The Future Is A Destiny You Don't Know: A Conversation with Claire Denis

The French director discusses the shooting of _White Material_, _Bastards_ and where it came from, Faulkner's _Sanctuary_, and more.
Daniel Kasman

Bastards [Les salauds] begins, like Garrel's Un été brûlant, at night, with a suicide. An explanation for the gesture will never come, although, through the film's near imperceptible ellipses, it comes close. A film of profoundly somber gloam, of loneliness and anger and even stifled madness, of complicity and solitude, its sadness is almost absolute.

A torrid string connects a cast predominantly made up from Claire Denis' family of actors: Vincent Lindon, Michel Subor, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin. There are so many of them that they stand out as coming from somewhere before, some shared place, and their figures seem at once human and also something more so, grander, archetypal. (Lola Créton creates a similar effect in a small role with such a brief but so recognizable presence that it both reaches outside the story, as well as expanding something within.) The string begins at the suicide and touches the two families involved, one, that of the deceased, is dissolved, and fraught with despair and separation. Lindon is a ship's captain, divorced, returning to deal with the death of his brother-in-law and the bankruptcy of his sister's company. The other, a wealthy family headed by Subor, who lives with his mistress, the lone and much younger Chiara Mastroianni, is intact, powerful and seductive. Already intertwined before the film begins, the opening's nocturnal, rain-scored suicide reveals the mysterious connection between the two and plunges them into darkness.

With Claire Denis' enigmatic unfolding of only bare details of histories—familial, economic, sexual, existential—Bastards continually moves half a pace ahead of the encroaching penumbra. One has to keep guessing, furtively, amidst the intense sensuality, the ashen color palette (it is the director's first digital feature), the restrained passions and intimations of both exploitation and revenge. The figures all orbit one another in cryptic relation, but Lindon's burly figure is the center, and, like Joseph Conrad's Axel Heyst of Victory, is a self-isolated man who makes the profound decision to re-join humanity, and thereby inevitably leaves a horrible mark upon it. (One of the sophistications of the film's story, unlike that of Victory, is the suggestion that he damns his family and fellow man one way through solitude, and another way through participation.) He seduces Mastroianni in a series of tender love scenes at Bastard's heart that build a bridge between the pulsing fatal momentum infused in the film, and the traces of goodness, of commiserating spirits and bodies, that can be found in their ambiguous relationship.

It is another small film from Denis, as befits its intimate Parisian setting, a retreat from the sprawl of White Material, but brings back from that film the violence and primal darkness of its climatic night, finding it lain across a more modern but everyday world, with terrifying results. Ending with startling sharpness as all Claire Denis films do, Bastards is well named indeed as the closing credits follow only a further descent into startling disgust, opening to reveal a pit of pixels that it will take a long time to forget.


Bastards is playing this week at the New York Film Festival. Starting October 11, the TIFF Cinematheque will be running a retrospective on Claire Denis entitled Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis. The film will be opening in the U.S. on October 23.


At the Toronto International Film Festival in September I had the chance to sit down and talk about Bastards with its director. 

NOTEBOOK: You must forgive me, because I saw your film in Cannes and not here in Toronto. So the details may be a little vague, despite the impression the film left on me.

CLAIRE DENIS: Maybe it's better...

NOTEBOOK: Then let's start in the vague: was it nice to move back to Paris and make a smaller movie—or a movie on a smaller scale—than White Material?

DENIS: For me, the scale not really obvious. The change was not obvious, like being in Paris versus being in Africa. Shooting White Material was a very small crew, doing things more or less in the African way and enjoying it a lot. But so far from everything...of “film production.” Having to deal only with problems like “is there gas in the car in the morning?” or “we have a flat tire”—things like that. Our electric equipment was blocked by customs for five weeks so we made two thirds of the film without lights. So I had to change the schedule, make the night scene at the end, you know?

Actually, the scale of White Material was very familiar; we were all staying in the same place; I enjoyed that very much. It seemed small. The biggest amount of money was going there, you know? And finding accommodations for a crew and actors.

NOTEBOOK: Nevertheless, the canvas of that film feels very large compared to Bastards, which takes place so much at night, and in one building.

DENIS: No of course, it was large because of the land...a place like that expresses...maybe like in literature: not belonging. That she [Isabelle Huppert's character Maria] does not belong to this place, no matter what she thinks. It's still maybe a style; but for sure, too big for her to know. The borders are far. Therefore she thinks she holds the place [her family's coffee plantation], but she does not.

NOTEBOOK: Thinking of her in comparison to Vincent Lindon's protagonist in Bastards, he seems almost the opposite. He's a wanderer. He's not coming home to claim a space, he's merely stopping there. Very temporary.

DENIS: Yeah. So when I was shooting in Paris—to get back to your question and coming to Vincent—to shoot in Paris is not to be away with a small group that you like, it's to be in Paris, with different possibilities. And a lot of like “get permission,” “get this, get that,” traffic, blah, blah, blah, you know? So it seems maybe we have a smaller budget, but it seems almost...heavier. But we were obligated to shoot fast, also.

It's the first time when you asked this question that I compared the character interpreted by Vincent Lindon to Maria interpreted by Isabelle Huppert, because Maria for me in a way someone I knew. Not because I was like her, but because I understood people like her, I've seen on TV and I've met in Africa people who know that even though there is a civil war they don't want to leave. Because they believe they possess something; in fact nothing. And they know for sure, back in France, they are no one.

In the case of the character of Vincent Lindon, he comes, for me, from those noir stories—movies—made by Kurosawa Akira in the 50s where Mifune Toshio was this solid guy, wealthy, healthy. He knew where he belonged. And he seemed, to me as the audience, that this guy, no one was going to intimidate him. But in those films by Kurosawa Akira, he is often the victim. Because he does not realize that his strength is not enough against destiny. And I thought Vincent with this heavy body, a guy working on the sea, secure, would not believe something like that. He'd probably believe he would solve anything easily.

NOTEBOOK: Everything to him is a choice: he chooses to go away, he chooses to come back. He thinks he has the power.

DENIS: Yeah, he thinks his future belongs to him. He cannot believe that the future is a destiny you don't know.

NOTEBOOK: His destiny is very unexpected; it turns very dark. That this character, so intelligent, so in control, so in physical, so sensual...fairly moral?...still can't change things.

DENIS: It's not like a story like White Material or's been in me for years. This is, for me, the result of reading newspapers or going to the Internet and slowly I realized that the destiny not something you can domesticate. It's something that jumps on your back and very often...hurts.

When I was younger, I had sort of an imagination about the “tragedy of life,” like you could make a drawing of it, you know? Suddenly I realized it was not at all like that. The tragedy of life is something happens you have never expected; also my destiny showed me that things happened to me I had not expected. Therefore, I returned...not returned, I realized that all my life since I was a schoolgirl—I mean teenaged, college girl—I was marked, deeply marked, tattooed, by Faulkner's mentality. Like, holding nothing.

Especially the case of the young girl of Sanctuary, Temple. From the bourgeoisie, she's well protected. I don't think that the girl of my film...I didn't want to adapt Sanctuary, but I had always in mind the end of Sanctuary since I was eighteen. It ends in Paris, in the Garden of Luxembourg. She's safe and sound, as you could say, with her father. He wants her to travel to change her mind, and probably doesn't know what to do as a father. It's the last lines of the novel. And she opens her bag and she has this little powder, and she powders her nose as if she wanted to escape any not glance at her father...only her own face and a little bit of powder, to make clear that she was not going cry or to speak. I think from Faulkner, something that attracted me when I was very young, because it's very attractive to a 15 or 16 year old, is that life is made of the only thing you can decide, the rest you can not: to commit suicide or to kill someone. The rest, happens.

NOTEBOOK: The tone of the film, from the opening which began of the suicide I thought immediately of the previous film by Philippe Garrel, Un été brûlant, because that film also starts very mysteriously in the dark with an image of a man killing himself.

DENIS: Yes, also the film with Catherine Denueve.

NOTEBOOK:Le vent de la nuit, yes there too it feels like the only choice they have is death.

DENIS: Or to kill someone. I remember Faulkner said in a novel, I forget which one, life is only blood and fornication. It's true, in a way. That's the only thing that really happens. You are born from fornication, through blood. And your own choice, when you are trapped in your destiny, is probably suicide. Or to kill, if it's something that...if you are in danger...I don't know.

NOTEBOOK: But that's not really a choice people make in your film, to kill. The killing is almost an accident, not like the suicide at the beginning or the youths' deaths later.

DENIS: Yes, Vincent's character is falling already. But I think he cannot face it, you know. And the daughter, I think she chooses suicide with her friends in a different way, the way young people choose.

NOTEBOOK: That sequence of their final car ride, how did you envision it? For me it was the most beautiful sequence in the film. When you were writing it, did you see it in specific images, in tone? How did it come to you?

DENIS: It started that I wanted the only light to be the headlights...and then no headlights. She drives in the dark. It was very important to me, the driving, switching off the light little by little, this was the thing for me.

I also thought that I didn't want any stunt person with me, because if I have stunt people with me, my relationship shooting with those three kids, preparing themselves, ready to die, I wanted to stay with them and go directly to their injured bodies, and not to have a stunt in the middle. And I asked Stuart Staples [of the band Tindersticks] to help me with the music for that.

NOTEBOOK: Is that also the reason why you don't see, at the end, a body being shot, you just see the gun reach for and fired? I was very struck by that elimination.

DENIS: There is sometimes a problem for me, it was not as others in my head, but the fact that she [Chiara Mastroianni's character, Raphaëlle] made a decision like that and that the result is you have to choose whether there is nothing on the shirt or maybe poof [mimes blood exploding from her shirt], and then he is falling slowly. I said “ah, no!” I wanted bang and—dead. I don't want the in-between.

I like the in-between though, you know? I can be fascinated by Peckinpah shooting scenes, slow motion, blood, also like the last Quentin Tarantino movie, Django, almost an homage to Peckinpah, no? But the result is almost the opposite, death is a theatrical process that you can use, slow motion, blood, and then the actor is having this thing under his shirt and blah, blah, blah; I like that but the direction has to be very theatrical, and I thought at that moment of the film—no.

NOTEBOOK: It's very discreet and stark. Speaking, as you said, of old noirs, it reminds me of the Production Code's stricture that you couldn't have a gun fired and a body hit by that fired bullet together in the same shot. You had to separate action with the impact, the reality was too potent, violent.

DENIS: It was the moral dictionary of Hollywood, but also I think in cinema you can show both, but in this case it was interesting to separate them because in cinema a lot of things are true for the body of the actor: if they are naked, they are naked, if they are sweating, they are sweating, if they fight, they fight. But of course the killing is not true. So the process of dying, to film it has to be a sort of allegory, you know? Otherwise it won't work.

Also in White Material I didn't want to see...I couldn't have a special effect there to have a little kid's throat cut. I didn't want them to have blood, even fake blood, on them. I don't know why! I'm not a moral person, but I'm frightened by the death.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting you say how that particular image has to become allegorical, because many of the images in the film are relatively “normal”: apartment building, cars, normal things. But some images really seem to pop out of the normal world, standing as something different: Lola Créton walking naked, the redness of the circular bed in the barn, the burnt car driving by...these are images embedded in the drama, but they carry a sort of allegorical sensation that's stronger than just the drama.

DENIS: As I told you, I started thinking about Kurosawa movies and Sanctuary, I was remembering the end of Sanctuary...but there is something in me...I'm very affected by reading newspapers, by hearing violence on the radio, I cannot watch TV, Internet also. I'm stuffed with this fear for people; not for me, in a way, because it's so abstract. But I have a fear, and maybe the film expresses that, also. Because I was...maybe it's crazy but I was invaded by dark stories that happen every day. This young girl, and the next day this and this and that. It's not banal, it's never banal.

But what touched me is that it's also sort's attractive. There wouldn't be any news without those stories; politics are not enough. And because the economy is so bad I realized we're getting more and more of those horrible stories as if they were nourishing something, in a world of people, not to fight against the economy, as if it were a sort of...sweet? “Let's hear about this girl raped by her father,” or “this girl in the cave with her family she gave birth to seven children,” things like that. And we take that as a sort of everyday bread. I think I'm affected by that, like everyone.

And suddenly, without knowing it, I never thought I was going to express that in the film, but then it was there so easily, you know? I think right from the beginning of the script, I was inside the story with...not no doubt, yeah of course there was doubt, but I was not trying to make a very dark story. I thought I was in an every day story I could read in the newspaper.

NOTEBOOK: Mentioning reading the newspaper as inspiration, that reminds me of Le Pont du Nord. In Rivette's film—where for me as an American, I don't know the contemporaneous atmosphere in Paris, what's going on—there's that amazing scene with Bulle [Ogier] and Pascale [Ogier] sitting on the bench looking at newspaper after newspaper after newspaper taken from the moment, and suddenly it is like "ah ha!," that this is, in part, where that film's tone of despair and waywardness comes from. What's happening right now in Paris, in France, during the filming.

DENIS: It was right before the election of François Mitterrand. And also I remember Jacques, at that time, had not been shooting since Merry-Go-Round, and was desperate. He had been through a severe depression, and suddenly the energy of doing Le Pont du Nord, with almost no budget, 16mm, was pure joy, a reborn Jacques. And I think Bulle and her daughter were so solidly with him.

And you see, what happened with destiny. What happened to her daughter. Often I see Bulle, because I like her very much. I can never speak about Pascale. Never. Because still to me it's say it's unfair, no! It's life.

NOTEBOOK: One of the most startling things in your film was that you put the Tindersticks' music over the final video at the end. That was what was shocking: not just the video but that there was music to accompany those images.

DENIS: Those images, I thought, I made them because I thought there must be a moment where the mother...because she is blind all the time, so I wanted her to be watching, by the camera. And Stuart saw the dailies, and he watched the images and he [shudders]; he was suffering. So, little by little... We had decided, even when I was writing the script, and he agreed with me, to use electronic music. Because we decided it was so inhuman. So we had that in mind all the time. And like this sort of artificial sounds that invade the film, you know? And then, one day, we were listening to music, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, all those German bands, we were looping sounds, and suddenly Stuart said to me: “have you ever heard this English band from the same time called Hot Chocolate?” Disco music, but very strange disco music, and suddenly I thought that maybe it would be important to have a song like that on the video image. And he said “Ah no...but then I will sing it myself. Like a father to his daughter,” like, screaming. And I think he did it.

NOTEBOOK: As you were saying about stories being like candy, I feel that that song moves into dangerous territory. That music, and images like those of Lola Créton walking nude, are on that very thin line between being something so disturbing but also being something very attractive.

DENIS: What is disturbing is that she is not filmed like a victim. She's filmed walking on high heels with her beautiful naked body. And only with the cops, can you see she [crumples her body, collapsing]. But she is never offering a victim's body. And I think for me this was important. That is what I remember of Sanctuary, that she wanted never to be a victim. Because, then, if she was a victim, the film would not been the same at all, would have been more psychological. I think.

I don't know if I was right, but for me she was walking in the street like she's tough and she's not going to complain, and she's not going to submit herself. All the women of the film are not very sympathetic, but very strong, in a way. Even the mother, she's blind, lying whatever, but she has the strength of that lie of calling her brother, in a way the blindness is a sort of strange power.

NOTEBOOK: And Chiara...[interrupted by a request to end the interview].

DENIS: No, sorry—and Chiara?

NOTEBOOK: The love scenes in the stairwell are the heart of the film, for such a grave movie those scenes have so much hope for me. Her hair, the stairs... I have no question, I just was very touched by it.

DENIS: No! But it could be a great love story, of course.

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