Since her 1988 debut Chocolat, Claire Denis has established herself as one of France's most respected film directors, with a wide-ranging body of work and a taste for danger. Her latest film, White Material, which stars Isabelle Huppert, draws again upon her colonial African childhood, and its violence has sparked controversy in the French press. Not that she cares…
One of the lingering charms of the Left Bank of Paris in the 21st century is that, although much of the area has long since surrendered to chain stores and fast-food joints, the streets between Boulevard Saint-Michel and rue Mouffetard are still dotted with fleapit cinemas with names such as L'Accattone, Studio Galande and Le Champo. On any given afternoon – to take a random sample from the programmes on offer in these places last week – you can take in Battleship Potemkin, a Buñuel retrospective, a lesser-known Fellini, or Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (an obscure western from 1954 that is incomprehensibly revered by all French true believers in the art of cinema). Most amazing of all is that these picture-houses are almost always packed, even on a sunny Monday afternoon in June (which is when I took the sample). For French film-buffs these are historic, even sacred sites. Hollywood may be the capital of the film world, but no one takes their movies more seriously than Parisians.
Nowhere is this more true than in the cafe of the Cinéma du Panthéon, one of the most important temples for Parisian cinéphiles. Appropriately enough, this is where I meet up with the film director Claire Denis. For the past decade or so, Denis has regularly been hailed as one of the leading French directors of her generation. This is mainly because, as her track record demonstrates, she is fearless. She does not shy away from difficult subjects – including sex, cannibalism, incest, politics, murder, race, sometimes all of them at the same time. It is this bravery that has inspired many critics to hail her as not only one of the most technically accomplished directors of recent years, but also as one of the leading chroniclers of 21st-century France in all its postcolonial complexity. She has even recently been mooted by at least one serious critic as "one of the greatest film-makers working today".
Our meeting is to discuss her latest movie, White Material – a fairly big-budget production starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, which has just opened in the UK. The cafe is packed with young people drinking coffee and discussing, with touching Gallic intensity, film theory, Marxism and Jean-Luc Godard (his latest film has just been screened in the neighbouring cinema). Claire Denis is amused by this spectacle and sympathetic to it but insists that this is really not her world. "I am not an intellectual like these youngsters," she says, looking around. "I never was. I am not at all interested in theories about cinema. I am only interested in images and people and sound. I am really a very simple person."
This much is obviously untrue. The sheer range of Denis's accomplishments suggests that, at the very least, this is a woman who thinks a lot about the world and her place in it. She married at 19, got divorced and has no children. Her early film career, when she worked as an assistant on film sets, was partly financed by her husband's money. Apart from this, she gives little away about her personal life and cultivates an austere public image. In photographs she is often gaunt and severe-looking, a look which has led to speculation over her sexuality. In the flesh, however, at 62 years old, she dresses sexily in a mini-skirt, black tights and leather boots, though her face is stern, at least for now. At first sight she is a mildly intimidating cross between Barbara Windsor and Simone de Beauvoir.
Denis first came to international prominence in 1988 with the film Chocolat, the story of a little French girl growing up in a remote colonial outpost in central Africa. The focus of the tale is on the little girl's complicated friendship with an older black servant. The film was praised as announcing a new maturity in French cinema, reflecting the complicated sexual and racial tensions at the core of the relations between the coloniser and the colonised. Chocolat was nominated for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
Since then, Denis has made nine feature-length films that have established her as a key figure in world cinema. In some ways, Chocolat has been her most conventional work. Among the most critically acclaimed of her other films are S'en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990), a film about two Africans involved in cock-fighting, J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1994), a study of a black serial killer adrift in Paris that was based on a notorious real-life case, Beau Travail (Good Work, 1999), a homoerotic reworking of Melville's Billy Budd set among foreign legionnaires in the Algerian desert, and 35 rhums (2008), a tale of working-class family life in multi-ethnic Paris. One of her most recent projects was L'intrus (The Intruder), a film about the heart transplant of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy was a friend of Jacques Derrida and is a sophisticated critic of Hegel and postmodernity, and hardly the kind of "ordinary person" that you might find in the films of Claire Denis.
When I ask Denis what brings together these disparate strands, her response is characteristically oblique:"I suppose I am interested in the variety of human life – how people live. I am most interested in individuals and how they respond to challenges or to difficulties, or just to each other. I am curious about people. So that's why I do a lot of different things. The cinema should be human and be part of people's lives; it should focus on ordinary existences in sometimes extraordinary situations and places. That is what really motivates me."
There is probably no such thing as a typical film by Claire Denis, but White Material is consistent with this vision of the role of cinema. It is set in an unnamed African country about to collapse into civil war. This is a blasted, haunted landscape, populated by demonic child soldiers and a shadowy guerrilla army that slaughters in the bush or under the cover of night. From the opening sequences on, everyone we meet, from the local mayor to farmers and shopkeepers, is visibly terrified.
Against this background Maria Vial, a French coffee farmer, struggles to save her crop as her workers abandon her in the weeks leading up to the harvest. This role is played with steely magnificence by Isabelle Huppert, who brings to it a combination of strength and fragility. Maria feels that she belongs in Africa because she works the land, but she is alone, vulnerable and white in a country where the majority population is black. This provides Denis with material for some brilliant visual motifs. Huppert is dressed in white for the early part of the film and always shot against a darkening background. Her almost translucent features are photographed in close-up as she sweats and suffers.
On its release in France White Material was lauded as another Denis masterpiece by the serious critics from Le Monde to Les Inrockuptibles. Not all reviewers have been sympathetic, however. White Material contains long stretches of images that have no apparent narrative purpose. This is a recurring device in Denis's films and one which, when overused, can frustrate the viewer and it is probably why, despite her star-studded cast, Denis has yet to cross over into the middle-brow middle ground occupied by most ordinary French cinema-goers.
The most potentially damaging review, however, appeared in the pages of the magazine Marianne, known for its provocative style. Film critic Danièle Heymann applauded Denis as both "artistically superb" and "politically incorrect". What exactly did this mean? Was she suggesting that Denis was perhaps using her white characters to demonstrate the moral superiority of the whites over the "savage" blacks in Africa in a situation of crisis? Did she even mean that Denis was defending the rights of the white farmers in present-day Zimbabwe?
"Of course not," Denis says now, "but I do know Africa. It was where I was brought up after all and I understand something of how different from Europe it is. It is always much more dense than people think. But sometimes things are literally black and white. So I wanted to show in this film how being white in Africa gives you a special status, almost a kind of magical aura. It protects you from misery and starvation. But although it can protect you, it is dangerous too. This is what Maria has to learn. The danger for Maria is that she thinks she belongs in Africa because she is close to the land and the people. She cannot return to France because she thinks that it will weaken her. But she learns that she doesn't belong in Africa as much as she thinks. For many white people in Africa this is the reality."
Denis has stated publicly that she is an admirer of Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a psychiatrist from Martinique who detested French colonialism and worked for the Algerian side until his death in 1961. In his key books Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) and Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), Fanon argued that colonialism was a form of psychic violence that destroyed the identity of the colonised. As a response to this, Fanon advocated total rejection of European civilisation. Instead, the colonised must create a new culture, defined by force of arms if necessary. He called this "the will to be a nigger".
Denis read Fanon when she was about 14 and found his ideas devastating. What she found most humbling in his work was his analysis of the degrading effect of the shame and humiliation, which infect coloniser and colonised alike. "I understood that humiliation was the important feeling that people had in this relationship," she says, "and this is on both sides, black and white."
Claire Denis was born in Paris but spent her childhood in Africa, where her father worked for the French colonial administration. The family moved house every two years, mainly through the French colonies that would become Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Djibouti. Unusually for the 1950s, her father spoke several African languages and was in favour of independence for African nations. He was a personal friend of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, an intellectual and the first president of Ivory Coast. Denis loved Africa, felt it was home, and was traumatised when, at the age of 13, she and her sister were forced to go back to Paris, having contracted polio. She returned, aged 17, to finish her school studies in Senegal, but something had been broken.
What this childhood gave her above all, Denis tells me, was a sense of wonder. "When I came back to France I realised that I had seen things that other children had not seen – elephants, zebras, deserts. What other children dreamed about, I had actually seen with my own eyes." When Denis moved back to Paris in the late 1960s to pick up her formal studies she says that she never lost the memory of this hallucinatory landscape. She graduated in 1972 from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC), the prestigious film institute in Paris. She then went on to work as an assistant with Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. "This is when I really fell in love with cinema," she says. "I began to love the whole process of organising the technology, the actors, and the team. For me, it is a total experience of art in action."
Denis co-wrote the script of White Material with Marie NDiaye, a 43-year-old novelist of Franco-Senegalese origin. NDiaye had her first novel published at the age of 17 and, in 2001, was awarded the Prix Femina for her novel Rosie Carpe. In 2009, she won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in France, for her novel Trois puissantes femmes (Three Powerful Women). Given NDiaye's parallel interest in the French colonial experience and its aftermath, as well as her taste for novelty and experiment, this seemed the perfect artistic marriage. There were, however, rumours in the French press that all had not gone as well as it might have done. NDiaye has a reputation as a prickly character and Denis is not exactly known for her easy-going manner. Was there truth in the rumours of a clash of egos?
"Well, that is not exactly what happened," says Denis. "But there were circumstances at the beginning of our relationship that we had to sort out. Marie is a writer and she is used to spending a lot of time on her own, but I always work with people and when I do that I have to spend time with them – a lot of time walking, swimming, eating, talking, living with them. I know that Marie found this difficult at first. She was used to working and thinking without a partner. But we travelled together to Africa and that's when the work came together. I had an African childhood, which Marie did not have, and we discussed that, and what it meant to be white in Africa, and it was from that contradiction that we began to put together White Material."
Denis is impatient with the notion that Chocolat or White Material are autobiographical or even related as films. "No, White Material is not related to Chocolat," she says firmly. "There is no connection at all. They are entirely different visions of Africa and the cinema. Chocolat is about friendship and family, and maybe sex and longing, and White Material is about remaining strong in the face of danger."
I wonder whether the theme of White Material is in any sense linked to Marguerite Duras's novel Un Barrage contre le Paficique (published in 1950 and translated into English as The Sea Wall). This is a part-autobiographical novel in which Duras recounts part of her adolescence growing up in French Indochina, and partly a study of French colonialism. It is interesting that this book has twice been made into a film in French – most recently in 2008, starring none other than Isabelle Huppert in a role not unlike the character she plays in White Material.
Denis softens at this. "Marguerite Duras was a very good friend of mine and an intellectual hero. She was also a sort of mother figure. Of course she was an influence. We had a lot in common in our backgrounds. But you have to remember, too, that French colonialism was not just the same experience all over the world. In Algeria the pieds noirs [French settlers] thought that they actually lived in a country called French Algeria and that this was their homeland, even if it was only a fantasy. For people like Marguerite and me, in Indochina or black Africa, we grew up somehow with the sense that we didn't belong, that we were outsiders. So, yes, there are things about that way of growing up that never leave you. There is a sense of marginality perhaps. That is definitely so."
I also wonder whether Denis's film-making technique owed anything to Duras's literary methods. In the 1950s and 1960s Duras was an avatar of the literary movement called the "nouveau roman". This was a way of building a narrative that leaves out all essential elements – plotting, psychology, narrative twists – leaving only the core inner experience of the central characters as the real texture of the book. This can sometimes be pretentious and deeply tedious, which is why the novels of leading "nouveaux romanciers" such as Alain Robbe-Grillet or Claude Sarraute now seem so dated. But in the hands of a skilled artist such as Duras the technique has a strange, compelling power, especially when she dealt in subjective experiences such as eroticism, grief, terror or joy.
"It is true that I have taken something from Duras, as a writer and as a woman," Denis says. "I grew up mainly reading detective novels and the usual classics at school. But I do admire Duras's novels, and particularly the way that she leaves crucial details out of the book so you are always guessing at the meaning. I have also read Georges Bataille, who was a friend of Duras and a good philosopher, and he talks about life in this way. It is a way of describing how we really live. We are always trying and failing to understand the world and ourselves. We never really know the final meaning of our lives. Literature and the cinema should reflect that."
For all her avowed interest in the drama of humanity, Denis is vague to the point of opacity about her own family life. But as I probe her relationship with her parents, she makes the most self-revealing comment in our conversation, remarking that for her cinema should be like her dreams. So what does she dream of? "I dream about a lot of things. I worry about the normal things that a person worries about – my parents are old and my father is ill. My mother is tough but he is not. I worry about my own health, the health of the people I love. I am a human being and my dreams are about all of these things, not always good, not always bad."
This is key to understanding the mysteries of the cinema of Claire Denis. She is fascinated by the intimacy and frailty of human relations, and tries not to categorise or define those experiences. She is drawn to extremes of experience – violence is a key motif, but so are betrayal and troubled sexuality. This tendency has led her to make mistakes. Perhaps her most disastrous error was the 2001 film Trouble Every Day, starring Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle. Its ludicrous plot about sex-hungry cannibalistic vampires in Paris drew derisive laughter when it was screened in Cannes and its gory scenes had even hardened horror fans retching in disgust. Denis found herself briefly bracketed with the "new French extremity" wave of films, fashionable in the late 1990s for depicting sex and death with pornographic relish. "Extreme" directors included the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat and Bertrand Bonello, who all claimed to be extending the boundaries of the cinema by outdoing one another in nastiness.
That is not where Claire Denis belonged at all. At this distance the best we could agree about Trouble Every Day is that the sly and moody soundtrack by British band Tindersticks is superb. Denis has a longstanding association with Tindersticks' singer Stuart Staples and the band have provided several soundtracks to her films, including White Material.
At its best, however, her work is truly "prismatic". That is a word, often overused by cinema critics, to describe work that is dreamy, elliptical and apparently disconnected from real life. Denis's approach is to take on reality from a variety of angles – she refracts real experience with a cinematic method that always seeks to conceal more than it reveals. In this way, as seen in the dream-like, terrible landscapes of White Material, she can literally open up a new field of vision.
This approach was not part of her ambition when she started making pictures, she says now. "I always wanted to make an epic. I love epic adventures as I have always loved travelling. An epic adventure takes you on a journey to a place that you have never been before. That is why I love the cinema of David Lean. When you went to see Ryan's Daughter or Lawrence of Arabia, he took you on a journey, and you never knew quite where it was going, or what it was all going to mean. That kind of cinema is gone now. The technology has changed. The digital era also means that the money has gone. But it is a proud ambition for a film-maker to have, to take the viewer somewhere new."
So does this mean that for all her reputation as a difficult and tricky film-maker, she also has a simpler aim: to entertain? "The cinema gives pleasure, certainly. But most of all for me, film-making is a journey into the impossible. When I make a film I have to be like a military commander, in charge of every strategy and tactic, but I never really know where we are going."
At this point she leans across to me, and she finally has a warm if secretive smile. "But of course," she says, "I can never let anyone know this."