Claire Denis deserves her own adjective. It seems like the least we could do, and on a purely self-interested level, it would be helpful to nail down a shorthand for the elusive mixture of tones, perspectives, and slippery structures that define the French director’s work. Her consensus masterpiece, Beau Travail, takes an immersive, otherworldly emotional landscape and then ends on a note that’s completely jarring but somehow immediately perfect. Some might say her style is like Terrence Malick, if Malick were a little less interested in the sacred and a lot more interested in the profane. (Some might say that’d be an improvement). She can be an impressionist, yes, not just between shots and between scenes, but between films. Her work has been tender and it has been transgressive; dragging a friend sight-unseen is a risk if you don’t know your audience. She’s made movies that critical discourse can shoehorn into discussions of genre: thriller (Bastards), horror (Trouble Every Day), or even romantic comedy (last year’s Let the Sunshine In, which I groused about here until I landed in a kind of admiration). But they feel like countries on the same psychic continent.
Her latest release, High Life, is quite a pitch: a Claire Denis dark erotic sci-fi space odyssey starring Robert Pattinson—a mixture of elements to inspire the essential perversion of cinephile curiosity when everything else out there feels so goddamned expected. And it is, happily, the only excuse the American Cinematheque here in LA needed to mount a weekend retrospective of her work, with Denis in person for two of the screenings. Her appearance at Beau Travail was, alas, sold out before I got to it. But she was also on hand for the Aero’s opening night screening of her 1988 debut Chocolat, which put the then-42-year-old filmmaker on the map after a career as the assistant director for 80s arthouse zeitgeisters like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch.
Chocolat focuses on a French family in colonial Africa after World War II. Denis had grown up there and then, but though there is a young girl in the family, the story does not belong to her any more than any event ever belongs to a witness. She is a conduit, a child’s-eye-view filter that presents an “exotic” world as the only one you’ve ever known and makes the stuff of melodrama feel like the stuff of memory. Her white mother (Giulia Boschi) navigates an unspoken attraction with their black manservant (Isaach de Bankolé). Meanwhile, the father is often absent, and after a plane has to make an emergency landing nearby, a group of Western outsiders wander into this strange social ecosystem and bring their own (mis)conceptions of Africa with them.
Like Malick’s debut, Badlands, Chocolat is the work of a lyricist whose camera had yet to discover its full mobility, and of the films of hers I’ve seen, it’s among the most conventional. But each gorgeous composition moves to the next in a 35mm haze. The narrative alternately offers and withholds, bookended by dreamy flashback transitions that give the story its impact without ever really giving it an ending. The young girl is literally named “France”, and that a film could tip its hand so allegorically and somehow still feel elusive testifies to how much of Denis’ method had already formed. It ends as a deeply complex film about personal and political history that, like her best work, and like life experience itself, presents a variety of contradictions while remaining totally cohesive yet inherently incomplete. “No future and no past” is its climactic line. And then the characters depart, but the camera lingers and finds new subjects. It is all anyone could hope for from a first film—more, even. It is a thing of earned, distinct, and quiet beauty.
After they settled in on the stage in Santa Monica, the moderator said to Denis, “One of the things I find so remarkable about your movie, considering it’s your first film, is that it has such a wonderful sense of place. I’ve heard the actor Robert Pattinson say that a lot: that what he likes about your movies is that they create these little worlds. Do you feel that way? That even in your first film, what was drawing you to cinema was creating these little worlds?”
“I was not aware at all,” she replied casually. “It’s good not to be aware of such things. The film exists, but I don’t think it’s interesting to be aware of what it means. Maybe after time, something sort of…” She trailed off, and added, with thirty years of retrospect, “I don’t know if I really know Chocolat.”
Artists can often turn down the chance to analyze their art, and for the matter it’s often preferable, especially if the artist works by intuition. “Don’t be aware of what it means” could be the rallying cry of the instinctive; David Lynch, I’m sure, would co-sign. But Denis’ answer felt more honest than evasive. This was not the impishness of Lynch, or the cranky shield of someone like John Ford. In a strange way, the author’s stated uncertainty—in fact, her uncertainty about her uncertainty—left me feeling on some intuitive level that I knew the film more.
She was, in short, a disarmingly open presence. In her responses, I couldn’t detect a trace of showmanship, and I mean that as a compliment. That is, there was no sense that she was playing to a crowd (though she had one), going for laughs (though she got some), or in general basking in the print-the-legend atmosphere that such events can engender. She was there, simply, to be as candid as possible in a language that wasn’t quite her own. It also seemed that the busy publicity tour for High Life had taken a small toll. She arrived with a nasty cold—”I’m coughing and sneezing, I’m a terrible mess” was the first thing she said on stage—and she coughed through her initial answers until someone in the audience got up and handed her a cough drop, eliciting a very gracious “merci beaucoup!”
The moderator presented her with the honor roll of directors she’d worked for before Chocolat, which included not only Jarmusch and Wenders, but Andrei Tarkovsky. He could have just as easily thrown in Dušan Makavejev, whose dangerous cult classic Sweet Movie—now there’s a background in transgressive cinema—was Denis’ first paid gig behind the camera when she was in her 20s. “Working with all those directors was my way of living,” she said. And for a split second, the slightly atilt wording left me wondering whether she meant a professional track or spiritual sustenance before deciding, well, why not both? “I was not sure I would be able to be a director,” she explained. “I wanted to take my time, because I’m slow, and also because I really enjoyed being an assistant director. Totally enjoyed to work for certain directors.”
She then added, quickly and without any audible self-consciousness, “Not with Andrei Tarkovsky…he was really horrible to work with.” (She had done casting on Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and apparently he had “some cliche about French actresses” that didn’t sit well with her—no elaboration given or asked for).
Her recollections made taking one’s time as rewarding and inspiring a path to the directors chair as any hype about young hotshots or festival prodigies. Writing her own script had begun when she joined with Wenders and Jarmusch, but Chocolat itself was a long decision in the making:
I thought it was important to me to do my first film in Africa, to pay a tribute to the continent in which I grew up. And it was not easy at that time, at the beginning of the 80s, to finance a first movie, made by a woman, in Africa, because it needed, obviously, trust from the producer but also more money than if I had shot it in a small apartment. So it took me time to find the right person to produce the film.
The core of the film, Denis said, was the family’s servant. The figure of the servant had what she called an “oblique look” on French families: a close but repulsive class dynamic that involved access and intimacy, but not an invitation. Isaach de Bankolé had impressed Denis when she saw him on stage in Paris, and he would become a recurring collaborator of both hers and Jarmusch’s. (You can see him in Night on Earth and Ghost Dog—or, for that matter, everywhere from Casino Royale to Black Panther). His character in Chocolat is largely stoic, and Denis’ insistence on Bankolé confused the producers.
For them, “this guy, almost silent, was not the main part,” she said. “They did not understand why I wanted to bring from Paris this young man. They thought it would be so easy to find any guy in Cameroon, you know? And it was hard to explain, ‘no, this is the center of the film.'” It is a wonderful performance, of the sort that Denis’ film needs: communicating much with very little, and showing how any elusiveness on screen can have emotional clarity when tied to the right human presence.
“It was your first feature,” the moderator said. “It was accepted to premiere in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. How did that feel? What did that mean to you at that point in your career?”
“Honestly, I was terrified,” Denis replied. “The Cameroonese people who co-produced the film were very happy, so for that, I was happy. But I thought, ‘I’ve made a film, and maybe no more.’ So I was half dead. I fell asleep during the screening.” The audience laughed. “No, it’s true,” she insisted. “I was so afraid, I fell asleep.”
It befit the evening that Denis’ answers occasionally played out as the sort where candor could so lovingly flip presumptions. Critics saw Chocolat as autobiographical—did she relate to it that way? No, she meant it for the Bankolé character and was inspired by a book by a Cameroonese writer, though personal anecdotes made it in. Her 2009 film White Material, which played as the second half of the double bill, was a return to Africa—were the two films connected? No again, at least not for her. The legendary Agnes Varda had recently passed away—had Varda been an influence on her work? “I think no,” but Denis was happy to praise Agnes as a model for how a woman director could enter the industry, maintain her independence, and never stop.
For all the artists and collaborators from her past that Denis was asked about in detail, there was one she brought up of her own accord: Jacques Rivette, a key filmmaker of the New Wave, whom Denis credited with giving her a decisive push forward. After Chocolat, she co-directed a documentary about Rivette, and in Santa Monica she sang his praise again:
He was trusting his instinct. He wanted everyone to work on the script with him. He was sharing a lot. And I never met anyone who was so much in cinema. It was his life, completely, you know? As we were shooting, a million other films were important for him: a film he had seen, a film he was wishing to see—as if his own film were not the main thing. I was completely amazed.
Something of that democratic spirit found an echo in how Denis discussed her own work. It was not a form of Rivette’s cinephilia; she was the first to admit that she did not arrive at filmmaking through the cinematheque the way that Rivette, the former critic, had. But the aspect of a director’s life that she returned to was that of the communal undertaking and the bonds that form therein.
White Material came from a partnership with Isabelle Huppert, and when asked what she got out of working with Huppert, Denis answered, in a word, “love.” “If I see some clip of White Material, I see the little Isabelle with a pink dress and I am almost in tears,” Denis said. “She was probably the only one apart from the Cameroonese crew who never complained…She was always happy to do everything.” Asked directly how she thought of Chocolat now, her response had nothing to do with the movie as it existed on screen, or with a moment in her career, or with industry war stories that are now old enough to laugh at. Instead, she immediately talked about Chocolat as one might share a photo album:
For me now, I know the little girl in the film. She is a mother, she has children, she’s a veterinarian. Isaach de Bankolé is still a great friend of mine. He is a very important person in my life. Giulia Boschi is no more an actress. She’s teaching Chinese in Italy. It’s because of those actors that the film touched me…When I think of the film, I think of them. Not of the film.
It is, I think, a lovely takeaway from a film, or from a lifetime of filmmaking, and it speaks to the human element that informs even her darkest films. As much as any movie and more than most, Denis’ explorations require fellow travelers: collaborators who will give something of themselves to the camera, something that the film needs, and something that, as Rivette would be the first to say, does not and cannot belong to the director alone. From where Denis was sitting, that aspect of the process may be what matters the most and lasts the longest.
“The relation with a film, it’s strange,” she said. “It’s full of regrets, full of memories…” She paused, either because she was searching for the right word or because here, at this moment, was something she’d prefer to keep to herself. Then, finally: “It’s done.” A way of living, certainly.
High Life, Claire Denis’ English-language debut, came out in theaters in April and will hit the web in June. Chocolat is only on disc and currently not available on any major streaming platform. Too much gets left behind.