After winning the Berlinale Silver Bear Award with “Both Sides of the Blade” (“Fire”), Claire Denis and her longtime pal Jim Jarmusch shared filmmaking tips and anecdotes from their decades-spanning careers on stage at the New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Within minutes of watching Denis and Jarmusch laugh and gush over each other, it was clear that these two have been friends for a very long time and have admired each other’s work. Denis, who has a soft yet determined voice, has known Jarmusch since working as an assistant director on his 1986 film “Down by Law.”
“I was counting and we’ve known each other for 37 years or something like that, and what that means is we’re old, but it also means to you, young people, that shit goes by fast. But the good thing about that is the many incredibly beautiful films Claire has done,” said Jarmusch, who admitted to being a “huge fan” of Binoche because she’s a “fearless actor.” He said he met her the night before at the opening night dinner of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the posh Villa Albertine and “stole her place card.”
Denis is presenting “Both Sides of the Blade” at the festival, which is curated by Film at Lincoln Center and co-organized by Unifrance, the French film and TV advocacy group. Jarmusch is this year’s guest of honor of the event. Highlights have also included Binoche’s talk with Cesar-winning young actor Déborah Lukumuena and Unifrance’s president Serge Toubiana’s discussion with Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf about his book “L’Amie Americaine,” which sheds light on the fascinating life of Helen Scott, Francois Truffaut’s close friend and translator.
Jarmusch, whose latest film “The Dead Don’t Die” with Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Tom Waits opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, said Denis seemed to be driven by her intuition and instincts rather than have a clear career path. He alluded to Denis’ last three wide-ranging films starring Juliette Binoche; the sexy sci-fi pic “High Life,” with Robert Pattinson; and romantic dramas “Let The Sunshine In” and “Both Sides of the Blade,” a two-hander with Vincent Lindon (“Titane”).
The celebrated indie helmer said he had a similar approach to filmmaking. “I mean, there are people who storyboard everything. There’s like this sort of Hitchcock formulas of films that are beautiful machines in their way. But how boring it would be to make them that way, I think,” said Jarmusch. He added Denis seemed to “aspire to shoot films and capture the stuff from which [she] will construct in the editing room.”
He said he’s learned that when “you have a rough cut of a film, making big changes in the edit affect the film in a small way. But when you get the film toward being a tight edit, making a tiny change affects the film in a big way.”
Denis, who’s currently editing her latest film “Stars at Noon,” said she “[loves] the idea that the theme of each film is driving me and that it’s obscure in a way.” “It’s helping me because if I was analyzing every film, I guess I would be afraid,” Denis added.
Denis spoke about the genesis of “Both Sides of the Blade” which she co-wrote with the novelist Christine Angot based on the latter’s novel. “Everything was shut down because of COVID. I was cooking every day, mainly making hummus. I could not write a script (…) and Christine said maybe we can look in my last novel,” said Denis, who ended up shooting the film with her producer Olivier Delbosc while Paris was on lockdown after plans to make “Stars at Noon” were put on hold due to the pandemic.
“The basic theme of that novel is how hard it is to run into ex lover… And we did it fast with a tight budget and a little group of people with whom I’ve worked for a long time,” said Denis, referring to Lindon, Binoche and Gregoire Colin.
Denis said she was feeling down at the time and the film pulled her out of this gloominess in spite of the intense shoot. “It was a weird thing and I think Juliette [Binoche] and Vincent [Lindon] were like the engine of this thing. They were like a tank. And I was on the top of the tank with the cinematographer and we’re trying to follow them; their energy was really amazing,” she reminisced. IFC Film will release the movie under the title “Fire” in April.
The pair also discussed technical aspects of filmmaking, agreeing on the fact that they both liked to work with a limited number of lenses. “I feel better if I know we will use two or three lenses and no more than that,” said Denis. Jarmusch concurred, saying that he “likes to be limited by having small number of lenses.” He said he always look to the Japanese film master Yasujirō Ozu “who used really one lens.” Speaking of limitations, Denis said she shot the opening scene with Binoche and Lindon cuddling in the turquoise — but freezing — sea with an iPhone in nearby Corsica because it wasn’t on the budget.
Jarmusch also praised Denis for her international background and perspective which are reflected through her films.
“You’re French, but you’re not French in a way to me because you grew up in Africa, you grew up moving around with your father and you were exposed to cultures that are not French and you were also from a very young age able to see and understand colonialism and its effects and things that other French people are kind of kept away from,” said Jarmusch. Denis went on to speak about some personal movies she’s made such as “Chocolat” and “35 Rhums” that allude to her family bonds, upbringing and thoughts on colonialism.
Denis admitted that she was nervous to be on stage with Jarmusch. “I was afraid because you opened my mind so much when I was working with you, I felt the world was opening up, you gave me a sort of confidence,” said the self deprecating director. She added that Jarmusch also “showed (her) also the happy moment of filmmaking.”
“I’ll never forget since then because I’m not a very funny person — I’m basically anxious and sad,” Denis said, sparking laughter within the audience.
The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York is wrapping up on March 13.