A lot has been made of Claire Denis’ ‘cinema of bodies’. But when taking a closer look at her films, this neat binary opposition between bodies and minds soon collapses. If the French director pays so much attention to the physical, it isn’t in a bid to reclaim the importance of sensuality or to champion female sexuality. In Denis’ films as in reality, bodies complicate our ideas and betray our thoughts; they reveal the truth. Denis’ ‘cinema of bodies’ is most of all a cinema of fear, and by the same token, a cinema of courage – the courage of facing reality, no matter how intimidating it might be.
This persistent movement towards the outside world makes Denis’ work appear almost selfless: beyond observing, she absorbs. In her world, people and things react with each other in positive or negative ways, but they never stay indifferent or unchanged. Hers is an open, permeable cinema where apathy is worse than death, and where all one can rely on is their eyes and their guts.
To coincide with this month’s retrospective at BFI Southbank, we spoke to the director about courage and fear, bodies and sensuality, responsibility and truth, forcing things and letting go.
The characters in your films are often very afraid of something – afraid of the other, of the unknown, of losing someone, of dying or of being alone. Because your films address those fears, they strike me as very brave. What is your relationship to fear, to bravery, in your cinema?
I sometimes think about the character played by Isabelle Huppert in White Material (2009). I think she is someone who is so afraid, not of others, but of falling short of what she’s expecting from herself. She is so afraid that she becomes practically insensible to danger. It’s as if, for her, confronting danger was more than courage – it was a way to prove to herself that she is strong and that she can make it all by herself. I would say that, curiously, this kind of bravery exists a lot in the art world. I think that actors and actresses have doubts sometimes. They already have doubts about whether they’ll find work, but they also have doubts when they do have a role to play.
The same goes for directors, writers, etc. One always needs to overcome something. We’re talking about this here in the marvellous, glamourous context of cinema, of theatre, of art, where we are somewhat sheltered from everyday troubles, as if we were a bit outside of the real world. But it’s not true: many people who work in the arts are, on the contrary, people who come from modest backgrounds and not necessarily from a privileged background, and who throw themselves in an adventure to prove something to themselves. Maybe there is something that scares them, or maybe they feel something is missing.
I think the character of Maria in White Material seems to have the bravery to confront danger because she denies that danger. She denies it in such a way that she seems to be holding up in spite of everything. But isn’t there, deep down, something that she’s missing? I would say that Maria is a lot like me. She is a lot like me in the way that she is brave because she refuses to face reality. Maybe true bravery is to really see the danger that the people around us are in and to take action, instead of putting everyone in danger just to be right. I’m not saying that Maria is exactly like that, but she is in such a denial of reality that she puts in danger her son and the others.
Maybe there is some bravery in the character played by Isaach de Bankolé in Chocolat (1988). He is someone who refuses to be submitted to the more comfortable condition of servant, and who prefers his personal pride. Maybe there’s bravery in Vincent Lindon’s character from Bastards (2013). He confronts something that he cannot even imagine and that his sister is hiding from him. That’s a kind of bravery I don’t have, but I love people who have it. In Beau Travail (1999), I feel like bravery is the everyday meal of this small battalion of the Foreign Legion. When Denis Lavant’s character loses the Legion, he loses the courage to live.
Monte in High Life (2018) is brave just like a knight from the middle ages. A knight from the Round Table. He tells himself: “If I stay closed in on myself, in abstinence, if I regulate all my desires, I will be invincible.” He proves this courage when he accepts that baby, when he accepts to become this father, and when he accepts this love and this responsibility. I think there is a lot of courage in that.
Sometimes I also think that, when I was making Let the Sunshine In (2017) with Juliette Binoche, that was the very example of a woman who was very brave, but who at times would deny reality. Because she was so strong, first of all, and because she so wanted to succeed at everything.
I feel like this courage is always linked to this idea of connections between people, between the characters. Many of your films centre on families, with father-daughter relationships, or even friends or people who love each other. But in High Life and Let the Sunshine In, especially, there is more of an idea of solitude and the idea of the difficulty in creating connections. While in your other films, and especially in Vendredi soir (2002), connections seem easier to do.
In jail, the number one rule is to not let people come close to each other, or get to know each other, because that would be the end of it all. That’s why when a prisoner is being a bit difficult, he’s put in isolation. He’s not even allowed to go on the daily walk. The food is given to him through a hatch; he’s not even allowed to have a human contact when he gets his meal. I saw a film about isolation cells in some prisons – I think it was in the US – where people go crazy.
In Let the Sunshine In, she isn’t in jail, but there is still that isolation.
She’s in a dream that imprisons her. She’s managing to live on her art, she’s raising her daughter, she’s managed to go through a divorce that wasn’t too contentious, and she thinks that she will finally find the real love that she never knew. She tells herself: “I will find it.” And that’s where she’s lying to herself. Because she’s looking for it in such a proactive, aggressive way that she makes it more difficult for it to happen.
She wants the absolute, right away.
Unlike your other films, Let the Sunshine In is really funny. I would even say that it is a comedy.
Maybe she doesn’t make everyone laugh, but for me Christine Angot has a sense of humour that I adore.
Let the Sunshine In is interesting because, while it is so different from your other films, I think it also works as a key into your work in general. Like the other films, it deals with this idea of connection and solitude, but unlike them it focuses on a character who’s the closest to who you are – perhaps not personality-wise, but at least in social and economic status, in her place in society. By contrast, in many of your other films, you follow characters who lead very different lives from yours.
More marginal lives.
Yes, especially in No Fear, No Die (1990). Just the action of documenting the cockfights is amazing, because it’s not something we get to see very often.
We can see it if we want to. I was in the United States three weeks ago for the release of High Life, and in every city I went to, I asked if there were cockfights. I was in Nicaragua, and they had them there. Cockfighting is forbidden in certain countries, so it’s hidden, but it was spread around the world by Spanish sailors at the time of the conquests, of the navigators. It is a life-and-death game, so it very quickly took on a symbolic character.
I first wanted to shoot No Fear, No Die in Berlin in the French quarters, but then the Berlin Wall fell, so I went to Rungis [a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris] instead. I spoke with policemen who were working there, and among them was an Antillean policeman. I told him I’d noticed a place near a nightclub that wasn’t in use and where I could build a pit for the cockfights, and he told me that where he lived, in Cergy-Pontoise [a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris], they had cockfights on the highest floor of a parking garage every week. So I went there to see it. And of course, he was a policeman, but being Antillean and because it’s authorised in the Caribbean, he wouldn’t forbid it.
Diversity in film is a big topic of conversation in the film industry these days. People talk about the importance of telling stories that are not often told, about focusing more on the experiences of minorities, and about casting more people of colour and from minority backgrounds. But you’ve been doing this since the very beginning of your career. Is the diversity of your cinema something that you achieve consciously?
Yes. It is even mandatory. I’m not more intelligent or more responsible than others, but life has always given me the chance to see these people, so they are in all my films. And not just black people.
Cinema is also born as a fairground art, by people who were already on the margins in some way. Not the Lumière brothers, of course, they were industrialists. But they quickly came to film marginalised people, and most actors were people from the margins. So I think that it’s an obligation, for me. And gangsters aren’t the only kind of marginalised people. And cinema isn’t just about compassion, we don’t have to cry about the terrible misfortune of someone. We can also show to what extent marginalised people cope and pull through without necessarily calling for help.
When you write films about marginalised characters, do you go to meet them? Do you already know them?
I generally know them a little already. I know them because in my life it’s always been like this. Maybe because I didn’t grow up in France, but also because my mother’s family is from the Amazon, from the north of Brazil, and my father was born in Bangkok. I always had this feeling that we were in the ‘wide world’ [‘le vaste monde’ in French]. The ‘wide world’ is a sentimental expression that isn’t just to say that, yes, the world is big. It is about how everyone has the right to realise the existence and the extent of this wide world. To appreciate it. You just have to walk.
Yesterday, I was coming out of the hotel and I walked to the car that was taking me to a Q&A, and I saw a man who was setting up his bed for the night with a waterproof piece of cloth, because it was raining. He had his pillow, his bag. Very well organised. And I saw that, and I thought: “He has his corner here.” His body no doubt had to be bent there, because the corner was too small, it was in the doorway. And I thought, this life, it’s there. It’s not commiseration, it’s not understanding – I’m egoistic, like everyone else; I’m capable of not giving a damn about other people – but I see him.
For you, is this idea of seeing people linked to a kind of responsibility – that of an artist, of a person, towards yourself or others?
I never thought I was an artist, and I never thought I had an artist’s responsibility. I feel like I am obliged to be this way – by my life, by the education I received. I can never live another way, because that is how I was raised. I was this child, and now it’s done. People take on habits from childhood, and that’s a habit I took, and it won’t change. And it’s not because I’m better than others. I was raised this way.
This man, when I went away in the car, I thought that he probably also had an outfit he wore at night. In a very short space of time, you analyse the details. And it was early, I was thinking maybe he would try to go to sleep early because he would have to leave very early in the morning. And I thought, he has affected my life in that moment. Meaning, I went to do the Q&A, talking about one thing or another, but he had affected my life in that moment. It’s not about pitying him, it’s not saying: “I’ll give him a pound,” it’s something else. Suddenly, the vision of the world becomes wider. You can be generous or not, you can be Mother Teresa or a monster of selfishness; it doesn’t change the fact that he’s there, preparing his bed. The only thing that could change would be to say: “Sir, I cannot stand your existence in the street, come live at my house in France.” Maybe he would say no, but you see. There comes a point where you need a much stronger engagement than a film, I think.
I think what you’re talking about is a kind of permeability, where you absorb the things that you encounter. Your films have the same effect. The image alone, for example in Beau Travail, the way in which you and Agnès Godard film the bodies of these soldiers. There’s permeability because we are so close to them that we feel like we could almost touch them. We feel their bodies. But there is also permeability in the sense that all the things communicate with each other. There are no separations between bodies and minds. Your camera doesn’t only objectify; everything works together. The frame of the camera often isolates things, but your cinema doesn’t do that.
No, Agnès and I, we get inside. We rehearsed for two months with the actors, in a gymnasium, because we knew that in Djibouti we would have very little time to shoot. Every night, Agnès and I would film with a little video camera to prepare the shots. Those images shot during rehearsal, we never used them. We threw them away. But ultimately, our bodies too got used to that, and we knew all of the actors’ movements. So when we arrived in Djibouti, we had to bear the heat, bear the climate, but for the rest, Agnès and I were ready just like the actors. Sometimes, when we were filming, if I looked around, I could see that even other members of the crew – the set designer, the makeup artist – were also doing the actors’ movements. Because we were all engaged.
Isn’t it a bit like a dance, where everyone is in the same movement?
It’s not even like a dance. I had seen the Foreign Legion rehearse – from a distance, they wouldn’t let me come close – and with a group of men who do exercises like this, there is naturally a kind of choreography. And in the prison yard – since we were talking of prison – if you look at prisoners doing their exercises, you can also see there this choreography of bodies. But what they really want is to not lose one gram of strength, of muscle. They want to maintain something, to hold on to their strength. They don’t want to get out of jail weaker.
Your films are very sensual. In Bastards, for example, when you film Vincent Lindon’s back, or in Vendredi soir, again with Vincent Lindon…
He is a very beautiful man.
How do you think about this idea of sensuality? Because in all your films, there are these moments where people are attracted to each other. I’m mostly thinking here about the scene in 35 Shots of Rum (2008) where the characters go in this little bar and, immediately, something happens that they hadn’t planned at all. It’s one of those evenings that you had to be there to understand it, and the film brings us there. It makes us experience its electric atmosphere.
This moment was very important, because it’s that scene where they’re all going to this show, and the father is annoyed but he’s doing it for his daughter, for the neighbour… And the car breaks down. It’s raining, they’re drenched, they knock on the door of that restaurant. It’s closed, but the owner takes pity on them and let’s them in, switches on the lights, heats up a bit of food, gives them rum and turns the music on. And suddenly, yes they have missed the show – in my head it was a Prince show – but when she puts the music on, they recover a bit of something they’d lost. What they hadn’t planned was that the father would see that, in the end, his daughter and the neighbour are a possible couple, and that he needs to tell his daughter: “Live your life.” It’s a moment of lucidity, but one that really hurts him too.
It is this idea of courage again.
Yes, he’s a courageous father. That’s for sure.
You often work with the same actors several times. It feels like there really is this idea of loyalty. Of course, they’re all wonderful actors, but why this choice to return to those actors? And what happens when you work with an actor for the first time?
The actors I work with, I love them, and I love them so much that I don’t want to leave them. So I have to write scripts for them. I have a hard time letting them go. In the case of High Life, I knew I was going to face new actors because the film was going to be entirely in English. When I met Robert [Pattinson], there was something particular already, because he had expressed his desire to work with me. That surprised me. There was already this connection there. And because he had said that, I had to answer to that demand, and the only answer I could give him was to say yes. And after having said yes, I realised that he actually resembles some of the actors I’d already worked with.
He has many similar traits with Grégoire [Colin], with Isabelle [Huppert], with Juliette [Binoche], even if they’re very different. With Vincent [Lindon], too… I realised that he had a way of waiting… No, not waiting. A way of trusting absolutely. Of telling me “I trust you, go ahead,” and when I replied “I trust you too, go ahead,” it just worked. And it’s always been like this. It was the same with Béatrice Dalle. The first time I worked with her, I got so afraid of failing, because she impressed me so much that I got sick. I almost fainted, and I had to stop shooting. She was too beautiful, too strong. I couldn’t handle it. And she understood. And now we are connected by this forever.
The way you talk of the way Robert Pattinson knows how to trust you, it echoes this movement in your films between moments where characters let things happen, and moments when they have to force things. To make a decision. This feels like a central dynamic in your films – the idea that it’s hard to know when to force things and when to let them go.
There is this moment in High Life when, after the little girl has fallen asleep, Robert tells himself that he should get rid of the corpses of his colleagues because there’s no use keeping them plugged in in that morgue. And it’s a terrible gesture, even if it’s something done in the navy. He is torn when he does that. And I found Robert so moving in the modesty of his expression, the simplicity of his seriousness. I don’t forget it. It’s still inside of me. It’s something an actor gives. It’s very discreet – he doesn’t need to give it with tears or screams – he gives something of his soul, and everybody feels it, in the crew, even in the walls. Everyone feels it, and it’s extraordinary.