Claire Denis: Dancing Reveals So Much

This interview was originally published at Senses of Cinema.

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The centrepiece of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008) is a long sequence that takes place in a small, mostly-empty restaurant. It is late at night and the four central characters have wandered in for a drink after their car breaks down in a rainstorm. Alex Descas plays Lionel, a middle-aged widower and train engineer who’s spending the evening with his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a former lover (Nicole Dogué), and Noé (Grégoire Colin), his long-time neighbour and surrogate son. The scene is, as Denis describes it, “a sort of tragedy, in a family sense”, but it’s rendered with staggering joy and tenderness. The turning point comes as The Commodores’ “Nightshift” plays over the radio. Lionel hands Joséphine to Noé and then watches silently as his daughter dances away with another man.

Directly inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring, 1949), 35 Shots of Rum is a departure from the epic, conceptual adventures of L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2004) and from the abstract video experiments of Vers Mathilde (Towards Mathilde, 2005). It is a smaller, more intimate film – closer in spirit to Vendredi Soir (Friday Night, 2002) and Nenette et Boni (1996). Denis’s preoccupation with outsiders and with the sociopolitical forces that determine their lives remains, but, with the exception of one scene in a college classroom, it remains inexplicit. This is a love story – or, in fact, several love stories – told in small gestures and commonplace tragedies.

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35 Shots of Rum was a bit of a surprise.

Really? I’m a little bit flabbergasted because last night the screening was great, and I think most of the audience really loved the film – it was kind of warm and soft when I came up for the Q&A – but there were a few stupid questions. I was terribly shocked. One question was, “We are people from North America and, if we see a character filmed from behind, it means something is going to happen.” And I said, “Yeah, I agree with that. It’s another way to look at someone.” And then the woman went on: “And if it’s only to fall off a bicycle [or something relatively insignificant], then it’s a little bit unfair.”

I consider that a very interesting question, in that maybe the stereotypes [about black people] are much stronger than I thought. I told her that this way of looking at people has long existed in painting. It’s a sort of way of being with them. From a French point of view, it means that anything might happen to them, but not necessarily being shot or stabbed.

Over the years, I have learned that I need to see your films twice because I tend to spend 30 or 40 minutes reading them incorrectly.

I’m sorry. It’s not on purpose.

No, it’s one of the things I love about your films. Like your audience member, I think I was imposing suspense onto the film that wasn’t there.

Maybe the suspense comes from introducing the main four characters, their lives, but leaving the links connecting them untold. I thought that maybe if the story began by introducing a very together group – a father, a daughter, a neighbour – and their own rituals, it could create its own suspense. I was not trying to invent suspense.

Audiences have been conditioned to expect a major conflict, whereas your film is about genuinely loving, supporting relationships.

But it’s also a sort of tragedy, in a family sense. It’s the major separation. It’s probably the worse separation since the mother died. They have built this sort of balance in their lives, their small rituals, and, whatever happens afterwards, they will be marked by that day forever.

When my father-in-law passed away a few years ago, we found a frame on his desk at work. On one side of the frame was a photo of my wife as a four-year-old ballerina; on the other side was a photo of her on our wedding day.

Yes. Although I can say the film is a homage to Ozu, it’s also the story of my mother and my grandfather. He was a widower and he raised my mother. Now my mother is 80, and my father is sort of weak and is a dying man. When she’s sad in the night, she will call me or my brother or sister, and often she will tell us, “Well, probably the man who was the most important man in my life was not your father but my father.” We know she dearly loves her husband in a husband-and-wife way, but getting older she has a new perspective.

After seeing Vers Mathilde and the videos you made with Sonic Youth, I was expecting your camera to be more kinetic. You mentioned Ozu. Did he influence your work with [cinematographer] Agnès Godard here?

It’s not Ozu. I spoke with Agnès about bringing back Ozu, but obviously I would not have set the camera like him. I felt the film demanded a certain type of calm, and also handheld, so it’s sort of breathing. But my main desire was to make it simple and solid, because all of the characters are black, and I wanted to make it very clear to the audience that they do not live like clandestines. They have a real life, they are settled, they are French. And I thought if the camera were shaky, it would make their life shaky.

Was your first decision to make a film about a black family, or did you begin with the idea of casting Alex Descas as the father?

Remembering my grandfather. My grandfather came from Brazil and he was a very attractive man. He was non-French, not typically French. He had a sort of elegance. Of course, his wife, he met her in France. He came from Amazonia and, so, had this dark air, and he was also very gentle. As a grandfather, he would take me on his bike. He was the best grandfather. A prince. And I thought the only actor I really could imagine being as good as my grandfather was Alex.

Also, a long time ago I told Agnès, “Alex, for me, has something close to Chishu Ryu”, the father in Ozu’s films, a sort of aloofness or secret. Then I met Mati [Diop] for his daughter, and little by little I found out that, without making a concept, it could normally organize the circle of relationships. I wanted it to not be a concept but to realize they were French, that they were there. There was nothing else to see. In France, whenever you see dark-skinned people, it’s always violent. And I thought, “Yeah, this also is true.” I think the real thing is that there is a community that is French and also has black skin, that is integrated but also rejected.

I was interested to see the shots of the retirement party, where there are large groups of only black people.

In the commuting trains, many drivers, men and women, are from the Caribbean, like in the post office. But I made it most, so it was clear. I think when you make a mixture of black and white in film, it’s like, “Ha! This is a well-balanced film!” It’s like Benetton. One Asian person, one black person. It’s like advertisements. So, I made it really clear. [Laughs.]

One of my favourite moments in any of your films is Grégoire Colin’s dance scene in U.S. Go Home, so it was great fun to see him dancing again. As soon as that scene began, I thought, “Now this is a Claire Denis film.”

[Laughs.]

I also had the biggest smile on my face when “Nightshift” kicked in.

[Laughs.] Me too! Such a great song.

How did you settle on that song?

Immediately! Writing the script, I thought, “This is a father dancing with his daughter. What will give that push so that Noé [Colin] will catch her? And what will make the father think, ‘Okay, this is it. I’m going to be the one to move. My daughter will not, so I will be the one to move.’”

Honestly, I had no hesitation. The song is soft and warm and sexy and enveloping. For me, it was a very important song. When I asked Stuart Staples, the musician from Tindersticks [and Denis’s long-time composer and musical supervisor], about my choice, he said, “I agree completely!” It was nice, also, because the first idea of “Nightshift” – although I like the song – came because I thought there was a sort of “night shift” happening in the scene.

Also, the song is literally a remembrance of loss and tragedy.

Yes.

Your films are so much about bodies in motion and in relation to one another. Those are always my favourite moments in your films – when you fix your camera on your actors’ bodies.

But you know, it’s not involuntary – of course, it’s voluntary – but I’m a complete amateur. Apart from being, since I was a teenager, addicted to music and dance and nightclubbing, I never thought about choreography. And it’s only because, after a while, choreographers came to me and said, “We are interested in your work.” Like Bernardo Montet, with whom I made Beau Travail. I was not aware. I was just doing it the way I felt it.

Maybe I was lucky also to find actors and actresses who were shy actors ready to let something go in the dancing scenes, like many people. I remember when I was young, a teenager, and going to parties and dancing, that girl, that boy, both very shy, suddenly revealing so much by dancing.

On YouTube, there’s a video (1) – I don’t know who shot it – of Denis Lavant in a rehearsal space, working, I assume, with students. Have you seen it?

No.

It’s fascinating. For example, at one point he falls and gets back up again, falls and gets back up again, but always gracefully. His students try, and they keep slamming their heads on the floor and hurting themselves. There’s such beauty and mystery in just watching Lavant’s body.

But we never rehearsed the dance scene at the end of Beau Travail. I told him it’s the dance between life and death. It was written like that in the script, and he said, “What do you mean by ‘the dance between life and death’?” So, I let him hear that great disco music [laughs], and he said, “This is it.” So, we didn’t need to rehearse. I would be there, and I would let it go. He said, “You don’t want us to fix some of it?” I thought it was better to keep the energy inside, because if we started fixing some stuff then we would have made many takes. And we made one take. But he was exhausted at the end.

Your films are often filtered through a character’s subjectivity. In 35 Shots of Rum, there’s just that one shot of the father and daughter on horseback.

I thought it was a dream.

It was the one moment that seemed to slip out of a more objective camera position.

It’s because of the Goethe poem [“Der Erlkonig”] about the father riding his horse with his baby, who is dying of a high fever. I felt that because of the German wife. He holds his daughter and he feels the horse is too slow and maybe he will be too late to the next village to save her. The poem is more famous for being sung in a Schubert liede.

This is Mati Diop’s first film?

She is not an actress. She is studying to be a film director. She has already made two short films, and she’s the daughter of a musician in Senegal, Wasis Diop, and the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, the famous film director from Senegal who died ten years ago.

How did you talk her into acting?

I met her. I saw one of her films and, of all the girls I met with Alex, she was the one I really trusted. I didn’t want her to be only pretty. I wanted her to be brave and intelligent.

Apparently you have almost finished another film, White Material. When will that be released?

In the winter, I guess.

Based on what I’d been able to find out about the two films, I was kind of surprised when 35 Shots of Rum was announced for Toronto. I’d expected the other one to be finished first.

The other one is not finished because it needs much more work. 35 Shots was short shooting, easy editing.

Isabelle Huppert is in the new film?

Yeah. We get along well. I really love her.

She’s one of the few actors or actresses who I think of as an auteur herself. She can command a film.

She’s not commanding. She’s a very intelligent actress. She is guessing and she’s inventing a relation with each director that creates an addiction to her. She’s not commanding because that would be too easy. She creates a need for her, when she’s an addiction. Somehow the film becomes … her. Commanding would be too easy, you know? It’s much more seducing the way she’s doing it.

What kind of character is she playing for you?

A woman who is brave and stubborn and doesn’t want to realize the country she is living in, in Africa, is at war. There is a war surrounding where she works and she should leave. She is staying for the worst.

Have you ever read Nadine Gordimer’s novel, July’s People?

Yes, but I don’t like Nadine Gordimer. I’ve met her a few times and our chemistry … We didn’t experience Africa the same way.

The only person I can feel so much is Doris Lessing. Nadine Gordimer is too dictatorial and she has no heart. I prefer [J. M.] Coetzee. Gordimer is forcing something and I can’t stand that.