One of the world's greatest working filmmakers and perhaps the cinema's reigning impressionist, Claire Denis makes movies that are at once both cold and bracingly human, the mercilessness of her inquiries belying the bottomless curiosity that makes them so compulsively watchable. Often intrigued by knotted post-colonial stories that are told through the poetry of bodies and the stains of violence, Denis – since making her feature debut in 1988 with "Chocolat" (the one about national identity in Cameroon, not the one about Johnny Depp eating sweets) – has become one of the stabilizing forces of world cinema, each of her films confronting the depths of our desire with the limits of our control. Now 65, Denis' diverse body of work has come to include portraits of bloodthirsty cannibals, serendipitous Parisian romances and everything in between – if each of her movies is ultimately more of an investigation than a story, they're all possessed with the singular, almost subliminal power to devastate you with what they discover.
Denis is perhaps most revered for her endings (the closing credits sequence in "Beau Travail" is pretty much why movies and / or eyeballs exist), and her new film is certainly not going to diminish that reputation. "Les Saluds" (or "Bastards", as it's being released in the U.S.) alternately feels like a composite of Denis' biggest ideas, and something completely new. A Parisian revenge saga that's cloaked in unusually perverse noir overtones and purposefully riddled with holes like a pulpy true-crime novel with all of its punctuation removed, "Bastards" begins with a suicide, ends with a sinister sexual act, and in between conveys the fractured tale of a violated girl named Justine (Lola Créton), the powerful businessman her mother holds responsible for the crime (Michel Subor), his younger girlfriend (Chiara Mastroianni) and her new lover (Vincent Lindon as Marco, Justine's uncle). It may sound conventional, but it's ultimately (and unmistakably) a film by Claire Denis, an elliptical thriller about human failings that dissects and destroys the various roles assigned in the aftermath of a family tragedy.
Claire Denis recently traveled to NYC to accompany "Bastards" as it played at the New York Film Festival in advance of its American release, where I was granted the opportunity to chat with her for 25 minutes or so in the offices above Lincoln Center. She was wearing leopard-print boots, and they were glorious.
FILM.COM I love your shoes.
CLAIRE DENIS: I brought them to be strong enough to travel. I needed something to... you know, my traveling shoes.
[Laughs] When I travel I usually wear slippers.
I love slippers! I was in Rio four days ago and I was wearing those shoes that everyone wears in Rio.
Well from Rio to Paris... I suppose the most obvious place to start would be the title. The titles of your films are always very helpful, simultaneously both poetic and instructive. Can you talk about if you always knew you wanted to call this film "Bastards"?
Yeah, because I stole it from a Kurosawa film.
"The Bad Sleep Well", right? So, in French that film was called "Bastards?"
"Les Saluds Dorment en Paix". (Ed: which translates to "The Bastards Sleep in Peace") And the working title was just "Saluds", and then it stayed.
It immediately puts the audience in a very interesting place, as right from the start we're looking to see who's the eponymous bastard. Are they all bastards, or is it just the men?
Yeah, I-I think they're not really...there are not so many bastards in the film, you know, they're more victims of... Maybe only the old guy is really a bastard, and yet, the way he's treating his little son as the last seed of his life is almost understandable.
Although, that one shot on the boat when he looks at the camera had a very "Rosemary's Baby" vibe to me. Because, I mean, he loves his son, but it felt like it was an evil progeny. But, to go back to the idea of blame and victims, I think it's really interesting that the film starts with a suicide, and so we naturally assume the man who kills himself is a victim. But, as the movie goes on, we realize that he may be very responsible for what happened.
Well, and also his daughter killing herself.
Right, I mean, he's not a victim so much as he is the first domino to fall. For me the film was very much about how we assign blame in the wake of a tragedy and how it can become more important to assign blame than it can be to confront the truth of what actually happened. Do you think that's true?
Yeah, because I think that's what interests me more, because the fact that maybe storytelling could be only to designate the evil and the good never touched me a lot. What I'm interested in is the blame. The blame of the other, the blame on oneself, the guilt. That's what I really think is the texture of film. We are woven in a material that is made of hope, blame, and guilt, you know? I never get up in the morning and think, "Let's be good and don't be evil like yesterday." I mean, it never shows up like that. Suddenly, I know I feel guilty for something, and I try to repair it, and I know it's not really possible. I think that's my comprehension of the way I live.
It's very human, I think.
In cinema, in some films, it's always so clear that you have the choice between one side and another. And this bothers me a little bit.
And is there something about Kurosawa's "The Bad Sleep Well" that made you excited to dismantle those ideas of good and evil in the context of this film?
In those films of Kurosawa, even "Between Sky and Earth" (Ed: French title for "High and Low"), you always understand why – you understand revenge in all his films. And the revenge is against the rich, against the ones who apparently have a better life because they have an easy life. It's not really true. I like those films very much, I think they are very modern to me. Even the way he portrayed the police in those films. Those guys are really lost, not knowing who is responsible.
I think that "High and Low" is still, in some respects, the most modern police thriller I've seen.
Yes. The low part from that scene in the nightclub that is the most amazing scene ever.
So good. And related to the helplessness of the police in that film, I was very interested in the idea of agency in your movie. We start with the idea that Justine is powerless, but I think when we watch Vincent try to fix everything and he can't do anything, even though he's so big and strong, I think Justine is the only character in the film who has real power, you know? Real choice.
In a way, she wants her father to be her lover.
Lola Créton is someone who is very interesting to me, and has through the films of Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve become one of the most exciting young actresses around. You used her in a really interesting way that almost seems in conversation with those other films, where she operates as more of a symbol than a character. Can you talk about what it is about her that you found appealing for this role?
First of all, I liked her and I wanted, um, a girl that looks able to make the decision to walk tall and not to be a victim, although she is a tiny little bird, you know. So, I wanted that, and think the way she walked naked in the street, she's so- she had something in her, she's not naked.
Well, she's wearing those shoes.
The shoes were interesting to me, because they throw everything off-kilter. It's just one little detail, and I think so often in your films, it's this one detail of a character that makes them something else. You don't look at her as a naked woman in the street. The shoes invite mystery. Were they an important detail for you?
Of course. Because I think if she was walking barefoot, she would have been a poor, raped girl and the fact that she's walking with high heels is, um, she's um, she's walking tall, you know? And I like, also, the mother is changing her shoes and putting boots on, as if the dirt – she knew that there was dirt there. Shoes are very important in the film.
I thought so too, and I never notice shoes in a film. And more about the Lola Créton character, especially in the ending, in the video. I just thought that the video seemed so interesting, because not only is this your first film on digital, but it concludes by regressing to an even more basic digital format.
At the end, I didn't want to use the RED because I thought it was going to be sleek. And I didn't want the image to be ugly, but I wanted the image to be clandestine.
I hesitate to say sexy, because of what we know happens, but there's something with Tindersticks' music and the way that the scene is shot in sort of a dislocated way, it's not unlike the car crash scene. Horrible, but sort of darkly beautiful in its own right.
Because like you said I blow their mind away. It's those feelings of being very young, you can have those feelings of going to death like that, like flying. Yeah, I remember those moments when I was seventeen, it's not... what's important is what you feel at that moment. The consequences...at that age, who cares?
And I think It's funny, because the way that we see - I think we see the consequences of actions very interestingly in this film.
But not distant. No, no, no, I can't stand that.
I'm thinking of the room she's in with the corn. We see it early in the film and then we see it again, and it's been transformed. We can't see in the moment how different it will feel later. And with the car, you know, we feel so sensual and in the moment when they're driving, and then you show us the wreck on the car. Can you just talk maybe a little bit about the idea of transforming these spaces into more sinister versions of themselves?
Because, as they are are flying with the car and switching off their light, they are in the flow of their life. And it's important to show the wrecked car, because it is as if their bodies were torn, and I think it was more effective than a lot of blood and wounded people. It says more. When I'm driving and I see an accident on the highway and I see a wrecked car, I imagine the body inside. It's a nightmarish vision for me. More than to see a wounded person. Especially in films, because, in films, a wounded person is an actor or actress you put fake blood on, but a wrecked car is a wrecked car. It is true.
I was reading an interview with you where you said that a naked actor is a naked person, and a sweating actor is actually sweating, but if you show someone being shot and falling, it's fake. And the car is a really interesting way of translating that premise to the material world. In your films we see the shooter, but we never see the person being shot.
I thought this film is not going to be splash of blood in his back. Sometime it's great. I mean, when I see a Peckinpah film, I'm happy, and the end of "Django Unchained" was just… [smiles and shakes her hands to express something tremendous]. It's just some films don't accept that, some films don't want it.
A woman at the press conference yesterday asked, "What character am I supposed to be? Is the camera my eye?" and I knew then why I had reacted so strongly to the film, because it uses perspective to shake up our judgment, and render it imperfect.
In a way, I must say I was not sure I could answer her question. As I think, um, about making a film, it's not my eye, it's not the character's eye. I don't think everything is subjective – even a film, but the subjectivity of the eye, I'm not terribly certain I like it, you know, because it's also fake. So, I would prefer to develop it in a film with actors. Let's say a way to film the film, to see the film, an angled approach. And in this film, I wanted the film to see no more, except for Lola's character, than Marco could imagine. It's not Marco's eye, the film sees no more than he understands.
What's interesting is that, while we don't know any more than Marco does, he is very certain as to who he thinks is responsible. But we are not nearly as certain. And so there's this very natural divide between Marco and the viewer. Were you very conscious of that while you were writing it, or did you find this dynamic during editing?
No, it was conscious. I don't know where it stands in the writing, it's a sort of, um, I don't mean it's blind, but what I mean is that we decided for this film to be very strict. We wrote it block by block, and knew that each scene would have new information, so each scene you know something you didn't know in the one before, and that's it. I didn't want anything else except maybe the feeling - which maybe I didn't succeed in - but the feeling that when Marco was at sea, when he was at his job on his tanker, it was like the exact life he was meant for.
And so, he's already making a mistake, maybe, when he comes back to land. It's already too late.
A mistake that he cannot refuse. He wants to help.
And he thinks he can.
He believes he will solve it completely, and that's it.
I'm sure you've been asked many times about digital, shooting this film on digital rather than on film. Was that a decision that you made with Agnés [Godard] because of the nature of the story, or was it motivated by the production?
I don't think it was the production. I think it was a natural decision that we made, not for the film, I said, "I want to try. I want to do it. I want to learn. I want to see the difference, I want to experience something with that." And also, I know, because I'd been shooting "White Material" with film, and I tried shooting that with digital, but it's very difficult, with digital, when it's time to express the heat and the fact that the skin is hot. Not just sweat, but the heat itself. The pinkness of the skin or that the air is hot. And I realized when I did the test in Cameroon for "White Material" that the slow Kodak 100 film was expressing so much heat and I think, maybe, for me today, maybe in the future it will change. Digital is more great for, um, cold and urbanization.
So I guess it would depend on the subject of your next film, what format you choose to use.
Every two months there is a new digital camera, so I think it's just about checking and testing.
I've read that you feel very insecure when you make a film. I'm not sure when you said this, if it was early in your career or if it was just recently, but I wonder if now that you've made so many great films, if you still feel very nervous every time you start, or every time you go on set.
I'm insecure every day of my life. Even when I'm not making films, I'm insecure about every film I've made, I'm insecure about the project, I'm insecure about myself. To be secure, maybe when I've been drinking a little bit, or when I'm falling asleep, or maybe when I'm driving and watching the landscape, or swimming in the sea. Those rare moments when something is so complete... but security, I don't know.
[Laughs] Maybe you need that insecurity to make your films?
I don't know, it-it gives me, uh, I cannot have a judgment. I don't want to say that the anxiety makes the artist or whatever. I think, no, Picasso is such a great example of being in his own flesh. In the sun, he likes, and I think he's the best example of, not security, but being completely inside himself, in his creation. And me, I'm like a wrecked car. On a truck.
Sundance Selects will release "Bastards" in theaters and on iTunes on October 23rd.