Broadcasting under lockdown from her home in Paris, director Claire Denis presented a three-hour masterclass this past Wednesday, offering insights into her career as she accepted an honor from the Vision du Réel film festival.
Vision du Réel artistic director Emilie Bujès and Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier moderated the in-depth discussion, which will soon be made available with English subtitles on the festival’s site.
The francophone fest named Denis as this year’s ‘Maître du Réel’ (master of the real) – an honorary prize celebrating the filmmaker’s work in both narrative fiction and documentary.
“I wouldn’t have considered myself a master of the real,” quipped the filmmaker as she accepted the tribute. “I thought that might have been a character from a Kung Fu film.”
Reflecting on the influence of ‘realism’ in her work, Denis described her filmography as being informed by “the non-stability of our lived experienced” and the importance of desire.
“Life doesn’t flow so naturally,” she explained. “In the real world we desire without knowing if those desires will be fulfilled. I never tried to become a director of the ‘real’ – I just sought to depict characters like myself, characters who expect things out of life but aren’t sure they’ll actually get them.”
With that, Denis retraced her life’s path, from her childhood growing up in West Africa to her early days in the film business, working under the mentorship of director Jacques Rivette.
“Having not been exposed to many films throughout my childhood and early adolescence, I didn’t at all feel legitimate,” said Denis.
“I saw many people around me in the industry who were illegitimate, which only reinforced my misgivings. That’s why Jacques Rivette was like a giver, a guardian. He said that legitimacy was something I could claim for myself, that I didn’t need to have it conferred upon me. But that took time.”
Throughout the 1980s, Denis worked as an assistant director for filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and it was working on Wenders’ 1984 Palme d’Or winner “Paris, Texas” that she started piecing together her feature debut.
“[Shooting in the American south-west,] I saw the landscapes of cinema, landscapes I had seen ever since I started watching films,” she explained. “I realized that these landscapes belonged to cinema, and to Wim’s film, but they didn’t belong to me. Surprisingly, they left me untouched and indifferent.”
“I realized that the landscapes that did mean something to me were those of North Cameroon. So after shooting ‘Paris, Texas’ I returned to Cameroon and wrote the screenplay [for ‘Chocolat’].”
Denis followed up her 1988 debut – which centered on a privileged white family in the waning days of French colonialism – with 1990’s “No Fear, No Die,” about a pair of immigrants from those now-former colonies living on the outskirts of Paris.
Taking a torn-from-the-headlines murder case and reforming it into an examination of social alienation, her subsequent feature, “I Can’t Sleep,” drew a fair share of controversy when it premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, leaving Denis somewhat dismayed.
“I was scared for [actor] Richard Courcel, [who played the fictionalized killer],” she said. “In film noirs, characters with darker skin are judged and viewed differently, and that’s very tough.”
“I don’t think any human comes into the world a natural born killer, I don’t think we’re born to kill,” she continued. “Whenever I made a film that featured a murder or a suicide, I wanted to give those particular characters the chance to exist apart from that. To not be defined by one act.”
Fielding questions from the two moderators and a number of local film students patching into the stream, Denis touched on diverse elements of her filmography, evoking her longtime collaboration with the rock group Tindersticks, her documentary output with films like “Jacques Rivette, le veilleur,” “Towards Mathilde” and “The Breidjing Camp,” and on the importance of sensuality in her work.
“[The act of making] cinema creates a sensual connection with an actor,” said Denis. “There’s nothing more beautiful than filming someone and uncovering their own beauty, their human vitality, be it masculine or feminine.”
“I’ve never cast someone just because they were a fine actor – there’s need to be an attraction, and that attraction needs to be reciprocal,” she continued.
“You need a kind of mutual seduction to bring a character to life… Actors use their bodies and voices as tools, so you need to attuned to those elements or the film cannot work.”
However she did push back against a common characterization of her style. “I’m often told I focus on bodies and bodies and bodies,” she cracked. “I get the impression people think of me as a coroner. But when someone is alive, their body is on their face and in their voice as well.”
“I never set out to shoot this or that part of the body. I’m not interested in the body, I’m interested in the presence – in that first impression you get upon seeing someone.”
As if to illustrate, Denis then offered her takes on Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson, stars of her most recent film, “High Life.”
“Juliette Binoche is a strong and powerful actress, and you can sense that strength and power she carries in her body just by shooting her in close-up as she’s seated in a train,” said Denis. “You see everything when you shoot a face.”
Of Pattinson, she remarked: “There’s something hidden in him. I think that’s why he’s so strong. He’s not at all naturalistic — he has this plastic beauty behind which hides something mysterious. That’s very powerful in cinema.”
As the class drew to a close, Denis shifted focus from the particulars of any one project towards her broader experience as a filmmaker. Speaking at length about her working relationships with screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau and cinematographer Agnès Godard, Denis granted that she might be something of bête noire for her longtime editor, Guy Lecorne.
“I arrive in the editing room with the accumulation of all my doubts,” she said. “Then the editor has to streamline those doubts, channeling them into something.”
“I think I pose a problem for them,” she wryly added, “because I know that step will be my last altercation with the film. By the time I get to sound mixing, I’m already in the process of leaving the project behind.”
If Denis described the editing process as a challenging if ultimately joyous experience, she had more misgivings about the subsequent, promotional steps.
“Working on set, you can communicate with nothing but a sigh,” she began. “Together with the actors and crew, you share a collective energy and intimacy. You feel sad when that comes to an end — you feel abandoned by the film. You feel a chasm, an emptiness, and that is the exact moment you’re asked to go out, to stand sentinel and represent it.”
“With the passage of time, you redefine your relationship to the work, but going right from the editing room to a festival premiere is a difficult,” she noted, “Because I appreciate that emptiness.”