Interviewing Claire Denis keeps one on their toes. Receptive to good ideas and quick to challenge any false note, the director—by most metrics one of our greatest, at this point so distinguished she’s almost a concept unto herself—would rather engage than respond, turning this into something more akin to tennis (or, as we’re sitting in a New York hotel room, ping-pong) match than conversation.
It helped that topic du jour was Both Sides of the Blade, among her best in recent years and something in which she’s clearly taken pride—no area seemed to lack interest, no idea worth dropping once we’d moved to an ostensibly different point. Talking on a chilly March afternoon one day out from its American premiere, Denis was quick to note the space:
Claire Denis: This is a weird place.
The Film Stage: This hotel’s a weird place?
No, this… scene. Yeah.
I saw the balcony and couldn’t help thinking of the film.
Sure! [Laughs] A balcony is a very important place. You mean the door is open? You’re not cold?
Do you want me to close it?
No, I’m okay. I was afraid you might be cold.
No, I’m great. And I saw the movie last night.
Loved it. Which I say as a big fan. And the feeling emanating from it is a word you used to describe the production: restless. You said you and DP Éric Gautier were chasing Binoche and Lindon around, which created a restless environment. Did you enjoy that?
While shooting there is a sort of… I am incapable to have that distance, to feel joy or fear. It’s a mixture of… the restlessness came from the subject. And the way I felt, immediately, I could not settle a static frame for some scenes. I knew it would not be possible because I could feel both actors were already starting their engine. You know what I mean? Also, maybe the budget was asking for a short schedule. So I thought: instead of feeling desperate with a schedule, let’s do what I feel is best for the film.
In fact, with Éric in that apartment we were, like, chasing them. Éric and me knew the lines, also, so… I hate the idea to film… I mean, “I hate.” Maybe I don’t know, but I have a problem with two cameras. Éric says the same. So we managed not to ask them to re-do and re-do and re-do—to just be with them in time, you know?
This apartment feels so lived-in. The first shot you’re seeing this messy countertop. They casually toss mail aside.
Yeah, the mail! Yeah.
I’d love to know about prepping on locations—getting to know it, how to shoot it. How you even found that apartment.
I knew I wanted an apartment that was not too rich, not too expensive—in fact it’s the district where I live. But I wanted a balcony because that was very important for the film. I did location-scouting with my AD, my assistant, and for the mother’s house—in the suburbs, in Vitry. I wanted that suburb. It’s a south suburb. My grandparents, from both sides, are from there. It’s not like the northern; it’s an older type of suburb. It’s small houses of the ‘30s; it’s not, like, towers. I wanted that, and in the apartment I wanted a balcony.
In the process of looking for it we found this one, which was like a big square. Not like a loft, but it was, sort of, very modern. The owner of this apartment was a young, stylish man and I tried to make it not too much style. But the space was okay for us so I chose it for the space and the balcony. Then, on the other end, trouble is that there were a lot of windows. Those windows were a little bit troublesome as we were shooting in winter, and in France, in winter, daylight is very scarce.
You talk about Éric, who is kind of French cinema royalty—but is also a transition from Agnès Godard, who has been a primary collaborator.
Almost all of them, yeah.
But it looks and feels like your movies.
But I think a DP and a director, they have to be together. You know? So Agnès, during that COVID time, she was not really eager to work. Éric was. I like Éric; of course he’s a great DP. So I was happy to work with him. And Éric, as opposed to Agnès, is fearless. Agnès is as anxious as me, you know? Éric is completely fearless.
And you shot digitally.
Oh, yeah. Completely. And even the opening scene…
Right. What was that shot with?
A cell phone.
Okay. Yeah. I was so excited by this because there’s no image like that in your films, and to open with it… the same quality appears in one shot of someone entering a subway.
How did you find shooting with a cell phone?
We did it because we did it before we could rent a camera. We had a small budget and we decided to do it like that.
I love the texture.
We spoke many years ago for Bastards, which was your first digital feature.
Yeah. With a Sony camera. That was a nightmare—not because of Agnès or because of Sony, but because I was not used to having someone on the set. At that time the DP needed someone to calculate… I mean, there was someone behind the curtain dealing with the light on the digital camera, and I freaked out. Today most DPs do it themselves. At that time… oh, my God. I remember I was freaking out. No. No, no, no, no, it’s not like that anymore. But for me, to have someone extra on the set—someone I didn’t know, so he was hiding behind a sort of curtain—I could feel his presence all the time.
You’ve said the key for collaborations is trust.
Oh, yes. Even with actors. If trust is not there, I mean, you can feel it immediately. There is a sort of bad feeling about. It’s weird. For me it’s… oof. I think I would quit. Not to be enthusiastic or completely… it’s more than enthusiastic. To be together with the actress and actor is, for me, the minimum, and if I felt the actress or actor not trusting me, it would be terrible.
I didn’t know Grégoire Colin was in this cast until he showed up. Knowing him only through films—especially yours—I was honestly quite moved seeing him.
Yeah. [Laughs] Me, too.
Your first film with him was U.S. Go Home in 1994.
Yeah. He was a young boy. [Laughs]
He’s still very handsome, but visibly older. We’ve seen him go from youthful beauty to the face of a middle-aged man.
Of course. He’s the father of two.
With Lindon it goes back decades, too. Binoche is a more recent addition, but that’s three films in a handful of years. So the trust is obvious, present. But it also made me think you only want to work with actors whose faces you know well.
You and Éric found the precise angle, distance, light for each shot of these faces—which is most of the movie, really.
Yeah. But there is nothing else in directing, actually, or making a movie. If you don’t catch the beauty of the people you’re filming—their emotion—then it’s boring. I think. And for me, to be filming Grégoire, I was very emotional too. Yeah.
Then Lola Créton shows up for two seconds.
And Nenette! And Alice [Houri], who was Nenette in Nenette et Boni, and U.S. Go Home—she was the girl with the file.
Oh! That was her.
And she just gave birth to a baby. And during the take milk was [Pushes hands outward] whoosh, coming out.
That’s an entire history with her.
And giving birth to a baby, as she was giving birth in Nenette et Boni… yeah.
She shows up and I’m asking myself where I know this person from.
And there’s Bulle Ogier, who you briefly directed in the Rivette doc from 30 years ago. But never again?
No. Because… I don’t know. Honestly, to be directing Bulle… it’s not necessary to direct her. I mean, I wanted her to be part of a project. I don’t know. This time I thought it was good. Would have been good another time but there was no part I could… no, there was nothing I could offer her. I don’t know—this part I thought she would love. I mean, “love” or not, she would accept. She’s great. At the French Cinematheque in Paris there is a retrospective of Daniel Schmid’s movies—two of them with Bulle Ogier.
Characters’ names carry so much weight.
Christine’s novel is autobiographical, and so she speaks in the first person. Her companion, boyfriend, has his own name, and the ex-lover also has his own name. So I changed that. Also, in the novel the companion is very sick and she’s afraid to leave him, to hurt him. I told Christine I couldn’t do that with Vincent. It’s not fair. I mean, I would like a sick guy but with a difficult life. I don’t want Sara to stay with him because he has some problem with health. I want her to be in-between two lovers. The son, Marcus, was not in the novel. It’s something we discussed, Christine and I.
I don’t remember the last movie that put so much emphasis on a person’s name. We all have people who occupy brain space, good or bad, and their names are an invocation.
Yeah. Yeah. Jean.
Jean, for me, is one of the names that, ugh, goes straight. You know? Jean, for me, is… I cannot lie. I don’t know. I have a strange idea about the first name Jean. I don’t know. The way to find a first name is: it’s a sound. It’s to find a good sound. For me, Sara carries a lot. Two notes: Sa–ra. Two notes. Jean is only one note.
Most of your movies are in a contemporary moment, but this is the one that most involves technology—so many scenes of people talking on phones and FaceTime. At one moment Sara talks to François on FaceTime…
Yeah. In the bed.
…and you see François framed against this, like, brutalist architecture. Do you embrace contemporary technology as these particular objects to aestheticize, or are they more a necessity?
I’m not really crazy about using those. I think, in that story, it was very… it was a link. Very interesting. In a way she’s afraid to see him in the flesh. But also she’s dying to see him in the flesh. The first time she hears his voice on the phone it’s: ahh. She is moved to tears, you know? But normally it’s not something I would use as a must in a fiction. [Pause] I don’t know. I think I, like everyone, I’m using those phones. I hate FaceTime, for instance. I have the feeling that not only I am on the phone talking to someone but that my eyes are glued to a little screen.
I prefer to be able to speak on the phone, freely, without watching the person. You know? Because a phone for me—telephone—is a really weird invention. You can lie. You can be naked. You can be sick and pretend you’re very well. You can be drunk. I mean, so many things happen with phones, and suddenly FaceTime is like a survey thing. I hate it.
This is one of my first in-person interviews for some time. Lately I’ve done them over Zoom.
Yeah. I’ve done many Zooms. Casting by Zoom. I tell you, I did it for the movie I’m now editing. It’s a nightmare.
It’s a nightmare because… it’s so hard. Yeah.
But if we were talking over the phone I wouldn’t be naked. I’d dress properly.
Me, too! But I never decide to make a phone call and stand naked in the bathroom. Never. Never. But ideally I want a phone conversation to be abstract. You know? I remember, when you’re very much in love with someone, you can be in bed having a love conversation on the phone. But not with an image.
You’ve said Un Beau Soleil Intérieur has autobiographical elements—
No, it was not autobiographical. When we did Beau Soleil, Christine and I were joking about the fragments by Roland Barthes and we decided to do a fragment of things we know. But in a very, almost comic way. Or sad, tragic memories. But… I cannot say it’s autobiographical. No. It’s things everyone knows more or less after reaching a certain age.
But Christine’s novel was first-person, “autofiction.”
I wonder if this is a stupid question, but between Beau Soleil and Blade, do you both see Binoche as an embodiment of yourselves?
In a way Juliette is very different. I mean, Christine and Juliette are very different. So the embodiment of Juliette is her own. She entered Beau Soleil like she opened a door and said “this is my house.” You know? She was the master of everything in Beau Soleil. In that story, in a way… but she had to share it with Vincent. And also Juliette, in the fiction, is the one who pays the rent; it’s her apartment. But in a way she was not alone. His weight was everyday, and Vincent is heavy, in a way. Heavy. And Juliette felt it, so it was slightly different. Of course, as we were working also in High Life—as she was also sort of a doctor, like the boss of a spaceship—I liked that. I like when she’s the boss, yeah. It’s very much like her.
You’re currently editing Stars at Noon.
You once told me that when directing two films in close proximity, they will relate to or inform each other. While editing, have you found Stars and Blade in conversation…
…or it’s too early to ask it.
It’s too early to ask it. I’m in the middle of it and I think… I shot in Panama. Everything was so different. I had to recast the movie—except for Margaret. No, I don’t see any connection, really, now. Maybe there is one, but: no. I don’t see any. And both actors, Joe and Margaret, I’d never worked with them before—although I liked them a lot, immediately—but it was like… new. You know? All new.
I mean, I’m very excited.
[Laughs] I hope you’re not disappointed when you see the movie.
It also depends on the day I’m having. I was having a good… no, what am I saying. I was having a terrible day yesterday. Then I saw the movie and it made me feel better.
Oh. Great. I know that. Me, too. Sometimes I need to see a good movie and suddenly I feel better.
By the way, I always carry this bag.
Oh! It’s great.
I was embarrassed after I’d already left the house because I’m like “God, she’s going to think I’m some idiot fan.”
No, no, no. Vincent Gallo—I miss him so much.
Have you talked recently?
I tried to call him in Arizona, where he was, but the number has changed.
Let’s use this to facilitate contact. I also just saw The Brown Bunny. Great.
Oh, it’s great.
Both Sides of the Blade opens in limited release on Friday, July 8.