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 herby Hermione Eyre / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
“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…