French director Claire Denis discusses her latest short film, Voilà l’enchaînement (2014), starring Alex Descas and Norah Krief, as well as her plans for a sci-fi feature film. Claire Denis is a renowned filmmakers whose work includes Bastards (2013), The Intruder (2004), Beau Travail (1999), and Chocolat (1988). This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.
How did you start making Voilà l’enchaînement? What was the process and how did it begin?
Claire Denis: The title, it’s like a chain – it goes from one piece of the chain to another, you know? It also speaks to slavery and the word ‘chains’ could mean something.
It was made for Le Fresnoy?
Yeah, it’s an art school in the north of France where young artists – I was invited for two years, they live there. Some filmmakers, painters and musicians are also invited for part of their work if they want. You might go there twice a month, you know? It’s only one and half hour away from Paris by train. I was not sure I was going to like it, but I really liked the people I was working with and when they told me, “If you want, you could have a little money and do something that would stay as a memory of you in the school…” It’s not really a school, it’s an art institute. I thought, I have absolutely no idea and then suddenly I was in that festival theatre in the south of France and a famous French writer named Christine Angot had a carte blanche and she did a casting of actors to read some extracts from her novels. I came, I was invited by her and Alex Descas, who was already in her cast. When I listened to this lecture, it’s delight, it’s under trees, when you watch, they have the mic in front of their nose. They are not wired, they have the paper – they are reading, you know? It was great, but you know, I told Christine and Alex and Nora Krief, the actress, it’s strange. I could easily film it with nothing and I think they thought I was joking. That’s exactly what we did in Le Fresnoy with a grey wall and I found a door, because I needed a door, a piece of glass, and a small bed.
Alex and Nora are really good in the film – Nora especially. Did you adjust their performances or was it something they had already constructed with the reading?
I think no, with the reading they were… of course, no actor is going to do a reading without thinking, preparing himself or herself, but I think Nora had never been filmed – she’s a stage actress – and Alex, I’m not sure he likes the idea of learning the text by heart because he’s more a film actor. In the end, we did no rehearsal. We met in my kitchen, we talked the way I was going to do it simply, and we did it in three days. No pain, no suffering, just easy and pleasure. We were all living in the school and we did it there. Agnès Godard came to do the light, but we were using this old Sony camera from the school that is not very performing with no roll – the simplicity of everything was great.
Agnès’ lighting in the film is great, was there a lot of preparation required?
No, we took the train on the Monday, I show her the place, there were seven chapters so we decided which was day and which was day, which was dark light and the gel. That’s all.
And the fades to black-
Ah, the fades to black is something – there’s a fade to white, too – it’s something we did in the editing room because my editor was worried that people might be bored with so much dialogue. It’s to give a little bit of space.
How did you decide to represent the flashbacks, the stories that Alex’s character talks about where he’s walking in place and you have the camera that switches behind at a point.
He says, for him it’s done. He says, “I’m finished,” and he cannot see his children but under cameras. So he has to go every week to see an analyst to have the right to see his children, more or less. He said I’m walking in the street and suddenly remembers the beginning of how this love brought up on Earth four children, but also he could not understand how… I think he understands what happened, but remember he was unexpected when he met her. He was so sure they were really attracted to each other, really in love, and he was not expecting this despising, this aggressiveness. It might happen in couples, but in a way he fears, slightly, that there is a link with the fact that he is a black man. Maybe she feels authorized to put him down, you know?
The fear of losing… when you’re no longer consenting. That’s what he says, when consent disappears.
Yes, because also when he’s in jail he understands, somehow, he sees only black people and Arabic people. So he says, “So this is l’enchaînement, this is where I should have been, you know? I never knew this image before, but now I see the real image, the untouched image.”
In this film it’s interesting that you’re not showing these things, it’s all words…
Yeah, because it was only the dialogue of the novel, you know? I wanted to use both actors and dialogue, but if you add locations, props, children, cops… I think it’s no fun anymore. Let’s do a real film, then, you know? I wanted to do something like… what I felt when I listened to them reading. I felt something very violent. It reminds me of Frantz Fanon, some line he wrote when he was living in France before going to Algeria, when he was suffering while being married to a white woman – although, of course they had been in love.
Did that inform how… you have two characters, one who seems to be more physical and one who seems to be more concerned with ideas and words – how they communicate. You have these two positions…
Yeah, normally the black person is the physical and the white person is the opposite. But I think it was like that in Christine’s book and I followed every word. I was not going to change it. My pleasure was to really film the words. It’s also directing to use words from a book in one space and try to make it real and alive with absolutely no accessories. No props, no moment, no sense of the apartment. But in the end, when I was shooting, we all felt their place and the cell. It’s strange, filming like that brought me to feel a space that did not exist.
And your use of close-ups and pull back to a shot from farther away, that becomes more energized. There’s almost an energy that you don’t get when you’re paying attention to sets, because even if it pulls back, you get a little more of an idea. You see how she moves when she’s doing the interview or when the camera goes behind Alex. Was that something you picked up on the day or did you storyboard the shots?
No, since the reading a few months before, I didn’t need to script it; I could see exactly what I was doing. It was so normal to me. It was so easy to work with them and to do it this way with the young students with me. I would have never scripted it and I think it would not be fun for the students because they saw how much that placing a camera is to be already inside. It’s not because you script that you know how to place a camera, to place a camera is a physical thing. If you know where you want to be – in the middle of them, watching them, intruding or not – then it’s easy, I think. It’s easy in the way that it’s very physical.
It’s also a response to things they are saying.
Yeah, of course.
They have a rhythm, certain words that get emphasized and you pick up on words – like ‘cling’ is the translated word. When she says ‘cling’ it has this cadence and when he sees ‘slave’ or ‘stupid’ in one scene, you can feel the rhythms connecting.
Yeah, yeah. It was nice for me that the first scene that Christine Angot chose for the lecture – because it’s not the beginning of the book – was when in the elevator the wife asks him to get a tattoo of her name. I thought it was great to start the lecture with the tattoo. For me, it means everything. It started there.
When we were talking about how you get an idea of the space, the sound design is also doing that. It’s subtle, but there are moments where you can hear things in the prison.
Well, we had very little time to edit so we had prepared extra sounds that we needed. The sound of the corridor of a building, a jail, a street.
As a viewer, you’re wondering if this is something that because he’s telling the stories he may be hearing – is he remembering, are you getting a sense of his own experiencing or is it something actually out there.
Yeah, maybe. I’m doing things the way I feel it, so I’m not so psychological, you know? I think there must be a certain difference between night and day, inside and outside, and it should not be affective, but subtle.
Did the element of the children that comes up later in the story, was that something drew you to this? It’s a theme that’s come up in Bastards, but it also made me think of the character of Theo in I Can’t Sleep. Maybe it’s because it’s Alex.
I remember when I was listening to the reading and she said, “I’m pregnant” and he said, “It’s cool.” And suddenly there is a sort of ellipse when the police catch him and he says, “Four! Four children.” Suddenly it means seven or eight years of life have gone since the first scene until the last. It’s a big moment of life. So no, I never thought… what’s important with the children is that they made the children together, the decision of raising them, and four children is not a two-days relation. It’s something deep, otherwise you’re a dog, I guess. Four children, it’s not nothing. There’s a huge amount of responsibility maybe, but also means how many months, how many weeks, how many days, how many moments where you want to make love with someone. Four children is just something that women and men are not reproducing themselves just like that, it’s a decision.
Do you like how it’s a short film that can suggest all that without going into it, it can just gesture towards it?
I was in the audience listening to the author and I felt that. It’s not something I designed, it was there.
But do you like that a short film doesn’t need to fully go into anything?
Yeah, I could have made an hour easily by adding two other pieces. But no, I thought it was okay like that. I was working also for Le Fresnoy, I wanted to leave a trace of me for them. I thought it was great this way. I don’t think it would be more interesting if it lasted an hour, no, not for sure.
Did you take anything away from the experience that has energized you for your next film?
It was great, it energized me. I was in the school, I love the school very much. I like this place very much because you can do everything there: you can edit, you can mix, you can colour time, you even have a space where you can build props or sets. You can paint. I was working with an Australian girl who was doing 3D. It’s a very special place, it’s not being a teacher with students. It’s a place for research.
Did the kids you were working with have any ideas that have inspired you?
All of them, yeah sure. I have a project with all of them. But they come from all over the world, so it’s not easy to follow. One is in Brazil. Of course, you don’t participate on eight projects with eight young artists… If I had felt I don’t like them or their project, it means nothing to me, I would have left. But I really liked them. Inspired me? You don’t know in the end what is inspiration. Sometimes in the evening, we were going to have a beer together and play billiards. It was ordinary life together. In that part of France that is very special, north of France near Belgium. It’s a place that was very rich and industrial in the 19th Century, like the north of England, for instance. With coal and cotton linen. After the second world war, all these things stop. But the memory of the city was built for the miners to be together in yards or the people working in the industry of cotton. So all of these memories are in the geography, even in the memory of young people, because there are no jobs there any more. It’s not easy to find jobs there when you’re a young person.
Do you have a new film that you’re working on now or are you taking a break?
Yeah, I’m working on a script. It’s finished, but I’m doing some corrections.
Are you excited with it? Is it a challenge?
It’s a challenge as always. Excited? No. Excited is not a good word when you’re preparing a film. It’s challenging, it’s frightening. Of course, when you get very close to shooting, you have the cast and the form of the film really exists. But starting pre-production is not an easy moment. I want to make corrections in the script before we start casting. I have ideas, but we’ll see.
I think the cast is the most important things in your films. The actors you choose to work with sets the entire tone of each film. Is it difficult?
Yeah, yeah. No, [it’s not difficult] because I know them before when I’m writing. This time it will be different. I don’t know the actors. I’ve invented the characters and I know they will be different, other actors. Probably some I would never work with. It also will be English-speaking.
Yeah. Is it a challenge an English spoken film? I don’t know. It’s a challenge maybe to do it in my own way, my French way, you know? The language I don’t think is a challenge if you get along with actors.
New actors must be a challenge, though, you have to introduce…
Yeah. They will be actors I really like, though. I cannot imagine shooting with actors I don’t like, just because they’re English-speaking, or American.
Well, I’m excited.
Yeah, you can be. Have you seen Alex in this Haitian movie? Murder in Pacot (2014).
No, is it good?
Yeah, I think Alex is so different from… It’s good to see Alex directed by someone very different and so great.
He’s one of the best actors ever.
Yeah, yeah. For me, he’s shy, he will never express a lot of himself, but everything is inside and somehow he keeps it for himself. But the presence is so strong that I believe. I believe in everything he does.
Do you think his presence is getting stronger?
The first film I made with him, No Fear No Die (1990), and I remember the scene just before he dies, when he’s starting to dance with the rooster, speaking Creole, like in a voodoo prayer or something. We had been speaking about this so many times, but I never wanted him to rehearse in front of me, I wanted him to keep it for shooting with two cameras. We were all amazed. Those fighting roosters, they’re very nervous, so if he moved too fast or speak too fast… But suddenly this white bird completely relaxed and spread his wings at Alex, as if he was with him, you know? I will never forget that. I thought there is something in Alex that maybe I felt, but I was not sure. Something deep that is untouchable.
This film made me think of I Can’t Sleep, the relationship he has with his kids and-
Yeah, his brother. Maybe if I had not met people like Alex or Grégoire Colin or Béatrice Dalle, I would have changed every film, but since I have met them – or Isaach [De Bankolé] – I feel so lucky. I like them. I would imagine it’s so difficult to film people you don’t like or that you’re not even a little bit in love with or even the girl in 35 Shots of Rum, she was always in my arms, you know? She was also my little daughter. It’s not a relationship, I hate when people say, “The film is your baby.” No no no no no, it’s not my baby, but there is a physical relation with actors and actresses when I film that is necessary for me. That’s why I don’t like to deal with the monitor in the next room, I have to be as close as I can.
What was it like with Mati on that film [35 Shots of Rum]?
Yeah, with Mati I was touching. She was… she was my girl, you know?