“Anger is part of my relation to the world”: An Interview with Claire Denis
Claire Denis has never shied away from monsters. While her work is described as sensual and erotic (both true), her films are never sentimental. They are complex, engaging with the fact that life, while often beautiful, is also harsh, cruel, and painful. This pain has been explored in relation to colonial history (Chocolat, 1988), the immigrant experience (No Fear, No Die, 1990), maturing adolescence (U.S. Go Home, 1994; Nenette and Boni, 1996), serial killers (I Can’t Sleep, 1994) and semi-cannibals (flesh is bitten, but never consumed in Trouble Every Day, 2001), sublimated homosexual desire (Beau Travail, 1999), mortality (Intruder, 2004), and back to that colonial experience again (White Material, 2009). She is interested in the grey areas, and eschews didactic, pointed narration in favour of suggestive imagery and sensation. Voiceover, while used, often complicates rather than explicates matters, offering glimpses into the rich interiority of her characters. As she says in the documentary Claire Denis, The Vagabond (1996): “I’m interested in the slice of humanity that surrounds a monster.”
Finding that slice of humanity is all but impossible in her latest film, Bastards (2013). A scathing indictment of contemporary France, late-stage capitalism, and feel-good film trends, Bastards is a severe and brutal film. The story follows Marco (Vincent Lindon), a seaman who returns to Paris when his brother-in-law commits suicide. There, he finds his family in ruins, both financially (their shoe company has gone bankrupt) and emotionally (his niece Justine, played by Lola Créton, has been sexually abused and is addicted to drugs). Upon discovering that a seedy financier, Eduard (Michel Subor), is to blame, Marco seeks revenge by seducing the man’s wife, the much younger Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni).
Bastards is comprehensive in its bleakness. The graphic content (including not-so-subtle allusions to horrific sexual abuse) is matched by the overall grey tones. An alienating electronic soundtrack dominates, composed by longtime Denis collaborators Tindersticks, who eschew the warmth of past scores with droning synth. It is also one of her least thematically oblique films, all but over-determined in its near-Greek-tragedy qualities that suggest Marco, and all the players, are doomed from the outset. In a lesser director’s hands, such a well-trod tale of revenge and familial rot might succumb to cliché, but Denis’ familiar (and beautiful) elliptical touch remains. This touch, however, is not the same lush caress of prior works; the lingering shots of Lindon’s muscular back straining beneath a crisp white shirt or of the nape of Raphaëlle’s neck (an often relished body part in the Denis oeuvre) bespeak vulnerability rather than eroticism. Violation is the name of the game here, a fact established from the start with an image of Justine walking bloodied and nude down a dark street. This image loosely structures the film, coming up time and again as the narrative builds to its brutal conclusion: a video of Justine being raped. This sordid image is the film’s final, devastating blow. But it is the money shot we deserve. Because although Bastards seethes with anger, it is not the nihilistic kind. It is the kind of righteous, if not revolutionary, anger that forces us to face the monsters, removing us from comfortable cocoons of passivity, and leads us to engage with the world—in all its horror, despair, and beauty. Only those who do not are truly doomed.
cléo: So our next issue is on the theme of “doom”—
Claire Denis: Doomed?
cléo: Doom. This theme was decided upon well before I saw Bastards, but then I saw it and—
Denis: It is a very doomed film!
cléo: Yes. It works perfectly, but doom isn’t a new theme for you. You can see it in films like Trouble Everyday, Beau Travail, White Material. Here, however, it feels different in the sense that it’s angry—and I don’t mean that in a trite or reductive way.
Denis: No, it is angry. This is true. I was not aware of it when I was writing it, but I was full of anger. But it’s a sort of deep anger that I didn’t feel when I was shooting. Something came so naturally out of me, but with love for the characters. I must admit I was not angry at my characters. I was angry at something else, maybe the society I’m living in or what films keep selling. We’re in a world that is hard and violent, but there is redemption at the end and blah, blah, blah. But this is not true. It’s not true. But this is not new for me. When I was a teenager— and this shaped much of my life—I read William Faulkner. I found a vision of life that is made from blood and—the word in English… C’est comme “l’amour,” faire l’amour…un mot très biblique…fornication! Le sang et la fornication. [It is like “love”; to make love, but a more biblical term…fornication! Blood and fornication.] I was very young, but I realized it was true, that we are born from this. This can change in the process of life, but it remains.
cléo: That intersection of the erotic and blood or death has come up before in your work. Especially in Trouble Every Day. But there’s a beautiful sort of poetry of the violence in that film; here the eroticism is gone. It’s bleak.
Denis: Yeah, it’s true. Because Trouble Every Day was fun. It was fun to go that far together, although the scenes were painful. I remember, those two scenes [of Béatrice Dalle consuming a man mid-coitus and Vincent Gallo taking an act of cunnilingus too far], we were afraid shooting them, editing them, acting them. Bastards was bleak. We were doing something, knowing it was wrong. Because when Marco, the lead character, decides to make love to the neighbour [Raphaëlle], it’s not true love or desire—it’s through vengeance. Maybe a sort of love came with this, but at the beginning it’s almost hate, that action.
cléo: I wanted to talk about the film image in Bastards; the video of Justine being raped. Why include it?
Denis: I think it would have been weird to finish the film on Marco dead and not go back to the mother [Sandra, played by Julie Bataille]. Now she knows she has been blind, her daughter [Créton] is dead, she wants to see those images. I think it was fair. For me, it was fair that she would ask the doctor [played by Alex Descas] to be with her, because she was afraid, and the images belong in the film. And they were not terribly explicit. They were explicit, but it was in a blur. It was not showing too much.
cléo: Women bear the brunt of this film too. I wouldn’t say it’s punishment or victimization, but they bear the brunt of what happens.
cléo: Can you talk about that choice? Why focus on mothers and daughters?
Denis: I think I focus on fathers. To be a father, like Marco is a father. And what happens when this kind of thing occurs between a daughter and a father. Because the daughter is not completely a victim of her father, she’s accepting it too. In a way—maybe I’m about to be completely crazy—when I was the age of a daughter I thought if I had a bad experience with sex, even though the man was brutal or ignorant or whatever, I always took it for granted that this was my problem. That this was the problem of women, to keep it for ourselves. On déplace le problème. [We shift the blame.] I remember when I was very young and coming home and thinking: “Well, this is my problem. There is nowhere I can go and complain.” There’s not a guiltiness of being a woman, but women deal with their bodies in a very complex way, a total way, a global way. Not like men. Men, they have a hard-on or not. The feeling of a woman is so much more complex, because she can pretend, she can fake, she can also be terrified and hate and not show it. I think to be a woman is a complete sexual experience in a way. And this makes everything more complex.
cléo: I love this idea of a complex sexuality. I find this sentiment comes across in your “Paris films,” if we can call them that, as it subverts the idea of Paris as “the city of love.” The way you use Paris in this film seems to do that—can you talk about how you used the city in Bastards?
Denis: It’s all the places I dislike! [Laughs] The building, the apartment—I’m afraid of that part of Paris. I have no commitment to that city. When I did I Can’t Sleep, I was showing a Paris with a serial killer, but it was the Paris I never grew up in but discovered as an adult. This film was bleak also. It doesn’t only mean “bourgeois.” Bourgeois sometimes means money, finding a nice penthouse. No, I wanted something like a tomb, for the apartment to look like a tomb.
cléo: We touched on this briefly, the idea of the film coming from this social anger. To me, this felt like a righteous anger towards late-stage capitalism. And this was said about White Material, that it was a “social problem film,” which was a considered shift for you. Do you see this film that way?
Denis: No, I did it genuinely. It was just in me. I would never say: “Claire, now it is time to make a social film, let’s get involved in social things!” No, I am living in a country, I am living my life. I’m filled with anger, I’m filled with regret, I’m filled with great memories, also poetic memories. But anger is part of my relation to the world.
cléo: I want to talk about the cinematic body and the way you use it. Bodies are used in a way in which the skin of the film becomes your own. Why does filming this way speak to you?
Denis: Like the social films, I was not completely aware I was going to approach body and skin like that when I started making films. I was told that was what I do. But for me it was a natural way to look at people. To look at them beautifully, to look at them with sensuality, to look at them at their best. And to look at them not as puppets, but with skin and blood and emotion. For me, it was not a concept, it was an attraction.
cléo: Yes, because while this film is bleak it’s not pessimistic.
Denis: No, no! I don’t think so, not at all.
cléo: So there is hope then in this story, our situation?
Denis: There is hope, always. After a tragedy—let’s say a Greek tragedy—everything is ending, but not the world. Sometimes a tragedy is a sort of jump you have to make to scream something. It doesn’t mean the world is finished. It’s like a scream; it’s necessary sometimes.
cléo: Like a release.
Denis: [Denis mimes punching the arm of her chair.]
cléo: Un coup? [A punch?]
Denis: Oui, mais un cri aussi, parce que ça fait mal. Mais on ne peut pas faire que des films qui finissent bien. C’est ça qui me dégoute. [Yes, but also a scream, because it hurts. But we can’t only make films that have happy endings. That is what I find disgusting.]
This interview was conducted during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013.