Claire Denis: ‘We are normal people. Even though we are French’

The distinguished film-maker continues her experiments in the unpredictable with her latest work – just don’t go asking what it’s like being a female director

"When you say 'female director' I already want to stop this conversation!" Claire Denis almost yells. "Female director? I feel like I am an animal. I am a female director like this is a female bird. No, I am a director – good or bad I don't know. But I am a woman."

The unavoidable cliché here is “rollercoaster ride”. That creaky metaphor does capture the joy and terrors of interviewing Denis. The distinguished French film-maker – at a lean 71, now probably a “legend” – certainly engages with the interlocutor. She likes a laugh. She responds to your lame jokes with better jokes. But… well… can we also drag “treading through a minefield” into the basket of clichés? You always feel you’re in danger of being blown arse over tit.

Here's what happened. After 10 minutes of amiable rollercoaster fun – occasionally scary, but with no sense the carriage was about to leave the tracks – I address her early career with films such as Chocolat in 1988. Was French cinema welcoming to a female director then?

I don’t think she’s really about to end the interview. But I make flustered noises about this conversation being more relevant than ever. She knows what I mean.

“I don’t want this thing about Weinstein and women in film. It’s boring. Phhhhllllllbt!” she says. (If that last noise, something between a raspberry and a retch, has a name in French I have yet to encounter it.)

“I made my way,” she continues without prodding. “I made my films and I am a woman. Nobody raped me for making a film. The problem with this story is that people are victims when somebody has the power over them. But I was not really in that position. I had always a freedom. I was not obliged to go to a hotel room with somebody to get a film produced. I should have, maybe. To get a bigger film. Harvey Weinstein never asked me. I made my life differently. I don’t want to comment on this story of female film-making. Oh, all those f’s.”

It’s probably best to leave that answer as it stands and attempt no speculative gloss. Anyway, she will accept that it’s a story that’s not going away.

“Of course it won’t go away,” she says. “Because it’s the story of humanity. It didn’t start with Harvey Weinstein.”

Denis, whose latest puzzler Let the Sunshine In reaches us next week, has more experience of humanity than most. The director of the hypnotic martial reverie Beau Travail and the riveting social drama 35 Shots of Rum was born in Paris, but largely raised in bits of colonial French Africa. Her father, a civil servant, moved the family from Cameroon to French Somaliland to Senegal. Those experiences have long coloured her work, most conspicuously in Chocolat and the excellent 2009 drama White Materials. She did not properly return to France until her teenage years. Many critics have suggested that she must have felt like an outsider in France. She, perhaps, looks upon the country with a foreigner's eye.

“No. I was not a stranger in France,” she snorts. “I was raised like a French person. But my father was born and raised in Bangkok. My mother is half Brazilian. I was raised in Africa. But of course France is my country. I am proud to be French. You know? I think it is good to recognise where you come from. My culture is French and that’s that. I am unhappy when we lose a rugby game. But we beat England two weeks ago. So I was happy with that.”

Every nation likes to beat the English. Right?

She positively cackles in (I assume) agreement.

“Oh, I am talking to an Irish journalist. That is going to be the border of Europe soon. Right?”

We laugh some more about that. She reminisces merrily about time spent at the Dublin International Film Festival. The woman really is a hoot.

A slippery aesthetic

She first studied economics, but then drifted towards a course at the famous French film school IDHEC. Following graduation, she set forth into the world and found herself working as assistant director on Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire and Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law. Chocolat, about a French family in Cameroon, emerged shortly after those experiences. That time with Jarmusch and Wenders must have proved useful.

“I hate to answer this question,” she says. “You don’t learn from a person – unless you’re getting drunk with them and things like that. You are not an assistant to learn from somebody. You are physically next to them. Driving next to them. Drinking next to them. Eating with them. It is not a monastery where the monks are learning from a prayer book. It is humanity. It is sexiness. They are sexy.”

I am sure they’d be delighted to hear her say that

“Oh, they know. Damn well. But it’s also true.”

Denis has delivered films at a consistent rate ever since. Her admirably slippery aesthetic – applied to a horror films such as Trouble Every Day and dark thrillers such as The Intruder – has generated endless reams of tortured analysis. Certain common themes emerge. She has favourite actors. But it has remained difficult to pin down the cinematic voice. To add to the confusion, her next film High Life, from a script co-written by Zadie Smith, is a science fiction adventure starring Robert Pattinson. It is her first in English.

“In space the language is English or Russian,” she says. “So that made sense. Well, it’s true. They speak Chinese, maybe.”

She has not always seemed in harmony with the French cinematic establishment. The Cannes Film Festival has, for example, been reluctant to place her films in the main competition. Bastards from 2013 played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Let the Sunshine In opened down the Croisette at Directors' Fortnight. No Denis film has competed for the Palme d'Or since Chocolat. (She tells me High Life will not be ready for this year's event.)

“I take what I am given,” she says. “I am always considering maybe my films are not good enough. Maybe they are boring. Maybe there is something Cannes doesn’t like. I never asked them, by the way. I don’t care.”

‘They lied’

Let the Sunshine In continues Denis's experiments in the unpredictable. Juliette Binoche plays a divorced woman seeking meaning. The picture comprises a sequence of conversations that – according to the notes, anyway – address issues raised by Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. With characteristic spikiness, Denis dismisses any meaningful connection with Barthes. But what about that English-language title? Referencing a song from Hair, it could hardly give a less helpful impression of this intellectually dense film.

"No, no. I hate that title," she says. "The title in French is like 'A great sunshine inside' [Un beau soleil intérieur]. I don't know why suddenly – without telling me, strangely – it was Let the Sunshine In."

She says something I can’t quite make out.

“THEY LIED TO ME!” she thunderously clarifies.

Many of the Anglophone reviews have made sarcastic remarks about the staggering Frenchness of the project. The argument seems to be that only that nation’s film-makers routinely structure their films around philosophical conversations. Even the snootiest US film-makers are wary of such an approach.

“Why do French film-makers make films about philosophy?” she says in a tone that warns of impending hurricanes. “I have to tell you something. I don’t care a damned shit! I do what I can. French people do what they want. Italian people do what they want. I am not waking up in the morning thinking: ‘Oh my God. I am a French film-maker; my film will be philosophical. No, no.’ This is not like that.”

She’s half-joking now.

“We are normal people. Even though we are French.”

I explain that she’s just delivered the line that will surely appear at the top of the published interview. She laughs her guttural laugh.

By now you’ll know if that’s true.

Five films from Claire Denis

Chocolat (1988)
No, not that Chocolat. Ingeniously edited study of a young French woman's relationship with a Cameroonian native. Breakout performance by Isaach de Bankolé.

Beau Travail (1999)
Perhaps her masterpiece, Beau Travail adapts themes from Herman Melville's Billy Budd to the story of a French Foreign Legion division in Djibouti. Famous wordless sequences.

Trouble Every Day (2001)
Still her most controversial film, this art-horror oddity sends Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle on a carnival of obscure blood-letting. Memorable for a famous Tindersticks score.

35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Loosely structured, brilliantly acted study of an immigrant community in contemporary Paris. Denis admits the influence of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring on the piece.

White Material (2009)
Isabelle Huppert plays a French coffee planter who decides to remain in an African country despite the advance of a savage civil war. Proud of its mysteries.