- “I cried and cried,” Claire Denis on ‘Pather Panchali’
- “It shook me to the core,” she added
- Victor Banerjee plays a professor in Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’
Claire Denis, one of contemporary French cinema’s most uncompromising auteurs, portrays the lives of the marginalised – exiles, immigrants, alienated individuals, people holding out against advancing darkness – in a strikingly original and deeply affecting manner. The acuity of her art hinges as much on precision of craft as on depth of imagination.
The concerns of the 74-year-old Paris-based director are coloured by a breadth of vision engendered by her growing-up years in a slew of African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal. In Denis’ cinema, textures, sounds, spatial compositions, colours and psychological layers are as important as words and gestures in conveying meaning as she tackles post-colonial guilt, complexities of human relationships and the nature of desire.
With frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis, besides addressing wide-ranging themes with tenderness and unwavering, unsettling integrity, has also written strong female characters, notably for Isabelle Huppert (White Material) and Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In, High Life and the upcoming Fire).
She is, however, loath to arrogate to herself any special clutter-breaker status. In a virtual conversation a day after a Masterclass at Qumra 2021, the Doha Film Institute’s annual Arab cinema incubation event – being held online this year – Denis asserts: “I try my best to make the films that I want to. But am I strong enough to fight a world that is becoming increasingly closed? I am not sure.”
Denis’ first feature, Chocolat (1988), told a semi-autobiographical story of a French family living in Cameroon that probes class and racial divides. In 1999, she made one of her most acclaimed films, Beau Travail, loosely based on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd and set among a band of men of the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti.
Denis lived in West Africa with her parents and younger sister before returning to Paris aged 14 and going on to study at the French national film school. She cut her teeth as a filmmaker assisting Jacques Rivette (her favourite French director), Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Costa-Gavras. One of her most loved film, 35 Shots Of Rum, a drama about a a father and daughter in an immigrant community in Paris, was inspired in part by Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring.
The Apu Trilogy, which catapulted Satyajit Ray to global prominence in the 1950s, remains one of her principal creative inspirations. “I saw Pather Panchali at the age of nine,” she says. “It shook me to the core. I cried and cried.”
“The Apu Trilogy,” says Denis, “apart from being a massive piece of cinema represents a good way for a child to see a film and experience another world. You are exposed to a culture, a way of life, an ambience…” But she is quick to add that there is no age barrier to responding to Ray’s masterful trilogy. “When you watch the trilogy, what you feel as a child is the same as what you feel as a grown-up,” she says.
Denis has been to Mumbai, Pune (for a workshop at FTII) and Goa (as an IFFI jury member) but a trip to Kolkata, Ray’s city, still eludes her. “That is why we wanted (actor) Victor Banerjee (one of the stars of Ray’s Ghare Baire and IFFI 2013 co-juror) to be with us in High Life,” says Denis. “Casting him in the film was very important for me personally,” she adds.
During her Mumbai visit a few years ago, she was invited to a film studio. She recalls: “Given the kind of film that was being shot there, you might say, ‘c’mon it is a Bollywood movie’. But I enjoyed my time there very much. I met a DP. I knew immediately that, if I had to, I could work with him.”
Has the thought of filming in India ever crossed her mind? “Oh yeah,” she replies. “When I met Victor Banerjee, I told him I will visit him in Calcutta. But that trip hasn’t materialised yet for one reason or another. If I am not too old, it will happen. And thanks to Victor, I have great Darjeeling tea. Each time I sip that tea, I feel I am in India.”
Banerjee plays an Indian professor in High Life, a sci-fi fantasy starring Robert Pattinson. Denis’ first English-language film is about a group of convicts sent on a one-way mission to a black hole, a long and perilous journey that will see them being subjected to experiments in human reproduction by an unscrupulous doctor played by Juliette Binoche, who also starred in the director’s 2017 film Let the Sunshine In.
High Life sees Denis turn a whole genre on its head. But she refuses to see the film as any kind of revolt against Hollywood conventions. “I simply did a film that I wanted to do,” she asserts. “Science fiction belongs to all humanity. It isn’t Hollywood’s property. It could belong to India, to Bollywood, as much as to anybody else.”
Isn’t there more humanity in High Life than is usually the case with sci-fi sagas? Isn’t it more Solaris than Star Wars? “What I like about Solaris is that it tells a story about people from Earth, about the scientific experience of travelling through the Cosmos, and understanding the relativity of time,” says Denis.
“Star Wars, on the other hand, is like a complete experience of cinema. But it is about war, about conquest of space, of imagining a state of dominance. I am not made like that. I am not interested in that aspect of cosmic matters,” she explains.
High Life is the first film that she shot in a studio. Did that necessitate an alteration in her methods? She replies: “I did the camera test in the studio to feel the space. But apart from the first day of shooting, we were completely at home. The studio, for me, my crew and the actors, became our space, our little home. I can still feel the studio in me like a place of my very own.”
Denis attributes her unwavering humanist leanings to her parents. She says: “My father was a Brazilian raised in Bangkok until World War II. He married a French nurse. My parents were French no doubt; they spoke French. But we were not especially convinced that France was the only place in the world to live in and to be educated in. It might be a cliche: he always said he was a citizen of the world.”
“The world is much worse off today,” Denis laments. “After World War II, my parents were full of hope. They thought that the world would now be open for their children. They wouldn’t have expected us to be reduced in the 21st century to the poor lives that we lead inside borders. I am so happy my parents aren’t alive today. They would have suffered so much.”
Having wrapped up her latest film Fire, which has Binoche opposite Vincent Lindon for the first time, Denis is prepping for her next, The Stars at Noon. The English-language film will feature Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley. In the course of the Qumra Masterclass, Denis revealed that she expects the film to go into production soon because “the vaccination will have been done by then and we will be able to shoot”.
Asked to comment on the ‘cinema’ versus ‘content’ debate triggered by the rise and rise of streaming platforms, she says: “I do not subscribe to any distinction. I do not want to let such divisions rule my life. To be honest, I don’t really care. I just do the best I can.” As we know, “the best” that she can yields cinema of the highest quality. Denis has no reason to change the way she thinks.