Claire Denis is in the kitchen of her apartment in the north of Paris, enduring the coronavirus isolation. Next week, the 73-year-old director will be giving an online masterclass at Visions du réel, a Swiss documentary festival taking place digitally this year. The festival is holding a small retrospective of her work (including two of her most celebrated Africa-set films, Beau Travail and White Material). She is peeling apples to make a purée when my call interrupts her.
“Because I am in an apartment that has light coming through the windows, I don’t feel oppressed. I see a lot of sky,” Denis reflects on her confinement at home. She doesn’t have a balcony but there is a yard where she keeps her plants. “It’s very OK. As opposed to my brother, who has young children and has to do classes (home schooling), it is not so terrible… I am able to clean, I am able to wash, I am able to look at the sky and the clouds. I am able to dream. I am able to read a lot. I am able to listen to music.” She is doing some work but only very sparingly.
Denis’s peaceful-sounding situation under lockdown is far removed from where she found herself in late February during the Césars (France’s equivalent to the Oscars), when she was unwittingly at the centre of a tempest.
Before the awards had even taken place, it emerged that Denis had been excluded from the guest list for the César Academy’s event in January for emerging talent, Soirée des Révélations. One of the young artists being fêted, Amadou Mbow, co-star of Mati Diop’s supernatural romance Atlantics, had, along with Diop, asked for her to be there as his patron. Diop had played the lead in Denis’s 2008 feature, 35 Shots of Rum.
“She [Diop] was told by the French César organisation, ‘no, Claire is not free for you,’” Denis recalls. The story put out by the organisers was that she wasn’t able to attend. In fact, they simply hadn’t invited her.
France’s Society of Film Directors (SRF) reacted furiously to the perceived snub, which it called “opaque and discriminatory”.
It emerged that Denis’s fellow filmmaker Virginie Despentes (best known for her explicit and confrontational crime thriller Baise-Moi) had also been denied an invitation. The academy, under its then president Alain Terzian, came in for heavy criticism and offered a feeble apology without explaining why the two filmmakers had been excluded. The speculation among some observers was that spiky mavericks like Denis and Despentes wouldn’t fit the blandly glamorous, sanitised mood the academy wanted to create at the event.
A month later, in the wake of the row and after Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse (An Officer and A Spy) had been nominated for 12 awards , the entire board of the Césars resigned. Denis was then invited to the award show itself where, as one of France’s most distinguished filmmakers, she (alongside her fellow director Emmanuelle Bercot) presented the Best Director prize.
“At the Césars, probably they felt stormy weather was going on. They asked me to be at the ceremony and they asked if I wanted to be a prize-giver. I said, ‘yes, why not’.”
With a car-crash inevitability, the award she announced was won by Polanski, a hugely polarising and toxic figure because of the rape allegations against him. This prompted a walkout. Adèle Haenel, star of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and a victim of sexual harassment herself, was among those who left, clearly very upset that Polanski was being honoured.
Haenel had already told the New York Times that “distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t all that bad.”
“It’s grotesque, it’s insulting, it’s vile,” Despentes raged against Polanski’s award. “It is understood that these major prizes continue to be the exclusive domain of men, because the underlying message is: nothing must change.”
Denis disagreed. “I don’t think anyone wanted to spit in victims [of rape] or Adèle Haenel’s face. And I don’t think the film J’accuse is spitting in anyone’s face,” she told Le Monde. The director says to me she knew at the outset that Polanski’s film was a frontrunner for awards. When he won, she had “no hesitation in pronouncing his name”. The academy members had voted for him in big numbers. Guests such as Haenel, she suggests, could have chosen to boycott the event in protest about the multiple nominations Polanski and his team received. “If they show up, they have to accept the law of [the] vote,” Denis says. “The best way not to be upset was to refuse to participate.”
Denis didn’t follow the post-Césars controversy as she was in Los Angeles casting a new film. However, she declares that she is “not very interested to speak a lot about Adèle Haenel, and the Césars. Ask her. Maybe it is more interesting than to ask me.”
To some, Denis’s remarks to Le Monde after the Césars that the anger against Polanski was “fundamentally fair” but expressed at the wrong time seemed strangely callous and unsympathetic to Haenel.
However, one of the legacies of Denis’s long filmmaking career is that she is brusque, direct and outspoken. She has spent so long trying to get movies financed and dealing with cast and crew that she doesn’t waste time in small talk or being polite for the sake of it.
The director expresses her frustration at being asked again and again about disgraced US producer Harvey Weinstein. When she attended the New York Film Festival with her sci-fi movie, High Life (2018), starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, the Weinstein questions proliferated. “To be with an audience asking questions about Harvey Weinstein because I am a woman was not appropriate. I never worked with Weinstein, but I knew some actors who did. But for me to answer about a guy like that was not my priority. He is probably a disgusting asshole but apart from that, what should I say?”
Nor is Denis keen to talk about protests around gender equality and positive discrimination in the film business. “Everybody is asking me about this. I don’t know what to answer. It’s a conceptual question. As a filmmaker, I think my films answer for me.”
Denis didn’t join the representatives (including Sciamma, Agnès Varda and Cate Blanchett) who marched up the red carpet in Cannes in 2018 to protest against the fact that only a tiny proportion of women directors have had films in official selection at the festival. “I was there but I was not interested to be in that group to be very honest.”
Her reluctance to become involved is surprising to some. After all, Denis is a trailblazing and inspirational director who has made around 30 films (including her documentaries and shorts). If she wanted to be a spokesperson, people would listen very seriously. In her work, she has probed away in intense and forensic fashion at subjects such as post-colonial guilt, relations between the sexes, the nature of family life and the contradictions of male desire. Many of her films have provided strong roles for women (for example, Isabelle Huppert as the coffee grower in the African civil war drama White Material or Juliette Binoche as the scientist on the space mission in High Life). She almost always works with the same female cinematographer, Agnès Godard.
When I ask about her long collaboration with Godard, which stretches back all the way to her debut feature, Chocolat (1988), and why the cinematographer didn’t work on High Life, Denis gives a surprising answer. She had made two films in the same year, Let the Sunshine In and High Life. No sooner had the first finished than she started working on the second. “I am not such fun to work with and I think Agnès wanted a time to rest, I guess.”
Not fun to work with? Is that because she is a relentless perfectionist who pushes her collaborators to extremes?
“I am not a perfectionist,” Denis dismisses that idea. “I am a filmmaker. I am a pain in the ass.”
How, she continues, can you make a film without being a pain in the ass. You’re “waiting, preparing, casting” and then finally you get the go-ahead. “You’re trying to find the film which is terribly hard,” she says. “This has to be done while writing and preparing. But, suddenly, on the set, there is very little time.”
Ask Denis if she finds filmmaking pleasurable or stressful and she takes umbrage at the question. “It’s not stress,” she protests. “It’s also a great joy to work with so little time and try to do the best. It is exultation more than stress. Stress is… vulgar! I am stressed when I am afraid in the subway or when I am running and I am late. But stress on the set is not possible. There is a crew. There are actors and actresses. You have to be commanding the ship. You can’t be stressed.”
The director’s technique with her actors is always the same – and it is always (quite literally) hands-on. “For me, it is impossible to work with someone I am not in love with. Any actress or any actor becomes mine. I remember when I started working with Robert (Pattinson, on High Life), I told him, ‘look, I am not going to work exactly like you are used to. Me, I will touch you.’” She would then “touch his hair, touch his skin” and try to come as close to him as she could.
That extreme level of intimacy between filmmaker and star could easily seem oppressive in a different context (for example, if it was a male director) but it is also clear that actors relish working with Denis and feel valued and liberated on her sets.
“There’s a controlled eccentricity and wildness to the way Claire works, where you never really know what’s happening,” Pattinson told IndieWire of his experiences on High Life. “You just turn up and treat each day in and of itself. It was quite fun.” The actor spoke to Little White Lies magazine about the “very sensual way” Denis shoots. “When she looks through a camera there’s this feeling of wanting to touch but being afraid to, and so she uses the camera as her hand.”
“Actors are cattle! They should be treated as such,” Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked. That’s not a philosophy Denis endorses but she is also keen to leap to the English director’s defence. “Everything Hitchcock is modern. I understand what he says about actors, but I understand the double meaning of it,” Denis says when I mention the English director’s quote. She doesn’t explain this double meaning but her implication is that Hitchcock was far fonder of his actors than he was letting on.
So she likes his work? “Like is too weak a word for Hitchcock.”
Denis holds New Wave director (and former editor of revered film magazine Cahiers du Cinema) Jacques Rivette in equally high esteem. She worked as his assistant, and her 1990 documentary about him, Jacques Rivette, le veilleur – the night watchman – which she made with critic Serge Daney, is screening at the festival. “Jacques was like a magician on the set,” she says. “His films are so free. Rivette is never in the past. He is always in the present time.” She calls him “le patron” and puts him on a higher rung than most of his contemporaries. When she was a young student, she was much more drawn to Rivette and Godard (“they were like a blow in my mind!”) than to Chabrol, Truffaut and Rohmer who “weren’t really my family”.
Denis met Agnès Varda at various festivals over the years. “She [Varda] was always very interested by other women filmmakers. She was involved in the feminist aspect of filmmaking. That’s how I recognise her. I felt a little bit away from her. Of course, I respect her but she was not so inspiring for me.” She felt far closer to Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), famous for its pared down, naturalistic account of the life of a single mother and sex worker.
Before embarking on her own directorial career, Denis was an assistant to Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Costa-Gavras among others, as well as to Rivette. “I never learnt from them. I immediately felt I had to be at my top, (to give) the best of me for them,” she dismisses my question. “It’s not a school. You’re part of a movie. You’re part of a moment where somebody is creating something. You’re not there to learn. You’re there to do.”
However, there was one lesson from Wenders, for whom she worked on Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), which has always stuck in her mind. “Maybe like many French people, I was complaining about something. And he told me, ‘please do not complain’. Whatever we were going through, lack of money, lack of this, lack of that, lack of time, he would go through the film and turn every drawback to his advantage.”
That is what Denis has done, too. “I found out that it is actually a very intelligent way to make films. If you always feel the heaviness of the drawbacks, then it is hard to work.” By her own confession, she may be a “pain in the ass” when making her movies but she doesn’t grumble. It’s a fine balance and one she has always managed to maintain in a glittering directorial career that now stretches for over three decades.
Claire Denis films including Beau Travail, White Material and Jacques Rivette, le veilleur will be available to watch free via the Visions du Réel website from 17 April, and a Claire Denis masterclass will be (live) streamed for a worldwide audience. Details can be found here.