Claire Denis on filmmaking and feminism

Ahead of the British release of her new film, French auteur Claire Denis talks about her colonial upbringing, feminism—and why the Oscars mean nothing to her
June 21, 2010
“It’s a tough film because the news from Africa is tough”: Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial in Claire Denis’s White Material

My meeting with Claire Denis takes place, appropriately, in the Cinéma du Panthéon in Paris, a favourite art-house spot. Denis is one of the greatest film directors working today. Sight & Sound named her films 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and White Material (2009) as two of its top 10 movies released last year, although Beau Travail (1999) a reworking of Billy Budd set in the contemporary French foreign legion, remains her masterwork. As Denis, a tiny blonde Frenchwoman in her early sixties, walks towards me, her slightly rolling gait reminds me that she suffered polio in her early teens, but also makes me think of a comment she made in 2009: “Sometimes I feel like John Wayne.”

This year, the profile of women in film has been hotly debated; it was the best of times when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for best director, and then the worst of times when none of the 19 films in competition at Cannes was directed by a woman. In 2009, just 7 per cent of the 250 highest grossing films in North America were made by women. Yet Denis, like Bigelow, has never been interested in being a token this or a minority that. Although she is a product of feminism and is loyal to its ideas, her subject matter is not the battle of the sexes: “This does not interest me.” She is a feminist icon by default rather than by design.

She is an unpredictable auteur, every work she makes representing a new departure, from the art-house horror film, Trouble Every Day (2001), to the wonderfully inconsequential domestic drama of 35 Shots of Rum. Her latest film White Material, released in Britain on 2nd July, is a story of post-colonial Africa that sees her achieve a new, almost operatic level of tension.

The film portrays a white landowner, played by Isabelle Huppert, struggling to maintain her family’s coffee plantation in central west Africa—the country is unspecified—despite violent local political unrest. Born in 1948, Denis was herself a child of colonialism. Her father worked as a French government functionary, and she grew up in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon. She felt completely lost in Paris, where the family relocated when she was 14. Her films about Africa have a rare fluency and understanding; telling me about filming White Material, she describes an almost double consciousness: “When I went scouting for locations on coffee plantations with my co-writer [Marie NDiaye, winner of the 2009 Prix Goncourt] I felt so much at ease speaking with people that I forgot sometimes that I was white. Then I observed people watching us, seeing if I was speaking gently with her [NDiaye, whose father was Senegalese], watching the kind of relationship we had, and I remembered that I was being watched as a white woman. The world is made this way. The history of colonisation cannot disappear.”

Denis trained at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) and was expected to work in continuity or editing, traditionally female jobs. Instead she became an assistant to German director Wim Wenders on his films Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). “Even that job was not meant for women,” she recalled in an interview in 2009. “So at the very beginning, they would say, can you drive? I said yes. Can you do this? I said yes. Can you jump? I said yes. I said yes to everything, and sometimes it wasn’t true. It wasn’t that I was eager to prove that a woman could be as strong as a man, but I thought—if I say no, then it’s finished.”

Her first film, the acclaimed Chocolat (1988), was a bittersweet evocation of 1950s Cameroon that combined simmering racial unease with a sense of childhood nostalgia. White Material is a much darker story, structured like a Greek tragedy: bravery and obstinacy are its heroine’s fatal flaws, and because of them she must either kill or be killed. “It’s a tough film because the news from Africa is tough,” says Denis.

White Material is peopled with child soldiers. To play these parts Denis enlisted local children; she is about to return to Cameroon to show them the finished film. “We read the script, they understood and they enjoyed doing this. Where we filmed in Cameroon was peaceful, it was beautiful—I would feel very guilty of filming in a country where there were… [actual child soldiers]. They’re not specific to Africa, these lost children, they’re specific to any place where nothing is balanced, where there is no protection from the government.” As she talks her voice grows emotional: “For me they are just children lost in a forest, like in a fairytale. Filming these scenes I was crying. When the child soldiers were killed, I could feel the knife.”

Film directors are usually more tyrannical than emotional. Do her crew love or fear her? “I think both are important… They support me. They know I have a very bad temper, but they also know I am a very emotional person.” Being able to express both these sides of one’s character is, she believes, a feminist issue. “Often women as little girls are sent off on a track for them to live a perfect life and be a perfect woman. Not for boys, who can be themselves, with their mood and their temper.” As we are talking, Chrissie Hynde starts singing over the bar’s music system, and Denis smiles: “She was one of my models. She decided to be herself.”

If you could put your finger on Denis’s trademark as a director, it might be her huge reservoirs of empathy, not just for the deserving but for the lost, the cruel, the monstrous. “This kindness, yes: this is something I’m aware of,” she says after a long pause. “Not because I’m a kind person, I’m not. I’m just kind to my characters. I can be unkind to someone in the street or in the subway, I’m a bad-tempered person, but I’m unable to be unkind to a character. They exist because of me and I have responsibility for them.”

Denis married at 19 and divorced, childless, in her early twenties. She has made films ever since. The idea that her career might have come at any cost to her private life baffles her. “The only cost I know is the budget… Truly I cherish those moments when I am filming… for me there is no sacrifice. It’s the best moment for me because I am at my best.” She has a set of lifelong collaborators, almost her film family: director of photography Agnès Godard, whom she met on the set of Paris, Texas; co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau; composer, Stuart A Staples of the Nottingham band, Tindersticks. She often casts the same actors, too: Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor. For White Material, however, only Staples and Subor stayed onboard, and she worked for the first time with another of France’s grande dames, actress Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert had originally asked Denis to direct her in a film based on Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass Is Singing, but the project evolved into White Material. I suggest Joseph Conrad as influence, and Denis concedes there is something Conradian about the way Huppert’s character refuses to give up “even after it’s too late,” although she finds his novels “too much of a man’s world.” Her main influences were William Faulkner (“the way he deals with territory, with the farm”) and Lessing herself. “Along with Virginia Woolf, she was very important in my life—she had such freedom in her thoughts and her mind and she’s very feminine, a survivor—a good example to me.” She even gets a brief close-up. In one shot of the film, we see a dressing table, set with trinkets and a small black and white photograph of a woman: Doris Lessing.

Addicted to visiting cinemas, Denis does not even like watching DVDs, preferring to be “captive” to a film “rather than its operator.” Thoroughly European, she isn’t interested in the Oscars—she doesn’t feel it was about time a woman won the Oscar for best director: “For me it doesn’t matter.” Sometimes I feel she is answering perversely, for the sake of it. She says she doesn’t feel any intellectual kinship with Bigelow. “I like her film [The Hurt Locker]. I also like Avatar. I don’t think there is much to compare between us as our situations are so different. She’s a Hollywood director, working for a studio; she’s from a different culture. For me, she’s as different as a male director. Is it more difficult for women to make films? Sure. But we know this. We are not naive. It’s not easy being a man. It’s not easy, in fact, being a human being.”

Denis was on the jury at Cannes this year during the uproar over the lack of female-directed films. Some spoke out against it. Others felt that drawing attention to the paucity of women film directors exacerbated the situation. Denis rose, Sphinx-like, above it all—except for this comment about Agnès Varda, the 82-year-old godmother of French female auteurs: “When my eye meets hers, as it did on opening night, and she gives me a courageous look and takes me by the arm, I feel she is telling me, ‘go for it, don’t give up.’ But she is telling me that as a filmmaker. If she didn’t like my films, she would not do this. Even though she is a woman and I am a woman.”

White Material is in cinemas from 2nd July
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