Claire Denis, French Auteur, on Women Filmmakers, Attractive Actors and 'Bastards'

The 65-year-old filmmaker, who is best known for her feature debut, "Chocolat," and her most acclaimed film, "Beau Travail," spoke with THR at the New York Film Festival.
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Claire Denis and "Bastards" stars

NEW YORK -- Last week, I met up here with Claire Denis, the veteran French director, to discuss her life, career and latest film, Bastards, which had just had its North American premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival, and which will be released on Wednesday in select theaters, on iTunes and on-demand.

The 65-year-old's 13 earlier features -- including her feature directorial debut, Chocolat (1988), and her most acclaimed work, Beau Travail (1999) -- established her as one of her nation's top auteurs and its most famous female filmmaker, save for perhaps Agnes Varda. They displayed a proclivity for dark stories, fragmented storylines and minimal dialogue -- plus an unabashed obsession with the good, bad and ugly sides of sexuality. (They are also now being screened this week as part of Denis retrospectives at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox and New York's Museum of the Moving Image.)

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Bastards, a pulpy neo-noir thriller -- and Denis' first film shot in digital -- is very much along those same lines. Without giving away any of its most shocking twists and turns, I can say that it tells the slow-burning story of a sea captain (Vincent Lindon) who has gone AWOL to come to the aid of and seek vengeance for his sister's daughter (Lola Creton), who is recovering from horrific sex-related injuries that may trace back to his lover's (Chiara Mastroianni) husband (Michel Subor), one of France's wealthiest men. (It's hard not to think that the film was inspired by some of the recent French sex scandals.)

When one first encounters Denis, a diminutive, soft-spoken blonde, as I did at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on the Lincoln Center campus, one struggles to imagine that films such as these could emanate from a woman such as this. But then one talks to her -- she's all-business and perfectly frank about things that most others would not be -- and it begins to make sense.

Denis was born in Paris but raised throughout French-colonial West Africa -- her father was a civil servant whose work required the family to move frequently -- and she consequently saw only a small handful of movies as a child, during trips to visit her grandparents. "I really started watching films when I was 14," she says, after her family moved back to mainland France, to her devastation. "As I became a teenager there was nothing that really interested me apart from music, books and films."

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For lack of a better idea, she ended up going off to study at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, against the wishes of her father. "I thought it would be cool to go there and meet people," she recalls. She ended up studying under some noted scholars, making short films and concluding that her future lay in film.

After graduating, Denis married and began working. She appeared as an extra in Robert Bresson's Four Nights a Dreamer (1971) and scored gigs as a production assistant with some fast-rising filmmakers -- among them Wim Wenders (on Wings of Desire), Jim Jarmusch (on Down by Law), Jacques Rivette (on Out 1) and Dusan Makavejev (on Sweet Movie). How did she hook on with so many great talents? "I was very cheap and I was a trainee then, so I was probably nice," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "They gave me a trust in myself I probably didn't have."

At the age of 40, after years of helping others to make films, Denis finally made her feature directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical Chocolat. At the time, there were virtually no female filmmakers in France; most women who wanted to be a part of the business worked as film editors or in some lesser capacity. But Denis says that she never saw herself as a female filmmaker -- just a filmmaker -- and so she was never dissuaded any obstacles that may have been in her way.

Instead, in the mode of John Ford, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, among other great filmmakers, she built a team of collaborators with whom she has worked ever since. Her closest creative partners are writer Jean-Pol Falgeau, a playwright and friend of her ex-boyfriend who she met after attending one of his plays, with whom she has co-written every one of her film's screenpays; cinematographer Agnes Godard, a friend from film school, who has been her d.p. on nine features; and Stuart A. Staples and his Nottingham-based band Tindersticks, who she approached after buying one of their albums and then attending one of their concerts, and who have since scored seven of her films.

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And then there are the actors. Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin and Subor have appeared in every one of her films, and several other thesps -- including Bastards' Lindon -- have appeared in multiple, as well. What does Denis look for in an actor? "I like to touch them, their face, their hair -- to be attracted to them physically," she says with a frankness that catches me a bit by surprise. It makes sense, though -- there are very few unattractive people in Denis' films. As for why she keeps largely the same company on each of her films she adds, "I am happy to have them around. I like them. I love them. I would feel lonely without them," while noting that they are kind enough to put up with her "bad temper" that she displays when under stress.

Fairly or not, Bastards won't be a player in this year's Oscar race. France had a wealth of options for its best foreign language film Oscar submission this year, including Bastards; The Past, a slow-burning mystery for which its French star, Berenice Bejo, was awarded Cannes' best actress award (that was submitted by Iran); Grand Central and Young and Beautiful, two other acclaimed dramas that debuted at Cannes; Ernest & Celestine, one of the top contenders for the best animated feature Oscar; Camille Claudel 1915, one of the year's critics' favorites; and In the House, a holdover from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. (Blue Is the Warmest Color, a lesbian love story that won Cannes' Palme d'Or, was ineligible because it wasn't released in France before Oct. 1.) In the end, it elected to go with Renoir, a profile of one of France's most famous families.

Denis doesn't seem to mind. She makes her films for herself, it seems to me, not the public or critics or awards voters. When, as a final question, I asked her to share why she thought someone should go and see Bastards, as opposed to the many other films that might be playing, she visibly blanched and said, "I couldn't possibly."

It turns out that something can shock Claire Denis, after all.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg