French director and critics’ darling Claire Denis talks about her new film with Juliette Binoche and Gérard Depardieu, the appeal of Robert Pattinson – and why the Weinstein affair has changed nothing
22 April 2018 | Jonathan Romney | The Observer
In her new film, Let the Sunshine In (‘Un Beau Soleil Intérieur’) Juliette Binoche plays an intelligent, creative, beautiful woman who seeks sexual rapture with men who are variously pompous, self-absorbed, rebarbative and physically unprepossessing.
We’ve seen this scenario before in countless French films – but they’re usually directed by pompous, self-absorbed, rebarbative, physically unprepossessing men. It’s unusual to see this story told by a woman – and especially by Claire Denis, one of the most challenging and innovative film-makers at work today.
Denis is a writer and director with a ferociously individual vision: her output is unpredictable, sometimes intransigently tough. Formerly assistant director to Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and Jacques Rivette, she made her own provocative debut with Chocolat (1988), a drama set in Cameroon and informed by her childhood in Africa as the daughter of a civil servant.
Race and the post-colonial condition have been consistent threads throughout her work. She confirmed herself as one of cinema’s hardcore visionaries with 1999’s Beau Travail, a fragmented, chilling story of the French Foreign Legion, shot in Djibouti and based loosely on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. She has played with genres – thriller (Bastards), horror (Trouble Every Day) – and created mesmerisingly sui generis work such as 2008’s tender, hallucinatory drama 35 Shots of Rum, about a Parisian train driver and his daughter.
So it’s surprising that, with the entertaining, breezy Let the Sunshine In, Denis seems – almost – to have made a film in a familiar mould, the urbane Parisian comedy of romantic-erotic entanglements.
I meet Denis late one evening in the bar of London’s Curzon Bloomsbury cinema; at 72, she exudes a tough, nervy, energetic chic. She’s waiting to go onstage for a Q&A after a screening of the movie: perhaps not the ideal time to catch a film-maker at her most relaxed, which may explain why her mood is on the testy side. When I ask whether she still has connections with Africa, she bristles.
“Connections? They’re more than connections. Places where you spent your childhood, these are the sacred places of your life.” Is she a close observer of African cinema? “I’m not a scientist,” she says, sounding outraged. “You’re talking as if I was watching it through a microscope. That’s your job. My job’s making films.”
It’s curious, I point out, that her new film’s English title, a nod to the song from Hair!, means precisely the opposite of the French original, Un Beau Soleil Intérieur(A Beautiful Sun Inside). Don’t blame her, Denis says in her throaty voice, it was the sales agent’s choice. “I would never have chosen that title.”
The film does reveal the sunshine that’s already inside Juliette Binoche, insofar as her character doesn’t speak that much, but often reacts to other people, sometimes with a radiant smile that’s as eloquent as any verbal performance. “Juliette brought the character her own beauty,” says Denis. “She’s funny, real, sensitive – and there’s always the possibility that she might burst out laughing any minute. I like that.”
Binoche is not Denis’s only star collaborator on the film. Its co-writer is Christine Angot, a novelist famous for treading a perplexingly thin line between fiction and the intimate minutiae of her own life.
Among Angot’s best-known works is Incest(1999), in which a character named Christine Angot relates an abusive sexual relationship with her father. The French public has often been outraged by her frankness, and her pugnacious interventions on TV talk shows. “People talk about Christine because she makes them angry,” says Denis. “But I know very few writers who don’t talk about themselves – they just fictionalise it more. The controversy around her can be a bit hysterical.”
Their collaboration came about when a producer suggested that Denis make a film based on Roland Barthes’s philosophical text about love, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. “I said I’d rather explore lovers’ discourse with Christine. We used our own experiences – you can see at least two of her books in the film.”
Some of the men in the life of Sunshine’s heroine are spectacularly obnoxious, yet that doesn’t seem to put her off; with one lover, she even achieves orgasm by reflecting that he’s un salaud, a bastard. It is, I suggest to Denis, a very interesting time to be making films about the relations between women and men. She gives a sigh of impatience.
“That’s a discussion that’s only being had in rich countries. The world is not just the United States and Europe. It’s a debate of spoiled children. I couldn’t care less about the Weinstein affair – it hasn’t changed anything for women.”
When it comes to debates on sexual power, she argues, the benchmark was set by the 1976 Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses: “A master oppresses his female servant and she finally kills him through sex. In the west, the real problem is the class struggle; that’s where all the sexual problems come from.”
What I’ve asked her, Denis complains, is “a bourgeois question. Egyptian or Yemeni women don’t give a damn about Weinstein. They have to deal with bombs, they don’t have running water in their kitchens, they get raped in buses.” So does she feel that growing up in African countries – including Senegal, Cameroon and Djibouti – gives her a wider perspective than a purely western one? Denis gives me a forbidding glare. “There are no more rapes in Africa than in France. On the contrary. I never met a Harvey Weinstein in Africa.”
Denis is more relaxed talking about the actors she has worked with. Let the Sunshine In features a highly eccentric appearance by Gérard Depardieu, playing a voluble fortune teller. Depardieu is the opposite, I suggest, of a performer like Isabelle Huppert, whom Denis directed in her African-set drama White Material(2009): she invariably disappears into her roles, whereas with him, there’s no getting around the fact it’s 100% Depardieu filling the screen.
“Juliette and Isabelle are both people you can touch,” she says. “You can take them in your arms… that’s important. I wouldn’t take Gérard in my arms. He’s this immense man, so there’s a sort of necessary distance. But it was so easy working with him. You’re intimidated – but it also creates a certain closeness; you feel a vibration.”
The actor she’s enthused about now is Robert Pattinson, who stars in her upcoming High Life, an English-language drama set in space. She didn’t choose Pattinson, she says, although she’s rated him since Twilight; he approached her. “I thought he was too young, too good-looking. But then the film was delayed and he said, ‘You see? I’m getting older.’”
What High Life will be like, once she’s finished the special effects, is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that the English dialogue is not, as was reported, written by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird; Denis didn’t see eye to eye with them. “We don’t have the same philosophy of life.”
Conversely, she got on famously with Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish artist behind the legendary Tate Modern “sun” installation, whose signature yellow light somehow feeds into High Life’s overall concept. “He was very important to the film because I can talk to him about space. I also worked with a marvellous astrophysicist, Aurélien Barrau, and now they’re working together too.”
Denis has long been a favourite of film academics, who love unpicking her work because it’s at once so resonant and so teasingly hard to pin down. But the interest isn’t mutual.
“If there are theories about me, I’d rather not know. Astrophysics – now that’s fascinating. String theory, worm holes, the expanding universe, the Big Bang versus the Big Bounce – those are the kind of theories that make you feel like living and understanding the mystery of the world. Film theory is just a pain in the ass.”
And she heads off to her Q&A, a film-maker whose work you can love although you wouldn’t take her in your arms. You might be intimidated, but you feel the vibration.