“I Always Panic… Panic is My Normal State”: Claire Denis in Conversation with Ira Sachs
On the occasion of Claire Denis’s birthday today, we are reprinting this Fall, 1997 interview from our print edition — writer/director Ira Sachs, whose first feature, The Delta, was in release, speaking with Denis around the U.S. opening of her Nenette et Boni.
For the past ten years, the French director Claire Denis has been making a vital group of films which, with their mixture of intimate drama, sociological observation, and political acuity, have established her as an important influence on other independent-minded filmmakers around the world. After working as a crew member on Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law,Denis made her debut feature, Chocolat, an autobiographically-inspired coming-of-age tale of a girl in post-colonial Africa. The film was an arthouse hit in the United States but Denis quickly changed gears, following it up with Man No Run, a brutal look at the world of cockfighting. Her films have since been similarly varied yet her expert use of non-actors, astute observations about people and place, and relentless attempts to forge a new film language combine to create a powerful vision. Her latest, Nenette et Boni,which opens this fall from Strand, is a unsentimental look at two teenagers, brother and sister, who, living in a haze of fantasy and personal problems, come together in unexpected ways.
To interview Claire Denis, we asked filmmaker Ira Sachs, whose own astonishing first feature The Delta (also released by Strand), is currently propelling its way across the United States. The Delta is a story of two young people, an adolescent struggling with his sexuality and a gay Vietnamese man living in Memphis. Sachs and Denis both share a keen sense of the deep sociological undercurrents that form their characters’ desires and destinies.
Sachs: How did you get into film?
Denis: I grew up in Africa and it was not easy for me to go to films except when I was in France for short visits to see my grandparents. It was only as a teenager, when I got back to France, that I was able to massively go to the theater. My mother was a moviegoer and when we were in Africa, she would always complain about not being able to see films. So it was natural — I immediately knew this was something that I had to do, like a tradition. Then, in school we had a geography teacher who had this cine-club with old movies on 16mm.
Sachs: Do you remember what movies you saw then?
Denis: She mostly showed Eisenstein. Not only because she was a Communist, but also because she felt that it was the only way to learn cinema.
Sachs: Well you can actually see a relationship between your work and Eisenstein, I think.
Sachs: Well, in terms of montage being the central element that moves the narrative along.
Denis: Anyway, then I left college and I started working. I wasn’t aware that you could like cinema and make films. To me [the two things] were completely different. I was going to the cinema every day, but I thought that people who made films were from another planet. I found a job through people I knew in Africa who were making very small educational films. They hired me as a trainee. From them I learned that there was a cinema school in Paris. They said, “Why don’t you go?” The exam to enter the school was very difficult. I took the exam, passed, and thought, okay, that’s great, I’m back in school. But I felt so completely different from everyone. I thought that I would enjoy [film] school, but not [go on to] make films. After I left school, I got work with a theater group. Then I became a director’s assistant. After a few years of that I was writing scripts. It took me another four years until I had a project that got produced: Chocolat, my first film.
Sachs: Was your choice to become a filmmaker accepted by your family?
Denis: I guess my parents were probably very disappointed that I didn’t study something more serious. I was very good at history and geography, and my father thought that I was going to be a teacher. He was very disappointed, but on the other hand I got married very young so I was free to make my own choices.
Sachs: Do you still sense that tension — whether or not filmmaking is a legitimate way to have a life?
Denis: No, I don’t even think about it.
Sachs: It’s just your life?
Denis: Yes, obviously after years and years, it’s my life. While I’m telling you about my past, I’m wondering… When you grow older you change, and it’s like telling the story of somebody else. I no longer have a relationship with that young girl who went to film school. I’m losing that.
Sachs: I guess I still feel that there are certain tensions that are life long
Denis: Of course the people I met at school were important and yet I keep forgetting me, not in a very humble way, but just because making films makes the present, the immediate past and the future so hazy, that I think I keep memories of other people and not so much of me.
Sachs: Chocolat was a very autobiographical film.
Denis: When we began writing the script, it wasn’t autobiographical. I wanted to do a kind of chronicle about the final years before independency in Cameroon. I didn’t think it was going to be an historical film because I was too poor for that. I thought it was more interesting to make it with a few characters, like a family. It started more as a chronicle about people and stories I knew. Then, as we were writing, there was this problem. I was not happy with the point of view of the story. I thought it was completely unfair that it was written from the male servant’s point of view. I thought it was better to see him as the oppressed and not see the story through his point of view. As we knew that there would be one or two children in the family, suddenly we decided on a kid’s point of view. It made the script much easier for us that way. I chose the little girl and [the film] became more autobiographical, but it was not my first decision. Then, when the film was made, everybody was telling me, “It’s your own story.” I won’t say I lied, but it was just so easy to say, “Yes.” The line was very loose, as you say, so [the film is] more my impressions.
Sachs: In general, where do you begin in the writing process?
Denis: Most of the time, it’s one or two characters that really start it, plus a general feeling of a shape. Shape is probably the wrong word, but my English is not rich enough to find a better one. It’s not a mood, but sometimes I feel like that the story will go in circles or it will be like a straight line, or like a loop. I don’t know.
Sachs: What is the hardest part for you in terms of writing? What causes the most stress and anxiety?
Denis: I always work with the same guy [Co-writer Jean-P�l Fargeau.] He’s a very relaxed guy, the opposite of me. I think that’s why we can work together, because I’m a very anxious person, and I have a tendency to destroy everything. It takes me a very long time before I’m happy with a script. With him being the opposite, we finally end up with a script. If I was on my own there would never be an end. But, the stress, it depends on the script. With some it’s very difficult at the very beginning and with others it’s difficult to decide when they’re finished.
Sachs: Do you panic?
Denis: Do I panic? I always panic, not only during scriptwriting. I panic during shooting, I panic mostly during editing, and I panic when the film is finished. And I panic in between films. Panic is my normal state.
Sachs: One of the things that I admire about Nenette et Boni is that you had the courage to make a narrative film which is very elliptical. It seems to be pieced together by a kind of visual shorthand. That’s the Eisensteinian part, I think. For you, what holds that film together?
Denis: The editor, Yann Dedet, was very important in that film. He’s a great editor, and he pushed me to make the film more abstract in a way. When we write the script, I need to know which lens, what kind of filming it will be. [These decisions] always come during writing. Then I speak with Agnes Godard, my director of photography. For Nenette et Boni, we knew that we wanted the opposite of the film I did before. We wanted to work with long lenses and do mostly close ups, to be extremely close. When I decide [on a style of shooting] with Agnes, I try never to change it even though sometimes it’s difficult to stick with your principle while shooting. I know that the only reasonable thing is to stick to it, because the principle came at the moment that I was most creative — when I was writing and dreaming about the film. It’s too easy to abandon the principle purely because of a difficulty. But, on the other hand, Agnes and I are always aware that we have to be very open to the choreography of the bodies and give a lot of freedom to the actors. I always tell the actors what the principle is of a scene, but inside that principle they are free.
Sachs: Do you rehearse a lot?
Denis: It’s not like rehearsing. We do rehearse, but not exactly the scene we shoot. Just “about” the scene. If I rehearse the scene too much with Agnes and the actors, I become completely desperate. I feel it’s lost, it’s gone in the rehearsal, and I start to hate what I’m doing. I start to hate the acting. I have to keep the first take very new.
Sachs: What do you mean that you rehearse “about” the scene?
Denis: For instance, with the actor we discuss the scene, and we design variations on the scene, sometimes with Agnes. Not on location, because, as you know, you cannot rent the location a long time in advance, but in an office or in a room. We start approaching the scene in terms of body movements, things like that.
Sachs: But not in terms of dialogue?
Denis: Sometimes in terms of dialogue, yes. But, we never rehearse the exact lines because I’m afraid that the actor will lose the freshness and that small surprise that they want to give me. I need them to surprise me.
Sachs: So, for example the wonderful scene where Boni meets the baker’s wife and they talk across the table — do you remember at all what you said to the actors for that scene?
Denis: It was a long scene and I told them that it was going to be done in one shot on her and one shot on him. I asked her to make sure she knew her lines very well because I didn’t want to make too many takes. We did not rehearse at all. We blocked the scene, but we never rehearsed. I used the first take on her. On him, I think it was also the first. On him we did only two, and on her we did three.
Sachs: He’s someone who fantasizes and writes his own pornography. He’s very vulgar about women in some ways yet when the time comes —
Denis: He’s very shy.
Sachs: He’s all talk and no action. Why did it develop that way?
Denis: That’s what we thought while we were writing. I knew Gregoire Colin, the actor, and I thought he had that quality of age and face that he was still between childhood and adulthood. He has both inside him. I wanted him to be the king in his house, the king of his body, to have power in everything and yet still be very fragile.
Sachs: You’ve photographed him throughout the film almost like he’s a pin-up model. It’s very erotic. He’s always undressing, showing his body. I just saw Contempt and I’m reminded a little bit about how Godard shot Bardot in that film. Did you intentionally want to turn Gregoire’s character into this object of desire?
Denis: No. Actually Gregoire, if you watch him in the street, is a good-looking guy, but he’s not a model. The thing is, I thought that his house was his domain. He was completely free to not clean up, walk around naked. I wanted his sister to intrude on that intimacy. I knew that if I didn’t want to make it psychological, then it had to be physical. To intrude on his intimacy meant that there should be intimacy when he’s on his own, which is with the camera.
Sachs: The central characters in many of your films — U.S. Go Home, I Can’t Sleep and of course Nenette et Boni — the central characters are siblings. Do you have a big family?
Denis: No, I have a sister and a brother.
Sachs: Why is the sibling relationship so central to you and your films?
Denis: There are two reasons. One is obscure. The other, I think that there is something extremely weird in that [sibling] relationship as you get older. Being a child or a teenager, a brother and a sister were a real pain in the ass. I wished I was an only child.
Sachs: Where were you on the..?
Denis: I was the eldest. But, then as I grew older, I realized, you’ve got your life, your work, your love and yet [that sibling relationship] is still there. When I decided on Nenette et Boni, I remembered reading Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau as a teenager. I was not very impressed, although deeply I never forgot that book. I think brothers and sisters — they have a kind of pact, even if they are separate in their life.
Sachs: And what is the obscure reason?
Denis: As you grow older you figure out your life is what you made, and your unconscious. And somehow you always remember that the relationships, the coming of age, the childhood are still there always.
Sachs: Alice Houri, the lead in both Nenette et Boni and U.S. Go Home — how did you meet her and how did she get involved with your work?
Denis: When I did U.S. Go Home, I was looking for a girl of fourteen, and we found her in a school. She, of course, was not an actress and as it was during the summer vacation, we could use her. There is a law in France that if you use a child under sixteen you must get a special permit. She knew that and lied to me — she told me she was sixteen. She was, for me, the perfect girl for U.S. Go Home — so strong, so solid with this idea of virginity, so pure. I thought she would be able to be the sister for Nenette, that little rock.
Sachs: In my film, The Delta, the two lead actors are both non-actors who had never acted before. I wonder if you worry, as I do, about the responsibility that you have in being involved in these peoples lives, affecting them by putting them into a world they’ve never thought about?
Denis: Yes, of course. Very often I work with non-actors. The young man in I Can’t Sleep was also a non-actor. We still keep in touch. It’s a big responsibility.
Sachs: Does Alice want to continue as an actress?
Denis: She’s not sure at all. She wants to finish school. She’s very solid.
Sachs: From my perspective as a filmmaker, it seems it’s a very good time for French cinema. You, Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep), Yolande Zauberman (Ivan and Abraham), Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont Neuf) — do you feel like you’re part of something that’s really happening?
Denis: Well, Olivier and Leos, they are my friends.
Sachs: How do you influence each other?
Denis: When I say that they are my friends, we see each other and, of course, I like their work. Leos is going to start a new film with a Russian actress I used in I Can’t Sleep. There are probably some movements between French directors, secretly. But me — I never felt I was a part of something. Maybe they do. But me, I’m such a pessimistic person. I think probably I will never succeed and make another film. It’s impossible for me to visualize myself in a group of “something happening.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s sad.
Sachs: In your social life, do you hang out with filmmakers?
Denis: I have friends like Olivier and Leos. We meet mostly to talk about our films, our problems and to speak about other films. Our relationship is really based on filmmaking and film watching. I don’t have a social life. I’m mostly lazy.
Sachs: You’re making a lot of films.
Denis: But, I’m lazy, really lazy. I don’t have the energy for anything else. When I have nothing to do I can spend days in bed watching TV or reading and going to the cinema.
Sachs: Do you have heroes, people whose films you think about when you’re making films either competitively or with love?
Denis: I would say I have two kinds of heroes. The first are heroes that I’ve never met, who are maybe dead or I will never meet. Their films exist in me as I’m working. In Locarno, for example, Jim Jarmusch is presenting They Live By Night by Nicholas Ray. That film was always so dear to me, it’s almost like a pain, like being jealous or something. I have another kind of hero — my friends, like Leos, they are my heroes. I was Jarmusch’s assistant once forDown By Law.To have met him, to know him, to like him, makes him one of my heroes. I like very much the way he quietly and sometimes with pain, I’m sure, makes his work flow with such strength. I like people who never surrender.
Sachs: I’ve started to re-watch all of Maurice Pialat’s films, and he seems to me to be a very influential presence in the work of your generation of filmmakers in France.
Denis: I would say he is the national hero for all French directors, probably even more than Truffaut. I mean for people I know anyway.
Sachs: He seems kind of like the “father” in terms of the themes, the filmmaking and the aesthetic concerns of the work?
Denis: The father is not the right word for Maurice Pialat. He is the godfather. The father would be someone more reliable. He’s really a godfather, like in a Mafia movie. He’s fierce. But, a godfather is a good thing. He’s a good godfather to become a good thief.
Sachs: What do you think of a filmmaker like Hou Hsiao-hsien, who I know is important to other filmmakers in France?
Denis: He is one of my heroes and one of the directors I admire most these days. His last movie, the last one I saw, Goodbye South, Goodbye, was such a great movie.
Sachs: Do you go to the movies a lot?
Sachs: What was the last movie you saw that you loved?
Denis: Goodbye South, Goodbye is the one that has lasted in my memory.
Sachs: What’s the last book you’ve read that you’ve loved?
Denis: I’m reading now Phillippe Sollers’ last book, Studio. He quotes a lot of Rimbaud’s poetry, so I’m reading both of them together. We have now a new translation of Dostoevsky in France. I’m re-reading him, and it’s really great.
Sachs: What’s on your CD player?
Denis: “Billy Budd” by Benjamin Britten and the band Palace Music. And the last Tindersticks album. They did the score for Nenette et Boni. What is the music of your film, The Delta?
Sachs: It’s all source, within the film. The film is set in Memphis and is about a teenager struggling with his sexuality who gets involved with this Vietnamese man. So, each community that the film follows has its own music –like Europop in this Vietnamese pool hall or country music in this gay bar so it’s all within the film. There’s no score.
Denis: And did you like Goodbye South, Goodbye?
Sachs: Oh, I loved it. As a viewer, it was both boring and extraordinary.
Denis: Yes, I agree.
Sachs: The images, I try to keep going over them in my head. I have to see it again.
Denis: Yeah, me too.
Sachs: I felt like I wanted to sleep and I wanted to dream.