Claire Denis is about to join a march. “In France, May 1st is a very important day for protest, a tradition from the times of the Revolution” she tells me from her office. Before one of France’s most visceral auteurs takes to the streets, she is spending some time discussing her oeuvre, in particular this year’s Stars at Noon, nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes. But Denis and I can’t help but put the world to rights first, discussing the French elections and war in Ukraine: “I think it’s most necessary to protest today…When I think about the way I feel about these situations, it’s as though I am in a rough river, trying to swim but I cannot.”
It’s a startling way to describe hopelessness. Indeed, this ability to evoke emotions with analogous imagery is – according to certain critics and audiences – something Denis has mastered in her cinema. Her works are riddled with thoughtful allegories that marry the sensuality of human bodies and feeling with natural landscapes: the legionnaires on salt marshes in Beau Travail, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi nodding to The Beach Boys in Nenette and Boni, or Protée showering in Chocolat are unforgettable for what they say, as much as for what we see on screen. Search ‘Claire Denis’ on the internet, and you will find pages of amateur essays and breakdowns of each scene, written with the authority of a seasoned film academic. YouTube’s would-be-Eberts upload companion videos discussing her most complex themes. When I ask if she thinks people over-scrutinise her work, she adds, “I don’t get into it. To read what people write about me and my films is frightening. I don’t need that. It’s too heavy. It would destroy me…” Then again, she ponders, when questioned on the sort of reaction she expects her latest to have, “When I finish a film, it’s no longer mine anyway. It’s theirs [the audience’s]… I had to recolour my film Chocolat, as it might be in the Cannes Classic,” Denis says, “Watching the images made thirty-six years ago, I thought, ‘It’s not me anymore.’ I remember every image, of course – the smell; the colours; and cinematographer Agnès [Godard] still works with me. It is me. But time has moved by, and I live in the present.”
Looking to the present, then, Stars at Noon, an adaptation of the novel by Denis Johnson, will be her second film released in 2022. The first, Both Sides of the Blade (previously called Fire; even film titles are allegorical for Denis) was made during the lockdown. But Stars has been in production for more than four years, a fictional tale based on Johnson’s experiences of Nicaragua’s Revolution. Filming resumed once the director was able to travel again, but Denis’ interest in the story began a decade ago, when she bought his books in Los Angeles: “As I read them, not only did they break my heart, but the story had so much love…” she tells me, looking away as though reminiscing over that first read-through: “It’s hard to describe. I felt as though he knew something unique. Since then, his writing has been a companion to me.”
After meeting Johnson twice, Denis sought out locations, flying to Nicaragua and replacing her isolation in Paris with the dusty imperial squares of Managua. Having spent her childhood in French Africa (an experience she has revisited in her oeuvre) does the book’s resonance lie in her own nostalgia as a Westerner in the tropics? It’s a thought she brushes off: “Hmm…I wouldn’t say there’s a semi-autobiographical element to this interest. I just think this book was meant for me,” she admits, mentioning that, although set in 1984, she decided against the temptation of making it a period piece. “I hated the idea of re-installing the beauty of that [Sardinista] revolution. So, we brought the story to the present.” With obstacles to filming on location, owing to tensions around Nicaragua’s elections, and tricky shooting permissions, she settled on Panama.
Denis describes the original location to me as a painting, dripping with ocean water and volcanic smoke, and those of us who have stared longingly at Beau Travail will have some idea of how she manipulates these landscapes into visual poetry. When I mention my love for that film’s setting, the director explains the first time she showed Djibouti to Agnès Godard: “She was amazed. But I told her: ‘Let’s swear together, Agnès, that we will never do a shot of landscapes without a character.’ Of course, the setting is important: An apartment. A car. A street. The sun. The rain. But mostly, my work is rooted in the character.”
As with High Life, Denis is working with a mostly English-speaking main cast for her characters. Margaret Qualley was first considered after she saw her performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (during one strange, playful moment, Denis performs Qualley’s ‘crying’ gesture after I teach her the Ali G hand-flick) and Brit Joe Alwyn arrived, “as a sort of fate.” Qualley has waited two-and-a-half-years specifically to work on this project. Alwyn was brought in much later. “It’s like Joe,” she notes, mid-way through answering a question; her antenna for small human behaviours stimulated by a slip I have in conversation, “You keep saying amazing all the time. Amazing. Amazing. Must be an English thing,” she laughs, “a couple of years ago, you were all saying awesome.”
Everything is amazing (or awesome) isn’t it? The interior human drama of Both Sides of the Blade, and the sweeping Stars at Noon, are released the same year, and proves that the director has no intentions of slowing down. When asked about whether she would consider taking a break, she stares at me as though it is the most ridiculous thought in the world. “Not at all. I have two projects…Two and a half maybe.”
Before preparing for those, her focus will be on presenting the film at Cannes, which will be her second Palme d’Or nomination since her 1988 debut. “Only in my dreams would I have two films in a row,” she notes. “We just did Both Sides… at Berlin, and then I thought, another festival? More press. I was afraid.”
There is the sense that Denis isn’t so much afraid of award ceremonies persay, but what she often refers to in our conversation as her loss of freedom. Making films is all she wants to do, she tells me. The other stuff is appreciated, but merely necessary. “My freedom is in making smaller budget movies, with a certain type of freedom that I enjoy; not to be obliged to follow certain rules. But then again,” she reflects, “I’m not entirely free. I feel like I can be an unbalanced person sometimes. But I certainly need to feel the freedom, you know?”
There is some self-awareness in her role as an auteur. No doubt, Stars at Noon will suffer or profit from the same sort of investigation as her previous works. “Of course, I know I am not James Cameron. I am French, and I live with a French economy of cinema. But if you gave me a big budget like his, I would probably be dead by now,” she says.
Perhaps this is because she is a little crazy, Denis admits, recalling a conversation with Jim Jarmusch in which he warmly accused her of being so. “Making cinema is probably the nervous system going crazy…My mother was a little crazy too. She had a deep love for film. When I was a child, we lived in Africa, in the bush. There was no movie theatre. Instead of reading to us before bed, she would recount a horror or suspense film she watched as a child with her father, and we would be screaming at her [laughs].”
Whatever Denis saw in her mind, as her mother recounted those celluloid creep-fests – perhaps some Franju or Hammer production – in their African home, far away from France, may have planted the seeds that would inspire her singular cinematic imagination. To many movie-goers, Claire Denis is no doubt a master, even if she is unwilling to say so herself. But for all the fawning, the misreadings, or the visceral arousal viewers have when the credits roll, for Denis, it goes back to the basics: making art. Not for art’s sake, she assures me, but because she feels that she has to. “You know,” she says, looking away once again, as though deep in thought, “making films can be hard and painful…I never consider them as an artistic gesture. I always consider making films as an urgency.”
Speaking of urgency, it’s time for the march. As we bid our farewells – Denis preparing for the protest, gathering her lily of the valley as so many in France will have done that day – she smiles and warmly teases me about my earlier use of ‘amazing’ again. It’s a nice way for an artist who is so alert to the intricacies of human behaviour to leave a conversation. Perhaps, though, like many of her audience, I’m just reading too much into it. “Well…” she grins, “Goodbye Mr Amazing.”