A Chat With Claire Denis...
Claire Denis is one of France's most respected directors. And she's no shrinking violet when it comes to producing work that provides fodder for the brain. FilmExposed's Talha Burki talks to her about her latest film THE INTRUDER...
The interview concluded and for me, trying to leave the room without knocking anything over, director Claire Denis has some final words: I should read the diaries of Paul Gauguin. Not, God forbid, to gain an insight into her work but simply because she enjoyed them and thought I might too. Throughout the interview itself Denis, one of France’s most celebrated directors, is equally solicitous; all bustling intellectual energy and Old World manners. She answers each question dreamily, as if she were dredging the answer from a long-forgotten past, but her responses are precise, and she often returns to subjects that have not been addressed to her satisfaction. Gallic exuberance, hands that try to grab an elusive word from the air and a table kicked in emphasis, combined with a thoughtful nature and the occasional verbal foray into the opaque.
If it is true that female directors face institutional obstacles, a suggestion quietly dismissed by Denis, then she is an unlikely crusader, a petite and schoolteacherly figure seemingly incapable of overweening. But this is a woman whose films have constantly courted controversy, from the deranged violence of Trouble Every Day (2001) to the intense Beau Travail (1999). Her latest feature, THE INTRUDER, is a tale of a man desperately seeking a second chance. Michel Subor plays the weather-beaten Louis Trebor, an amoral loner attempting to start afresh in the stormy paradise of Tahiti.
Louis Trebor’s crimes include murder, abandonment and a black market heart transplant. It is the strength of Michel Subor’s performance that we feel compassion for such a character. His expressive features impart a vulnerability to Trebor and as he recovers from surgery in a strange country, his limbs creaking painfully, it is difficult not to sympathise. Denis, however, is under no illusions as to the true nature of the aging protagonist: ‘He’s a bad guy’ she says simply ‘a heartless guy. He abandoned his dogs, like he abandoned his son. It’s terrible’.
The Intruder’s disjunctive narrative, unexplained characters and events and offbeat dialogue will infuriate some and delight others. To Denis this is the point of cinema. ‘It’s important to get an answer from the audience,’ she explains, ‘when I did Beau Travail many people were complaining about the abstraction of the film, it was not planned; I was trying to express something and if I had followed any recipe, I would never have done it; it was done out of an idea of cinema’. But she must recognise that there will be those who leave the cinema bent out of shape by The Intruder’s lack of exposition? ‘Of course some people won’t like the film. I asked myself, do I have to write a voice-over so people will be reassured? But I thought the best thing I can do is to trust the film.’
As for the apparent lacunae in the plotline, Denis contends that ‘it is not conventional to have a straightforward narrative, for some stories it comes like that, but in this case it was not fair not to try something new’. It is this quest that motivates Denis, the desire to fully realise the possibilities of cinema. She points out that though in film terms The Intruder may be unconventional, ‘literature has been doing that since it has existed. Literature was already free; it offers many ways to narrate a story. In cinema we are only using a little percentage of what literature has invented’.
Denis argues that the task of the filmmaker is to ‘describe an emotion maybe through dialogue, maybe through editing, maybe through only image. Cinema started off as silent and was also very expressive’. It is an uncomplicated, intuitive approach and Denis deprecates attempts to over-intellectualise her films. ‘The Intruder is very simple,’ she says firmly, ‘it [the heart transplant] is a very simple metaphor’.
In a way she’s right, the key points in the narrative are clear, it is the peripheral, subsidiary details that are left to the audience to fill in. And why not? After all, this isn’t an episode of Columbo, and whilst Claire Denis’ films may not always receive an answer from the audience, they certainly pose interesting questions.