Spectacularly Intimate: An Interview with Claire Denis

An interview with the French director of _35 rhums_.
Kevin B Lee

Above: On the set of 35 rhums, Claire Denis (right) and Denis regular Alex Descas (left).

French director Claire Denis returned to the international spotlight at the 2008 Venice Film Festival with 35 rhums, her first film since her alluringly mysterious, L'Intrus (2005).  A story of family, long simmering love, train travel and Parisian apartment buildings, 35 rhums is a surprisingly accessible film from Denis, who belongs to a rare and select group of cinematic impressionists that count such disparate talents as Wong Kar-wai, Michael Mann, and Terence Malick in their number.  Our admiration for 35 rhums at the Notebook is no secret, and more about the film can be found in Daniel Kasman's review from the Toronto film festival and Ryland Walker Knight's recent appreciation of the film from the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series.  We had a chance to chat with the director in Toronto.


NOTEBOOK: It's remarkable to consider how you went from making L'Intrus - a film that's so ambitious, global, and far-reaching, to 35 Rhums, a feature that feels more modest, and very specific within a place and group of people.

CLAIRE DENIS: What was radical for me was that the producer of L'Intrus, who was also a great supporter of the film, set me free for L'Intrus. We had very little money so he gave me freedom with no money. Then he died, which was a shock for me because L'Intrus deals with death. I was in a state of mourning. Somehow I had two projects that I wanted to pursue - one of them is a film I made in Africa and it's not finished yet, and 35 Rhums. 35 Rhums is dear to me, maybe for its modesty...It was not only an homage [to Late Spring by Ozu] but it's about my own family. My mother is getting older, and if i made it when she's not here anymore it would have been really sad, but to have it made with her alive makes it more cheerful - melancholy yet cheerful.

But L'Intrus for me was also very modest when I started the project. Every film contains both aspects for me—the big ambition to convey what is between the lines of our lives, and also modestly. But a film is never modest. Even when it's intimate, it's spectacular. It's not something I do in my room on my own, like a drawing or a song. It has an immodesty. To be working on a project like this, about family rituals, maybe it's immodest in a sense, even pretentious, to believe that I can express something that other people can understand through those little rituals. Because it was clear to me watching Ozu. Each time it's clear to me that he has connected the industry of cinema with the private moment.

NOTEBOOK: Your last film Vers Mathilde was a documentary. To make a tribute about your family, did documentary ever cross your mind?

DENIS: Oh no. It was just, getting older, there is a moment when family becomes more a matter of history. I don't think I was influenced by other family films. Olivier Assayas' film [Summer Hours] was made after his mother died. I was already editing 35 Rhums, and I thought that it's a rendezvous with Olivier.

NOTEBOOK: When you say that Ozu is able to channel the private and the public, what specifically do you see in his films that conveys this?

DENIS: A long time ago there was a retrospective of Ozu in Paris in the summer. And I took my mother with me one night to see Late Spring. And I remember my mother was terribly moved. And she started tellng me all these things about her father. It was not a secret at all, the role of her father, and I knew my grandfather well enough. And my mother is not a film critic and she had never seen an Ozu movie, and to see her so deeply touched by a film with subtitles made me think more of this belief in narration and ellipses, than in things like, for instance, the low angle, which is beautiful but my purpose is different. it was really to trust something that I felt. He had this trust and I think he's one of the only ones.

NOTEBOOK: So it's more a matter of rhythm than composition?

DENIS: Yeah, and the way ellipses work in a very private story, it creates a past. In an Ozu film, you are instantly invited into a story, and you are also invited into the past of the character. They have a past. It's not just a movie with a beginning and and= end. It has already begun and it's going on, as life is going on. So everything, like weddings, funerals. And also something I understood more and more in our world, the world of today, is a fact that he understands immediately, the importance of work. What work means in our society. It's not just about earning money, but the space that it takes in one's life, as opposed to what one does back home in the evening. Today when I read the newspaper about homeless people and the need to work and not to lose your job, it seems so crucial. When I was a teenager the future was so open, I could work if I wanted or not. And now people are so anxious about working or not working. And now I understand more about Ozu he was really a visionary about the importance of work in our modern world. Maybe the family he describes is more traditional, but you gain an appreciation of it because it's the only solid thing facing the fragility of existing as an employee.

NOTEBOOK: In the opening sequence you establish the father and daughter in their separate spaces. And they each look out into space as if there's almost a psychic reaching out.

DENIS: Yeah, he's feeling her as if he's expecting to see her.

NOTEBOOK: It made me remember a shot in Late Spring when Setsuko Hara when she's on a bus and she's looking out in the distance as if she's thinking about her father.


NOTEBOOK: So did you conceptualize this work from the beginning as an homage to Ozu?

DENIS: the workers on the train, my grandfather, my mother, my relatives, and other Ozu films. Of course I remember the end with the wedding dress and the father peeling the apple at the end. I think this is something that, til the last day of my life, this apple will be something unspeakable for me. So I tried to spread those details away from me, and let other things come in. In a Japanese life, not only in an Ozu film, commuting trains are important. And because I knew a little about train drivers - I read a book about their solitude - being alone along those tracks, it's very hypnotizing. I realized when I was doing location scouting, it leads to introspection. So if you're in good shape, it's okay, but if you're a little depressive, you suffer. It's a sort of an introspective machine. It's a kind of job that makes you alone in a group.

NOTEBOOK: When you mentioned the apple in Late Spring you talk about these images that burn themselves into your retinas like a flash bulbs. In this film there are some unexpected, almost throwaway moments, like the picture of the man spinning plates in the locker.

DENIS: It's the locker of the guy who is retiring. This picture is exactly what I meant about those guys. Their balance is so delicate between their rising and falling.

NOTEBOOK: And moments like when Gregoire throws himself into the water, and the dancing sequence in the bar, and that shot of the back of Nicole Dogue. How do you arrive at these moments?

DENIS: In the scene like in the bar, in the rain when they miss the concert, it had something to do with location. I had to find a place that was small and warm, like a small oasis in the rain, and that was not prepared to have this moment. It's a very banal, small African restaurant, and suddenly it will become the nest of change. So I chose it because it had this little bar that the characters could lean on, and an extra little room by the kitchen. For me when I'm location scouting, it's the beginning of camera placement and it's not just to find the right location. You know, I am of a generation of directors in France who were not able to build their own locations or work in a studio, like Ozu for example. We do have to work on location, and now I'm used to that. I've only worked once on a studio or built a set, it was for Friday Night, and it was a new thing for me. When you're on location, it's the beginning of the scene, you already know that they have to lean, and you have to select a low-backed pullover so you can see the back of Nicole. It was part of the feeling I had for her character, as well as for the girl and the neighbor to be in a line. It's difficult to explain what I never explain to myself.

NOTEBOOK: That scene to me is the emotional heart of the movie, because it goes deep into the heart of this feeling of isolation, even though you have all the major characters together in one space, and they're dancing and enjoying themselves. It gets lonelier and lonelier. Gregoire Colin tries to kiss Nicole Doque and it doesn't work. And Alex Descas dances with that other woman and leaves his neighbor behind. And then you pick a great song, "Nightshift" by the Commodores.

DENIS: One of my favorites.

NOTEBOOK: I listened to that song when I was a kid, but your movie made me realize how it's about death, but it's also very sensual.

DENIS: It was very important for me with that song because there is only one moment, the first song when Nicole Dogue dances with Alex Descas, when father and daughter are together, and daughter feels protected in her father's arms.
But it's also the introduction of "Night Shift" and the shift is coming, Gregoire is coming.

NOTEBOOK: Was that all conceptualized in the script? Not just the song, but the outcome of the four characters?

DENIS: Yes, this is the moment when I felt that every character has to make their decision.

NOTEBOOK: Late Spring is controversial in the Ozu oeuvre because there's been plot speculation about possible incest between the father and daughter, and there's even a hint of lesbianism, when the daughter stays overnight at her friend's home. But I think what's more interesting in this film - and possibly yours - is the idea of emotional incest between father and daughter. How do you approach a topic this difficult that seems to lend itself easily to sensationalism?

DENIS: The time of today is a time where what was unspoken in the time of Ozu is now spoken,and overspoken. When I was 18 my mother told me, in the end, I was happy with your father, but the only real important man in my life was my father. I never asked her if she meant it sexually. It's hers; I don't want to know. I don't know what's so attractive about the subject of incest. The subject of so many films is the protection of the victim, and I think, I don't give a damn about those things. It's not the job of films to nurse people. With what's happening in the chemistry of love, I don't want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer. I do believe that this kind of love exists and has nothing to do with taboo. I don't think cinema is there to victimize or accuse people. Cinema has another aim.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned the autobiographical elements concerning your family. How easy or difficult is that in transposing what's personal to a family with a mother/daughter, a different race and economic background?

DENIS: I made it very clear that because I wanted Alex to be the father then I wanted him to inform the film. And I thought it was also a good moment to clarify for myself and for the people seeing the film, by using black actor or actress, how to be tolerant or show how tolerant our society is becoming. I thought it was a good way to see what would be the reaction of people to see a group of French people with black skin.

NOTEBOOK: How familiar are you with this social setting, and how much research did you have to do?

DENIS: Everything was simple, it was not a big jump. When we were in the editing room nobody thought of it as a film with black people. Alex Descas is from Martinique, I met him 22 years ago. Nicole Dogue is a friend of mine for many years. The character who is retiring, Renee is a painter who used to work with Alex. And the young girl Mati wants to be a film director, she is in cinema school, and she is the neice of Djibril Diop Mamberty, a film director I really liked a lot.

NOTEBOOK: Gregoire Colin looks so much older than in your previous films with him.

DENIS: He is older!

NOTEBOOK: But my point is that it falls in line with the film itself, this feeling of age and passage. And also looking at your career and body of work, what does it mean to work with him and with Alex, and to have a stock company that you've worked with for so many years?

DENIS: Really I would not have thought that this would have happened, but for certain people like Alex, Gregoire. Certain actors and actresses, they immediately belong to the past and immediately project something in the future. I could not imagine that there would be a film without Gregoire or Alex. I cannot get any satisfaction from them in any one film. I always need more from them. Certain actors and actresses give you a deepness, and their mystery and secrets make me curious to go on with them. It was not a concept in my mind to work always with the same people. It's something I recognize each time we work together, that this is not the end, it cannot be the end. It has to be pursued, like my work with Agnes Godard. It is not something that is written for once. It is not endless because life is not endless. It is more creation for me. Because instead of starting anew each time, we have our past and we can try something else.

NOTEBOOK: What was your process with Agnes this time? What were you looking for in the look of this film?

DENIS: Almost as usual, we picked up the one or two lens we will use, in this case the 50mm, sometimes the 40mm and in a few times the 100mm. And this is because of the location, the train tracks. I wanted the subjective shots to be handheld even if they were static, because I wanted a sense of breathing. It's a companionship, so it's a long discussion that goes on and on with each film.

NOTEBOOK: In the beginning movements of the film there are these moments that deal with systems, with the subway maps and the classroom discussion. So for a moment I feel like the film is going to be about how the world works, but it moves completely away from that into the more intimate and specific. Was that a deliberate strategy on your part?

DENIS: The first moment I thought of was Alex smoking a cigarette waiting for his daughter. But then I realized what an experience it was to be in the front car of the train, and if I don't start the film with this introspectiive feeling of driving the train, I would miss this point almost completely. So it was something I added to the script as I was doing location scouting and doing camera tests with Agnes, and she felt the same. With many of my films I think I have started with a movement forward. I Can't SNOTEBOOKp started with a movement toward Paris. Beau travail was also in a train moving towards Djibouti. There is a momement forward in my films that tie to travelling shots. It's like the movement of the film in the camera, matching is like the rhythm of the train moving on the tracks.

NOTEBOOK: And I was also thinking of La bete humaine by Renoir.

DENIS: La bete humaine is one of my favorite films. In that film driving the train leads him to some kind of psychosis. But i was not mixing that with this film. But that is my favorite renoir film, because of the experience of the subconscious, in a way that's so strong.

NOTEBOOK: The end also brought to mind Grand Illusion, because it takes place in Germany with a cross-cultural, bilingual dialogue.

DENIS: There was something that led me to Germany, not the Germany of the war, but a Germany that is so different from France, northern Germany. Black people, even when they are French, they are not considered French. This part of Germany, you don't even have to say Germany, it's so different.

NOTEBOOK: L'Intrus realy spoke to me because the idea of virtuality, which is a 21st century concept, of things happening in separate spaces affecting each other. This film seems to use that as a starting point, but the characters become closer and you get a sense of how they physically affect each other. And the German sister says at the end of the film, "We seem to be more and more isolated."

DENIS: I think it's true that people feel more and more isolated later in their life and it's a discreet way to say I miss you, after all you are part of my family. But she knows it is better to say we are strong, not to express it in terms of weakness.

NOTEBOOK: It's remarkable that this father and daughter don't fight despite their impending conflicts.

DENIS: I think they might have fought when she was a teenager, but now I think they realize that they need each other. So even if they had a fight or two, they had no intention of reducing the precious time they have together. When I was 15, already I wanted to go. But I had a brother, sister, father and mother who didn't need me, and I didn't need them. Now, near the end, they are all responsible with each other. There's no point to struggle anymore.

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