Claire Denis: interview

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The French filmmaker Claire Denis speaks to Dave Calhoun about her new film, '35 Shots of Rum', a tender portrait of a father-daughter relationship in Paris, which is set to be one of the (quiet) hits of the summer

Claire Denis is sitting in a quiet corner of a Covent Garden hotel and feeling not so fresh after a lightning visit to the Edinburgh Film Festival. ‘It was too quick,’ she says, ‘too quick.’ Denis, who turned 61 in April, is French, but her English is strong. It’s perhaps as a result of a childhood spent moving about Africa with her mother and father, or maybe because of her time spent in America in the ’80s, travelling and working as an assistant director for Wim Wenders on ‘Paris, Texas’ and Jim Jarmusch on ‘Down by Law’. In 1988, she released ‘Chocolat’, her first feature as a director, and now she’s here in London talking about her twelfth, ‘35 Shots of Rum’, a film which many agreed was one of the best at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

‘35 Shots’ is a poetic, sometimes mysterious, but always warm and enthralling portrait of a father, Lionel (Alex Descas, a Denis regular), and his young adult daughter, Josephine (newcomer Mati Diop). Together, they live happily in an apartment on the edge of Paris, but each of them is dealing with a change in their relationship. Josephine, a student, is getting older, while Lionel is realising that he has limited time left as he observes a colleague move into the sadness of retirement from the railway for which they both work as drivers.

It’s a quiet and touching film, more observational than talky, which deserves to be seen and heard amid the metallic noise of this summer’s blockbuster season. Denis indulges the details of Lionel and Josephine’s lives: long shots from the window of his train cabin, a leaving party for a fellow driver, a night out to a concert that ends with Lionel, Josephine, their neighbour Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and Josephine’s boyfriend Noé (Grégoire Colin) dancing in a bar when their car breaks down. That last scene is a highlight and emblematic of Denis’s lyrical, symbolic approach to storytelling as the movements and glances between the characters speak volumes.

I suggest to Denis that much about her characters is left unexplained. ‘Unexplained? I would say yes and no,’ she considers. ‘I don’t think in my life relations with people were ever explained. They were felt. I don’t remember even when I was a teenager at the worst moment of relations with my parents ever trying to explain things. I was resenting. I was feeling bad. For me, explaining things that we all understand anyway without being told comes from television. Not cinema. Cinema is more lyrical. You have to jump from one thing to another and create a feeling similar to meeting someone – you don’t ask for all to be explained immediately.’

Those who know Denis’s past films, whether 1999’s ‘Beau Travail’, her study of the rhythms and rituals of the French foreign legion in Africa, or ‘S’en Fout la Mort’ (1990), in which Isaach de Bankolé played an African in Paris, will know she is attracted to characters on the margins and, especially, to those whose origins spread beyond France’s borders. So it is again with ‘35 Shots’: Lionel is of French Caribbean descent. But Denis based Lionel’s relationship with his daughter on a couple closer to home.

‘Actually it’s a version of the story of my mother and her father,’ she explains. ‘I was raised with this story of the perfect father, my grandfather. My mother would tell us she was sad because, although she was married with children, she missed her father.’
Why, then, did she decide to make the core family in ‘35 Shots of Rum’ Caribbean? ‘Well, I was thinking of who was going to play that guy and only Alex Descas interested me.’

That choice also allowed her to explore the world of train drivers – a world which fascinated her. ‘A lot of people came from the French Caribbean to work on the railways in the 1960s. I was listening to the radio and they were interviewing drivers. One guy was interesting: he was explaining the pull of the track and how the concentration was such an introspective thing. He said it was the kind of job that leads to you knowing yourself quite well.’

We return to the subject of information offered and withheld in Denis’s films.

She thinks there is a fine balance between poetry and obscurity – a balance which she handles exquisitely. ‘If a film is obscure to an audience, then it’s a defeat. It means that I’ve been blind. I always hope for a connection. ‘I like elliptical stories, but a film needs a balance between the ellipse – which I think is very important in film – and the need not to create mysteries where there is no need for them.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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