In “High Life,” the filmmaker’s English-language début, Denis set out to tell the story of the last person in the world.
28 May 2018 | Alice Gregory | The New Yorker
One night many years ago, a French family was driving through the North Region of Cameroon when they ran out of gas. As they scrambled to refill the tank, the car was surrounded by a pride of lions. To protect their young daughter, the parents locked her in a metal trunk. The animals circled the vehicle continuously, and to distract herself from danger the girl repeated her own name. Over the years, the story of the little blond French girl besieged by lions became something of a legend in the area. It was said by some that she had survived for fifteen days under the hot African sun.
Decades after the story first circulated, the little girl returned to Cameroon from Paris, where she had come of age. She was still small, and her hair remained blond, but she was now in her sixties. She had become a director and was there to work on a feature film. Sometimes, when scouting locations in the bush with her camera-laden crew, she would come upon locals and introduce herself. “Oh, but it’s you,” they would say. “The girl with the lions.”
Only as an adult did Claire Denis realize that she hadn’t been afraid of the lions all those years ago. She suspects that she was too young to be frightened, she has said, and remembers instead a feeling of calm remove from the world, as though she were “in a different time frame.” She recalls how the animals, aglow in the headlights, appeared pale, almost white. “I thought it was the most beautiful sight,” she told me. She rolled her hips from side to side. “They were so cool and so slow.”
The incident could be a scene from one of Denis’s films. The dialogue is sparse, and the cast of characters is limited. The themes are there, too: the refusal of victimhood, the embrace of solitude amid chaos, and race as an unremarked on but glaring element of a situation that is easy to imagine but impossible to fully explain.
“Chocolat,” Denis’s first feature, from 1988, was also shot in Cameroon. It tells the story of a complicated friendship between a white girl, named France, and Protée, her family’s black adult servant, in the years leading up to the country’s independence, in 1960. Protée is France’s only companion, and through their asymmetrical alliance we feel the creeping evil of colonialism. Like water, it finds its way into even the most hidden interpersonal crevices, which no amount of good will or innocence or even love can caulk. In almost every shot, Denis acknowledges the cultivated ignorance and cruel indifference of whiteness. Protée rarely speaks, and in one scene, in which he serves dinner, the camera cuts off his body at the neck. Denis has said, of “Chocolat,” “I think I had a desire to express a certain guilt I felt as a child raised in a colonial world.”
Denis’s films can be hard to find in the United States, but she is beloved by many young American filmmakers for, among other things, her artful confrontations with race. Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” which won last year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, told me, “I get the sense that she truly just doesn’t give a shit, that it doesn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to handle this material. It’s not a foreign world to her, in a way it might appear to be when you look at her and see a white Frenchwoman.” He continued, “You watch ‘Chocolat,’ and it’s remarkable. This is a first movie by someone who has not one question about what her rights are as a storyteller.”
Since “Chocolat,” Denis has directed a handful of shorts and documentaries and a dozen feature films. These include a drama about cockfighting in Paris (“No Fear, No Die,” 1990); a vampire thriller that French audiences booed for its extreme violence and deviant sexuality (“Trouble Every Day,” 2001); and a dreamy reimagining of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s account of his heart transplant, shot in locations including Tahiti and Switzerland (“The Intruder,” 2004). “White Material,” released in the U.S. in 2010, was many Americans’ introduction to Denis’s work. A sort of companion piece to “Chocolat,” it tells the story of a Frenchwoman, played by Isabelle Huppert, who refuses to leave her family’s coffee plantation in an unnamed African country, despite the rebel violence erupting just outside its walls.
Denis’s films are filled with lush scenes of the natural world—African deserts, snowy Alpine fields, and the mineral-green waters of the South Pacific—and characters who tend to reveal themselves not through dialogue but through how they move and look. Alex Descas, one of the actors with whom Denis has worked longest, and who credits her with writing complicated, realistic roles for black actors at a time when few others did, described her artistic mode succinctly: “Film is not theatre,” he told me. Last month, at a screening of her latest movie, “Let the Sunshine In,” at the IFC Center, in Manhattan, Denis said, “I once read that I like to film bodies. No! But, if you choose someone, that person has a body. They have feet, hands, hair, breasts, ass—all of that is part of what is important.” The film stars Juliette Binoche, as a divorced painter who dates men she shouldn’t: a married banker, a narcissistic actor, a standoffish curator. “She wanted my character to be beautiful and desirable and luminous,” Binoche told me. In the final shot, the camera—which one critic described as “smitten”—stays on her smiling face, which is ablaze with delusion and hope. Denis, according to Binoche, “works like a portrait painter.”
Wesley Morris, a cultural critic for the Times, compared Denis’s work to a stew that’s been cooking all week—a reduced and potent pleasure. “My favorite image in any of her movies, or maybe in all movies, is from ‘The Intruder,’ ” he said. He went on to describe the scene in which Beatrice Dalle, who plays a dog breeder living in the Jura Mountains, is pulled by huskies through a snowy forest on a sled. “She’s in utter ecstasy,” he said. “Very few women in the history of cinema have ever looked that happy doing anything.” Careening through the snow, she shouts commands. “Faster!” she yells. “Go, go, go, go, go!” Her grin is wide but in flashes looks more like a grimace. As with many of Denis’s heroines, and Denis herself, the pleasure Dalle’s character experiences is not far from fear.
When I met Denis in Paris, in late March, it was just warm enough to forgo a winter coat but still cold enough to regret it. Denis, who turned seventy-two last month and can’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds, wore stiff selvedge jeans and a Levi’s denim jacket buttoned all the way up, like a tiny Edwardian greaser.
We walked from her editing suite, in a newly gentrified neighborhood in the Twelfth Arrondissement, to a brasserie down the street that she and her producers rag on constantly but patronize regularly. A recent throat surgery had roughened Denis’s already gravelly voice—it sounded at times as though she were impersonating a sexily androgynous Frenchwoman, instead of merely being one.
Denis was carrying a backpack in lieu of a purse, and she flung it carelessly into the banquette. “Time is very slow and yet very fast,” she said, without making eye contact. “Astrophysicists say it does not even really exist.” (We conducted all our conversations in English, which Denis speaks fluently, with some odd turns of phrase.) She was in the final weeks of editing “High Life,” her English-language début, about a band of convicts sent into space to harvest energy from a black hole, and had rescheduled our plans several times. I was left with the impression of trying to coax, cajole, and ultimately capture a particularly dexterous pet—and with the sense that she felt my presence was a waste of time, at a moment when she needed all that she could get.
“High Life,” which cost millions more to make than any of Denis’s previous films, seems, on its surface, dramatically divergent from the rest of her body of work, yet versions of its premise swirled inside Denis’s mind for more than a decade. For years, she had wanted to tell the story of the last person in the world. In the film, the galactic convicts perish one by one. Only a single felon survives, along with his daughter, who was born on the spaceship. (Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist who a decade ago erected waterfalls in the East River, designed the spaceship for the movie.) Their relationship—literally forged in a vacuum, with a whiff of the taboo—was her primary interest in the story. “It’s feminine and masculine,” Denis said. “It’s family blood but it’s not the same sex.”
The script, which Denis wrote with her longtime screenwriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau, took years to complete. (Zadie Smith and Nick Laird worked on a draft that Denis ultimately rejected.) Though Denis treats scripts as provisional and merely suggestive documents, hers are full of vivid sensory detail. When “High Life” ’s main character, played by Robert Pattinson, is introduced, he is “pressed against the exterior of the spaceship, like a mountain climber against a sheer cliff face.” Later, when he changes out of his spacesuit, he does so “like a knight removing armor.”
Denis saw Pattinson in “Twilight,” she said, and was struck by his “heartrending charisma.” She had wanted someone older for “High Life”—she thought at one point of Philip Seymour Hoffman—but after meeting with Pattinson in Los Angeles and Paris she realized that “he was already in the film.” She went on, “When he said to me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘It’s already too late. It’s you or nobody else.’ ” She chose “High Life” ’s other stars, including Juliette Binoche and the English model and actress Mia Goth, with similarly instinctual possessiveness. In the summer of 2015, Denis and her producer, Oliver Dungey, flew to Atlanta to meet André Benjamin, the rapper, actor, producer, adroit hat-wearer, and all-around cultural icon, better known by his stage name, André 3000, and for his flamboyant role in the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast. Denis had enjoyed Benjamin’s lead performance in “All Is by My Side,” a 2014 biopic of Jimi Hendrix, and she had got it in her mind that he should play a part in “High Life.”
The three had agreed to meet at the St. Regis Hotel’s restaurant for lunch. “Here we are,” Dungey recalled, “me—this sort of posh, square English guy—and Claire—this scorny French lady—and in walks André.” Benjamin said, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know who you are or what you want, but everyone is telling me I have to meet with you and I’ve got to do this film.”
“They immediately hit it off,” Dungey said. “I’m just sitting there, picking at grits. The purpose of the trip was accomplished within thirty seconds.”
The only other people in the restaurant were two Gambian ladies visiting from, of all places, the Cotswolds. “Why were they there?” Dungey said. “I don’t know. But, then again, why were we there?
“Claire and André were talking about eating snake,” he continued. He shrugged in a manner that suggested his exclusion from the conversation had been so profound as to be painless. “Claire was saying how it gives you this vitality, this life force. And one of these women from Gambia turns around and says, ‘She’s right!’ ”
Moments later, a statuesque woman arrived. “She waltzes in and apparently knows André,” Dungey said. “She hugs him, asks how he’s been, blah, blah, blah. This woman looks fantastic: she has ribbons in her hair, lots of beads, she’s colorfully dressed. André introduces her to us as Dana.” Here Dungey paused, smiled, and shook his head. “This is not Dana. This is Queen Latifah.
“Claire is obviously taken with this woman while having no idea who she is. She just kept telling her she looked like a queen,” he continued. (Denis insists that she was well aware of Dana’s identity.) “The ladies from Gambia know who she is, though, and they also know who André is, and they ask for a photo. Queen Latifah ended up paying for all our lunches without saying anything.”
Dungey added, “It was really one of the most charming and weird moments of my entire life.”
Claire Denis was eight weeks old when she and her mother moved from Paris to Cameroon, where her father was serving as a French colonial administrator. In the course of the next thirteen years, the family expanded to include several more children, and lived in territories that would become Mali, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso. Denis’s parents supported decolonization, and she is adamant that “Chocolat” is not autobiographical. “My parents would certainly not have had someone serve them meals. I wasn’t raised like that,” she told me. “I was raised in a world that probably never actually existed, the world my parents hoped for . . . where there was no separation between people. I was raised in a dreamland.” Denis was at times the only white child in her class. “It was very embarrassing,” she said. “Not because I was white, but because I was not black.”
Like the space-born girl in “High Life,” Denis grew up knowing little about the place her family came from. They returned to France when Denis was thirteen, after she and her sister contracted polio. She has said that she arrived “already nostalgic for another world.” In Paris, she read the postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece, “The Wretched of the Earth.” The book, written in the middle of the Algerian war, argues that colonial subjects suffer not just from material indignities and humiliations but also, more painfully and perversely, from an internalized inferiority, which Fanon believed only violence could dismantle. Denis once said, “When you are fourteen or fifteen and you read ‘Les Damnés de la Terre,’ and you’ve been raised in the midst of the African colonies, it shocks you. Really, that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
She left home at seventeen, married a much older man, a photographer, and moved to London. They separated after a few years, but he encouraged her to return to Paris to study filmmaking at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, the rigorous and highly technical film school where Louis Malle and Alain Resnais were trained. After graduating, in the early seventies, Denis began a traditional apprenticeship, assisting mostly on films shot in Paris.
Unlike her characters, who tend to be laconic and aloof, and her narratives, which are elliptical and enigmatic, Denis speaks fluently, linearly, and sometimes at great length, with an instinctual command of pacing, foreshadowing, and suspense. Much of what she said to me was expressed in the form of stories, which she delivered as if for the first time.
One winter, Denis said, she was living alone in a sixth-floor studio apartment “in a good district of Paris,” as she put it, “not a poor little dimly lit street in a vague suburb.” She was working on a movie, and, after a long day, a co-worker dropped her off at home. It was freezing cold, she recalled, “and I was wearing those eight clothes you wear when you’re working nights in film.” Beneath her military parka were three sweaters and a large scarf.
When she reached her building, “I went to the elevator, and I pressed the button, and the elevator never arrived,” she said. “So I opened the door to the staircase and started climbing, and then I realized the light in the staircase was not functioning—but there was a window, and I knew my building by heart.” She was between the second and third floors when, “suddenly, somebody took me by the hood of my coat, and I saw a knife in front of my eyes and then saw it come to my throat. And then very quickly—you become Einstein at that moment—I realized the elevator was not working, the light was not working, and now this knife: this is a setup.” Denis went on, “I start talking to the guy, keep pretending I was accepting.” He cut her hand and told her he wanted to cut her eyes. “I knew, all the time, if I lost control at that moment I was dead, or wounded so bad it was the same. In the end, after having accepted certain things, I escaped him and ran to the sixth floor with my bag, bleeding.” The man chased her up the stairs but she made it into her apartment.
“It took me one or two hours before I could call the police,” she continued. “My nervous system had done so much.” They took her to the station, where, she said, the officer who helped her file a report commented, “ ‘I don’t know what you’re doing in your life to be out at 1 A.M., wandering alone . . . I have to tell you, if you were my daughter, I would have preferred that my daughter accept to be killed than to be sullied.’ ” Denis “realized that no one believed in my dignity, in my strength, in my lucidity,” she said. The last time she saw the officer, she said to him, “In a way, you insulted me more than I was hurt by the rapist.” Denis told me, “I did recover. I did recover.”
In subsequent years, Denis was an extra in Robert Bresson’s “Four Nights of a Dreamer” and cast a movie for Andrei Tarkovsky. She also worked as an assistant director for Jacques Rivette and Costa-Gavras, and travelled through the Southwest with Wim Wenders, for “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire,” and the Louisiana bayou with Jim Jarmusch, for “Down by Law.” Wenders had wanted someone “strong and tough,” he told me. He recalled that when he met Denis at the Houston airport, in 1983, a “fragile and relatively petite blond young woman came out of the gate.” Denis said, “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.”
In 1994, a few months after Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, Denis was invited to a film festival in Johannesburg. She travelled there with Alex Descas, and they decided to make a detour to Durban, the childhood home of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Speaking of his poems, Denis said, “There was something I could always read in between the lines. I think because we had both been babies in these faraway countries—far from our language and our grandparents and our food.”
They stayed at a hotel in Durban with a view of the ocean. “Now, when I see the sea, I simply must swim, even if it is winter,” Denis said. “I put on my swimming costume and ran to the beach. And now that Mandela was elected, I thought, no longer would the beach be separated between blacks and whites. Alex asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I ran down there. I was alone on the beach, I swam. And I rested in the sand, and suddenly I saw a teacher with little children, little black boys and girls, walking at the edge of the waves and singing. They began playing in the water, and I was in the exaltation of being in the Indian Ocean in Durban in South Africa at the bottom of the earth, so I ran! I ran to the teacher and the little children and I said, ‘Good morning! Good morning!’ I jumped into the water next to them, and they screamed of fear. I politely moved away and excused myself. I suddenly realized it had been only two months and it was not the proper thing to do.”
The encounter, as Denis described it, features the sublime natural landscape and stark colors of some of her most vivid scenes. Less a storyteller than she is an image-maker, she once became fixated on re-creating the painter Francis Bacon’s “very peculiar” colors, which make it impossible to tell whether the flesh he depicts is “raw or rotten.” Another time, to prepare Descas for a role she took him to a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, to point out the paintings’ “deathlike smiles.”
“She’s creating her own world,” Vincent Maraval, a co-founder of Wild Bunch, a European company that has distributed Denis’s films, said. “She doesn’t really look at what other people think or do. She’s never fashionable. She just describes her obsessions the way they are, not the way they should be, or in a way that might be palatable. She isn’t trying to represent France or women or her era.” Maraval cited as an example “35 Shots of Rum,” from 2008, which depicts a college-aged girl and her loving father, an African immigrant and widower: “They’re not rich, but they’re not gangsters. She made a movie about what is probably the majority of France, and she just looked at these people in a human way.” Almost the entire cast is black, and although students in a classroom scene chatter about Frantz Fanon, there are few explicit allusions to race. It’s as if the matter were both too obvious and too beside the point to bother addressing at all.
Similarly, in “High Life,” some of the convicts are black, but they are not a message-telegraphing majority. When the film’s American producers read the script, they urged Denis to change the fact that the first character to die was a black man. In the U.S. today, they told her, this was just not done. For Americans, Denis said, the problem of racism “is buried so deep. For me, it was not deep.” She refused to change the plot, writing in more dialogue instead. In the final version, André Benjamin’s character says, “See? Even in outer space, the black ones are the first to die.”
With “High Life,” Denis will inevitably receive more international attention than she ever has, but for years many filmmakers have spoken of her as a sort of secret saint. Along with Barry Jenkins, the director Josh Safdie is an admirer, and Greta Gerwig has said that seeing Denis’s “Beau Travail” (1999) made her want to make movies of her own. Based impressionistically on Melville’s “Billy Budd,” “Beau Travail,” shot in Djibouti, follows a group of French legionnaires. Stationed near the salt flats of Lake Assal, without imminent assignment, they alternate between aggression and existential futility. We watch them perform an endless series of almost absurdist rituals: peeling vegetables, ironing creases into trousers that nobody but themselves will see, performing military exercises that resemble ballet choreography.
“It’s such a macho, minimalist film,” said Andrew Lauren, one of the producers of “High Life” and its financier, who saw “Beau Travail” years ago, on the recommendation of his father, the designer Ralph Lauren. “When this new project came to us, and I went back through Denis’s filmography, I was, like, ‘Wait, she did “Beau Travail”?’ I would have sworn that a man made it. She’s like the precursor to Kathryn Bigelow.”
Barry Jenkins told me, “There were sequences of ‘Moonlight’ that just would not have been filmed the way they were had I not been familiar with Claire’s work. Certain things about framing the men and the pace at which we edited their interactions share a lot with ‘Beau Travail.’ ” He laughed as he admitted that, without realizing it, he had shot a scene in “Moonlight” that almost exactly re-created one in “Beau Travail.” In both, men stand alone, languorously smoking cigarettes, as plumes of smoke intermittently float across the frame. “Her metaphors are so delicately constructed,” Jenkins said. “Not every audience member is going to get them, and that’s O.K. She places a tremendous amount of trust in the audience.”
Unlike Denis’s past movies, which were shot on location, mostly in France and Africa, “High Life” was largely filmed at a studio in Cologne, during two months last fall. The cast and Denis stayed at a hotel thirty minutes away. The drive, made each morning and night—often with a P.A. behind the wheel who was described to me as “the worst driver in the history of mankind”—took them past oil refineries, sausage factories, and tractor-trailer bordellos that were parked, with German efficiency, along the highway exits.
By all reports, it was a trying experience. Denis was unused to filming in a studio. She made scene changes constantly and with little warning, sometimes by text message. Benjamin described an atmosphere of inadvertent method acting. “These convicts are all supposed to be from different places—they don’t know one another at first, and they’re just trying to make it,” he said. “And, on set, it was the same! I’m this guy from Atlanta, Claire’s French, obviously, most of the guys on set are German, the actors didn’t know each other. It was a trip.” Robert Pattinson, who, several people said, spent much of his time on set asking existential questions—Wait, who am I in this movie? What are we making here?—told me, “It’s a very abstract way of working. It feels like experimental theatre, frankly.”
Lauren said, “A lot of people were thinking, This is good for my résumé, but I wish I weren’t here.” He continued, “I think, if you make a movie with Claire, you can make any movie.” He compared the process to over-preparing for the SATs, or training at high altitudes, so that your performance at sea level feels easier on game day. At an early color-test screening, held at an ornate theatre in Cologne, Denis’s voice was the only one in the room, saying, “Merde! Crap! What are we doing? Why am I here?” Lauren said he thought “everyone sort of took it personally.”
At the end of each day, the cast and crew convened at the hotel bar. “Everyone would sort of be sitting at different parts of the bar, and she’d walk in and it was, like, Shit! Claire’s here!” Lauren recalled. “I saw a lot of people wanting to leave many, many times, but they stayed. They stay because they love her—even though they can’t stand her.”
Denis does not deny such behavior. “I can be the worst person, the meanest person on a set,” she said. “Shouting, screaming, complaining. I don’t have a lot of respect for myself as a director. People accept me the way I am, because they know I’m not faking. Probably.”
When I described these accounts to the filmmaker Olivier Assayas, a close friend of Denis’s, he laughed. “There’s a certain form of chaos in the way she works,” he said. “When you make movies, it’s always disturbing how confident everyone involved is that they know how things should be done. And you have to constantly remind them, No, you don’t know how it’s done, I don’t know how it’s done, nobody knows how it’s done. You create chaos as a way of destabilizing the surroundings that could bring you to make something that would otherwise be conventional.”
A few days after meeting Denis, I accompanied her on a train trip from Paris to Rennes, where she was serving on the jury of a film festival. It was a dreary morning, the sky damp and rat-colored. “I am covered, as if on the North Pole,” Denis told me, pointing at her coat. We passed through the kind of semirural landscape that surrounds major cities all over the world, and which appears quaint only in countries that are not one’s own. Before settling into conversation, Denis braved the café car, where an excruciatingly slow-moving line had formed before the train even left the station. She stood behind a family, cooing at a baby in Breton stripes.
After buying coffee and taking her seat, Denis began to talk about her mother, who had died, at the age of ninety-four, six months earlier, during the filming of “High Life.” Still in mourning, Denis seemed incapable of avoiding the topic, turning to it in many of our conversations, with little or no segue. “When she was pregnant with my little brother, she had a bad pregnancy and had to stay in bed,” Denis said. After giving birth, her mother became depressed. “I remember very well, this little boy was my son, for a long time, until she recovered and took over. I remember when she was an old lady and she would say, ‘My son, my son!’ She was really in love with her son. And I had to tell her, ‘You know, in the beginning, he was mine!’ And it’s true that at that moment I realized how beautiful it was to see a new baby born, the changes every day.”
Denis, who never remarried, also never had children. Earlier, when we spoke about the decision, or nondecision, she told me, “It was a pain, and then it was a memory, and now I have accepted it.” She added, “Maybe this is just convenient for me, but I never thought of being a mother as an accomplishment for a woman.” At the same time, “loneliness, independence, solitude—it’s heavy,” Denis said. Since her divorce, a half century ago, she has had two long-term companionships. One lasted for twelve years, and the other, with a man whom she would not identify beyond confirming that he’s “also in film,” is, as she put it, “still going on.” She continued, “It’s also heavy to be a couple, but solitude is something very special that clearly tells you at some moments, in the day or night, that if you were to die in the next moment you wouldn’t ever again see a human face.”
We had been speaking for almost two hours, and Denis’s throat was beginning to strain. There were quiet patches in her speech that made her exhaustion sound like sadness, even when she was recounting joy. Denis, as many people told me, takes real pleasure from the world. Long after she had finished working with Aurelien Barrau, a French astrophysicist with whom she consulted on “High Life,” Denis continued to call him, to describe beautiful sights she had encountered while walking—once, a tree shivering in the wind in a way she thought he would enjoy. Des Hamilton, Denis’s casting director, told me about her devotion to a particular brand of Eccles cakes, and about how she adored a silk scarf she had bought while in his company. “You know when you purchase something, you can get a little high?” he said. “Well, with Claire, her high is sustained for far longer than most people’s.”
Denis’s sensuality may play some part in explaining her relationships with actors, which nearly everyone I spoke with described in romantic terms. “It has a taste of eroticism rather than psychology,” Agnes Godard, Denis’s longtime cinematographer, told me. Hamilton recalled witnessing the initial meeting between Denis and Pattinson, in Los Angeles, and feeling like “these are two people on a date, and I really shouldn’t be here, maybe I should actually remove myself?” With obvious pride, Denis recounted how Pattinson took the train from London to visit her in Paris. “He came to me like a friend,” she told me. “You know, in London, Robert has to hide because of girls?” (A representative for Pattinson said, “He doesn’t hide from anyone.”) Lauren told me, “Claire likes to be wooed. She wants her actors and actresses to want her as much as she wants them.” He said that on set “they become, metaphorically, either her babies or her lovers—it’s a bit hard to tell which.”
The adoration is reciprocal, in large part because of the sustained and obsessive attention Denis pays her actors, an absorption that resembles love. “I got the sense she was contemplating everything about me at all times,” the actress Tricia Vessey, who appeared in “Trouble Every Day,” told me. “You feel like you’re being thought of in ways that people don’t usually think of you.” Thought of, but also felt. “I touch them,” Denis told me. “I have to.” She worries sometimes that actors find the approach “shocking” and too French. “Instead of telling them, ‘Can you please move your head two centimetres to the left,’ it can be so much better to come and slightly move the head. And I know it’s not normal, but I feel like I have to do that.”
Onscreen, Denis can make even the oddest-looking faces appear iconic. “Whatever happens in a film, the minimum of the minimum for the director and for the D.P. is to see the real beauty in the actress or actor,” she told me. “And by beauty of course I don’t mean perfection.” She went on, “I know that maybe the script is not perfect, maybe I am not the greatest director, but at least I know I’m looking for something, that little shine.”
When she finds it, she is overcome. She nearly fainted when she saw Beatrice Dalle emerge on the set of “Trouble Every Day” in her wardrobe and makeup. “We had to stop shooting,” Denis recalled. “I couldn’t breathe.” Even twenty years later, when she speaks with Dalle, she sees that night as though it were just five minutes ago. “She walked through these neon lights. Everything was white and red. It was too much, it was too great.” “35 Shots of Rum” was the same. Near the end of the film, the daughter, played by Mati Diop, appears in a white dress. It seems that she is getting married. She looks like a woman but also like a child, and her father knows that he’ll soon lose her. “It was a sequence shot,” Denis said, “and we made two takes and I was crying. Not one tear—it was rivers. But, of course, it’s fiction.” ♦
Original Link: The Fearless Cinema of Claire Denis
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