise in it. Ritual is interesting because it’s a way of expressing the sexuality of bodies outside the sexual act itself.
Why did you decide to treat the legionnaires’ movements in a stylised way?
I was working from the real movements of their training. In Melville’s sailor stories there are descriptions of sailors climbing up and down the rigging and it’s like a dance. And I found that to translate what Melville was writing about dance worked better than dialogue.
In the last scene Galoup dances frenziedly in a nightclub – it’s half solipsistic, half abandoned.
In an early draft of the screenplay the dance fell before the scene where he takes the revolver, contemplating suicide. But when I was editing I put the dance at the end because I wanted to give the sense that Galoup could escape himself. When we shot this scene in Djibouti I knew after the first take it was going to go at the end of the film. So on the second take I knew he had to leave the nightclub and I’d have my ending.
The dialogue is quite spare – it almost has the form of a prose poem.
We wrote two screenplays. The first was called Galoup’s Notebook, which was a diary, his memoirs. From that we started to construct the film as its counterpoint.
So the images work as a counterpoint to this text?
Exactly. But the voiceover is a third text I wrote from my memory of Godard’s Le Petit Soldat. In Le Petit Soldat Michel Suber’s character has deserted from the French army – he’s killed a member of the FLN [the Algerian anti-colonialist Front de Liberation Nationale] in Geneva – so it seemed logical he should resurface in the Foreign Legion. I didn’t want to take the character’s name from Le Petit Soldat – Bruno Forestier – and emphasise it, so I used the bracelet he wore in Godard’s film. It’s more than a homage because it’s one of my favourite films and Michel Subor is one of my favourite actors.
You seem to have a group of people who are close collaborators: Jean-Pol Fargeau as co-screenwriter; Agnès Godard as director of photography.
Chocolat was shot by another DP and Agnès Godard did the framing. S’en fout Ia mort, also. But she became a DP with me.
I’d say it’s a very Godardian ideal, a team or small group with whom you can share everything as companions. It’s very idealistic. When you nourish one another it can work, but it’s like being in a couple. It can be very frustrating always working with the same people but it gives you a lot of security that allows you to explore.
Do you write with certain faces in mind?
The first faces that interested me were Isaach de Bankole and Alex Descas. At first I preferred black faces. Vincent Gallo is an old face for me – the first time I shot him was 10 years ago in a short I made in New York called Keep it for Yourself. He was also in Nenette et Boni and U.S. Go Home.
These faces are strong, and beauty pisses me off. They have inspiring personalities – like Denis Lavant or Subor in Le Petit Soldat. If I’d been making films in the 60s I’d have made films with Subor.
There’s a sense in your last two films of the development of an almost abstract film-poetry.
I had a collection of Melville’s poems at the editing desk when I was working on Beau Travail. The screenplay was also written in a poetic manner inspired by Melville.
It can be very hard at times to find the right musical rhythm for the editing. But duration isn’t something one finds at the editing stage, it’s something that’s arrived at during the shooting, which the editing must respect. When shooting I get goose bumps because of the passage of time and I have to trust that. But I must say that for me it’s not very difficult: I’m a lazy, passive person who has always adored waiting, watching and listening. Outside of filmmaking I’m not especially active, I’m like a sponge.
You can’t say to yourself ‘I want to make an abstract film’ – it’s a bit dumb as a working method. But to try to capture someone’s memories, Galoup’s for example, to ask why he misses the Legion and Djibouti and to want to convey this cinematically inevitably becomes a little abstract. I think it’s easier for me as someone who’s marginal and isolated; I don’t have a studio behind me telling me what not to do. But if I’d set out to make Beau Travail as a consciously anti-narrative film I would have failed – I don’t think one consciously marginalises oneself, it just happens.
European cinema is saturated by a form of storytelling that’s almost televisual and American cinema remains, in plastic terms, very strong. Think of Dead Man and Ghost Dog. But there’s also Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang in Taiwan, the young Kurosawa in Japan – these are people I feel very close to. I don’t feel at all marginal in their company.
How do you relate to the new generation of French women directors?
I played a role in Letitia Masson’s first film En a voir (ou pas). She was one of the first of the young filmmakers to write to me saying they liked what I did. Letitia told me that she thought of me as her “godmother”, which was very touching. Noemie Lvovsky, too, considers me like an elder sister.
But do I feel close to them? Yes and no. That’s to say I’m touched by their comments but I don’t like all their films.
Do you think your marginality has to do with the fact that you’re a woman making films in France?
No. I don’t think I make the sort of films which have the characteristic traits of French cinema, which is to say a lot of dialogue and a very social focus. Some suggest my marginality has to do with the fact that my films have a lot of marginal characters in them. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more that I don’t express myself like mainstream French directors. But being marginalised is a way of being slightly protected – I’m doing my own thing with no one interfering and that suits me. Beau Travail didn’t cost a lot to make and though the film I finished shooting last night cost twice as much again that’s not to do with me. Rather, since Buffalo ’66, Vincent Gallo costs a lot and shooting in Paris is expensive.
Was the new film shot entirely in Paris?
Yes. It’s called Trouble Every Day. There’s a lot of English in it because Vincent speaks in English. There’s also a young American actress called Tricia Vessey, who was in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. It also has Beatrice Dalle and Alex Descas, pretty much the family I’ve worked with before. It should be ready by autumn and I’m impatient to see how it’ll tum out.
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Originally published: 5 March 2021