Full disclosure: this is not really an interview about Let the Sunshine In. Claire Denis and I met on the day of her new film’s U.S. release, which was, like many cinephiles, on my mind. All the more so because Sunshine has been swimming through parts of the subconscious since I first saw it nearly seven months back at the New York Film Festival — where I mean to speak with Denis, and finally didn’t on account of her shooting, to our immense fortune, another film: the much-anticipated Robert Pattinson-starrer High Life.
So the many questions about this wondrous, mysterious film had percolated for a long time, and I didn’t get to them — to this interview’s benefit, as I think will soon become clear. Denis is, in her films and both times we’ve spoken, a searching mind, and it’s clear that, a year out from its premiere, Let the Sunshine In — about which she’s done many interviews and, by her own admission, answered many of the same questions — is in the past; High Life, and the personal loss that surrounds it, holds steady.
The Film Stage: How was the Q & A last night?
Claire Denis: How was the Q & A last night… I think, probably, the people’s faces were mostly happy. The questions were not so different from other countries or friends; the questions are mostly about Juliette Binoche. Secondly, if it is an adaptation of The Fragments by Roland Barthes, and then why I kept the fragmentation. The third question, more or less, is about what it is to be a woman in middle age — is she heroic, is she strong, is she too fragile, is she stupid?
Psychological questions which, honestly, I try to avoid because I have the feeling that, sometimes, me — myself — I don’t ask. I’m not even asking myself when I am in trouble, when my life is not so fun. I think I don’t interrogate myself on a psychological level; I think I’m doomed or I’m lucky. You know? I always consider my situation under a very primary statute: am I a victim or am I a brute? So when it comes to a very specific psychological question, I feel that’s better to… it doesn’t go with filmmaking, I think. Filmmaking is a more abst… it’s not abstract, but, in film, it’s better not to pay too much attention to those things.
I had a question that I’d worried is too psychological.
Ah. No, maybe not.
Well, at the New York Film Festival screening, you said something along the lines of —
It was so weird. I was shooting in Germany; I flew in the morning. [Laughs] No, it was weird. Anyway.
You said that writing the screenplay with Christine Angot was a process of incorporating your lives and personalities into this film. This sparked something in me, because my favorite films of yours is U.S. Go Home, which is supposedly based on —
Autobiographical memories, yeah. Sure. Except I didn’t meet Vincent Gallo when I was 14 — sadly.
I don’t often see your work labeled as autobiographical, but that’s coming from outsiders’ perspectives. Is there more of that throughout your filmography than any of us could realize?
There is a lot, I guess; there is a lot. Maybe my first film, Chocolat, was always considered to be autobiographical, but you are right: U.S. Go Home was much more autobiographical, except that the setting in Africa at the end of a colonialist era is maybe more obvious, as I grew up in Africa. But U.S. Go Home was much more close to my coming of age, yeah. I think, in a way, I’m not able to imagine any character, even when they are very far from me. Like, for instance, the man interpreted by Michel Subor in The Intruder; I think it’s also very close to Michel. Now Michel told me, “This is now my real life. This is a pure, autobiographical film.” But, in a way, it’s also my autobiography. If I had been a man, I would have been that man of 70-ish.
Isabelle Huppert in White Material is very close to me, you know? Not only that. I think Isabelle is so shrewd and brilliant and funny that she was really looking at me all the time. I was not realizing that, but she did something. When I was in the editing room, I realized she was doing things I am doing. And I realized — although I never had a coffee plantation — there were so many things of my own feeling in that, and Isabelle picked them up. Is it a right answer?
I would say so. You had shot Let the Sunshine In over about five weeks.
Sure, yeah. Very short.
That’s short for you?
Do you find there’s a different energy when you’re working at a faster pace?
I never had a long period. It never happened to me that I had a big budget. I would say that my budgets are always too small for what I want, and I accept it as too-tight jeans because I thought, “Maybe it will be better for my life.” You know what I mean? I think it’s giving me a sort of fierce energy to fight against all odds. If I was at ease, maybe I would stay and bed and do nothing. But this film, I’d been waiting to start shooting this film, High Life, with Robert Pattinson, and, every month, there was this thing: “No, let’s wait another three weeks.” Then four years — five years, almost — went through, and Robert was still waiting, and I felt I was going to die. It’s not the waiting — it’s the non-waiting. Then when I was offered to do this film with a small budget, I said yes — because it will wake up my senses. I was in a paralyzed situation where I was ashamed to have Robert waiting on me. Ashamed to be lied. And this offer, wow, was like pure joy.
I’ve been thinking about how you sometimes make films in very close succession. There was Trouble Every Day and Friday Night, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, now this and High Life. Can you sense ways in which one kind of informs the other?
Sure. I don’t know who — a famous director — said you do a film against the previous one.
Arnaud Desplechin has told me that. Are you thinking of him?
No, it’s not him. It’s, like, a famous American director who said that. It’s not Hitchcock. Maybe Howard Hawks. Someone like that, who can say something brutal. And I think, in a way, it is true, but in the process of making a film against the other, there is a strange thing happening: you then realize they are closer than I think while shooting, and they have something in common, in a way. And they are not enemies at all. One is leaning on the other. One is supporting the other.
On a more practical level, I think about the potential for exhaustion.
This time, it was terribly exhausting because I’ve been waiting so long to do High Life, and then, as soon as I finished this one, I was told, “You have to be ready on September 4,” and I knew I was not ready. The art department will not be ready. The only person ready to be ready was Robert, actually. And then I lost Patricia Arquette, and then Juliette came to me and said, “I want to replace her.” There was a lot of friendly moments where Robert told me this great thing: “You see, Claire, you thought I was too young four years ago. Maybe now you will accept me because I am older.” It’s true that, at the beginning, I told him I wanted an older guy, but I don’t know.
It was painful for me, but probably also painful because I was breathless and because I was losing my mother in the same time, and I was shooting in Germany. My mind was always occupied by the fact that I wanted to be in Paris, holding her in my arms; and, on the other hand, I didn’t want to betray the actors. So I was always split, and I don’t think it is the saddest moment of my life, because it happened only once in life, that you are losing a mother. So I never experienced that before. It’s not like a love story, you know? I knew I was losing my mother, and I was shooting in Cologne — four hours away from Paris by train — and it was an extremely strange thing. Maybe I gave to the film, maybe, a sort of sadness, but I put all my trust in Robert — as if I was telling him, “I’m here for you. Otherwise, I would be in the train already, to the hospital.” I’m almost crying.
It’s true. It’s true. Now I know what it is to lose a mother, but, at that time, I thought… losing a mother at a young age is one thing. Probably terrifying. But me, I’m the oldest child in the family, and I had got along in a sort of friendship with my mother, as though we were two friends. No more mother and daughter — I mean, a little bit, yes. But she was not immortal to me anymore. It’s strange. And then the film was very important for me, not to betray the film. I was not allowed to do that. But maybe I did betray the film. I don’t know.
And it’s partly about parenthood, right?
It’s about parenthood, yeah. It’s, in a way, parenthood like 35 Shots of Rum — father and daughter.
Do you see the production of your films as demarcating periods of your life?
Of course. I think the reason why it’s difficult to answer is that the film, during the shooting and pre-production, is a sort of new era, a new relationship in my life. It’s a completely different moment; I’ve never experienced it before. It happened once, the film, not twice, so there is no experience. It’s not because it’s the third film or the fourth or the fifth. It’s the first and only time, and it’s the only time in the editing room that I can suddenly see a little bit of myself in the film. While I’m shooting and preparing, I’m projecting everything that is alive in me into the film. Also projecting all my avoidance. I don’t think I project all of myself, with all my energy, to the film.
I also give to the film my fear, my fright, what I avoid in life — everything for one time. And I know it’s for one time, for a few weeks, and it’s rare to experience something for once. Maybe in a murder case. You can kill a person only once, you know? And the second murder is not at all related. You know? I always think there is something like serial crimes in filmmaking. There is a relation: it’s the same person who does commit. But it’s always a different one, and it’s bringing so much of love.
I’ve interviewed many filmmakers. You’re the first to compare filmmaking to murder.
But it’s honest. Because when I say murder, it’s not because I want to be exotic. No. I mean it, because there is something to do with life and death in filmmaking. The first time I shot a death in a film was in No Fear, No Die — the death of Alex Descas. And I remember it was a big shock for me. I remember Jacques Rivette told me, “You have to think twice before killing one character in a film.” And I realized it’s true. It’s also a matter of death and life, even when there is no murder in a film, because I have no idea where I am. I’m doing my best, but I know that it could end in a very bad way for me. It could be such a bad movie. I would prefer to die instantly.
No, I’m not joking about this question. I think if it’s too bad, then I will jump. I’m not going to stand it, a bad film.
You’ve done well so far.
Safe, it’s something I don’t know, to be safe. I never experienced being safe — or very rarely. Very rarely. When I was shooting the last scene with Gérard Depardieu and Juliette, Gérard said, “Okay, I like this scene, but one day.” And it’s seven pages. I said, “Am I able to do it? Can I stand the pressure to do it one day?” And of course he was right. It was the most easy way to do it, to do it in one day. Let’s say I had one week to do it. It would have been a disaster. But, on the other hand, while I was shooting I was not safe; I was petrified.
You’ve said that choosing collaborators comes down to people you can trust. What is the metric for knowing you can trust someone?
It’s like when people ask me, “What is casting for you?” I said, “I never cast. I don’t know what it is to cast someone or to test someone.” It happened with me that, for some reason — maybe I am not brave enough to face casting or choosing. I feel someone and I understand this person is important to me, and because this person is important to me, trust is necessary. It’s like when I meet an actor, an actress, I hate the idea to test if it’s a good cast or not. And I don’t trust myself for that, you know. The trust I can share with someone; that’s the only thing I can share. Not myself. My English is very embarrassing.
No, it’s fine. Where did you learn English?
I learned English when I was at school, and I discovered, at night, this British radio station, Radio Caroline, that was set in the middle of the sea because free radio was not allowed at that time. I remember listening to The Animals, The Byrds, of course Beatles. And I thought, especially with The Animals, I wanted to be an English person immediately. I was always going all summer, in England, working. I was working in shops, in offices, I was doing summer jobs to be in England as much as I could, because I had this sort of resistance to learn English at school. I wanted to learn it the way English people were speaking, the way they were. It’s England I liked and English people.
Of course American movies, but American rhythms language were a little different for me. There was something in the English accent that drove me crazy, you know? I wanted this learning to be on the spot, not from school. It’s only later that I started reading English and started learning Shakespeare or famous writers. I started to read English to force myself to overcome my… I had a kind of… I was resisting study. So, by reading a book, it was my own decision, and I was learning the word and the rhythm. American language came, of course, through songs and bands and mostly films. Yeah, mostly films to start with.
One of the best scenes in pretty much any movie is in U.S. Go Home, where Grégoire Colin dances to the Animals’ “Hey Gyp.”
One thing happened to me in Berlin five years ago. I was there for Arte, the French TV, and they said, “We have a surprise for you.” There was a private concert of The Animals, and I met, in person, the singer, which has been my first idol. It was great. I liked him, also, when he went to L.A. with the band War. I think it was also great.
When I last talked to Olivier Assayas, he talked to me about supervising his movies’ English-language subtitles. Do you have a hand in that process?
When I did High Life, the English producer introduced me to an English writer, and, for some reason, I was curious to meet her. But, for some reason, I was afraid that there was absolutely… although I really agreed to work with her, but she was so distant. We had no connection at all, even in literature, even in music, even in casting. She kept telling me that Robert Pattinson was the worst casting ever. Then I went on doing the film, only with Andrew, who is also working with Olivier translating. I asked him to be with me. I didn’t want anyone else, because, otherwise, a supervisor is someone who is not even interested in the film. They’re only interested in a superiority of English practice, and this is fake.
I remember that there was in my script… [Puts hands over face] I’m crazy. Because I wrote the script in French first and it was translated. There was a place I called the “Love Machine,” and it was a place where people could go and have their own sexual fantasies. This writer told me, “‘Love Machine’ is stupid. It’s a song. It’s nothing.” And I said, “Yeah, but it helped me to understand the meaning of it.” And it became the Fuck Box. But without her, because I thought, “She’s right, probably.” But I need, to move from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box,” this Tindersticks vision of what it was. Because Stuart said, “Oh, it’s the box.” And I said, “Oh, the box. Yeah. Great. Fuck Box. Suddenly, this is really helping me.”
I feel I should mention that my bag has your former collaborator, Rivette, on it. I’m a huge fan of your documentary on him, of course.
Oh, no! Beautiful. Great. During High Life, I was thinking of Romeo & Juliet, the words of the father of Juliet — some lines. And he was telling his daughter, “My little baggage.” Meaning: he’s thinking she’s mine, but she’s also baggage, heavy to carry. I thought this was so beautiful, so I told Robert, “Would you mind to add that into the dialogue,” and I thought he was going to say, “No, this is too old-fashioned. How could I speak like, ‘Oh, my little baggage.'” Finally he loved it and he did it. So I think supervising English is something that has to do with song and reading — songs and sounds and reading a feeling. Like going from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box.” It’s the perfect example, for me, of real English.
So your English is actually very good, if you can go from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box.”
Yeah. Thank you.
You’ve had one great film open this year, so here’s hoping for another.
I hope. Yeah, I will finish in June. I think Robert is going to do voice, post-production, at end of May or something like that, and mixing is in June. In the meantime, I hope for some special-effect add-on.
Let the Sunshine In has begun its theatrical run, while High Life is expected to premiere this year.