French cineaste Claire Denis came to present three of her films in Cannes. This year, she is presiding over the Jury Un Certain Regard, which opened yesterday. Exclusive interview.
How did you react when you were asked to be President of the Jury Un Certain Regard?
I had the impression that Thierry Frémaux offered it to me as if it was quite normal that I would want to be at Un certain Regard. And I think he was right. I asked for a day to think it over in terms of my work. And I said yes because it is a great opportunity to see the films, to appreciate them, understand them, without the normal stress we are under, without rushing.
Do you agree then, that Un Certain regard suits you very well?
I shouldn’t say that because that would mean that as a film maker, I belong to “Un Certain Regard”, almost as if I had chosen the label of my own will. Let us say I have the feeling that this year, the films in Un Certain Regard, even though I haven’t seen them yet, but just thinking about them, are films that are my friends, films that will enlighten me and transport me. So I am very happy.
You have come to Cannes three times, once in Competition, once out of Competition and once for Un Certain Regard. It is very different?
Yes, I have tried it all out. In competition, it was my first film, Chocolat
. I didn’t even feel it go by. It is such an extravagant thing to have finished a first film, so when three weeks after the mixing you find yourself in Cannes, with the credits still almost wet, if I dare say! I have the impression that I was protected by the idea of the first film. In addition, there was the whole Cameroon delegation there, Jean-Paul Belmondo who has coproduced the film, Isaach de Bankolé, and of course the French actors. I felt like my feet didn’t touch the ground. In addition I was distributed by Marin Karmitz. So I was very protected. The film was released the same day, and it was well received. It was terrifying and very gratifying.
Going up the steps for Un certain Regard with Line Renaud, Béatrice Dalle, Richard Courcet, Alex Descas. I was so proud. First, I was very proud of the film and I was happy to be going up those steps, between these two women. Deep down, I didn’t care that it was not in Competition. I am not satisfied with my films, but some of them have given me their strength and that is something you don’t forget.
We were screened at midnight. All of a sudden during the screening someone told me they were calling an ambulance because two people had passed out. I thought I was going to pass out myself on the spot but the person who told me this said, “No, on the contrary, this is very good”. And when we were leaving, around 1:30 or 2 in the morning, Humbert Balsan, who was not the producer of the film at all but who loved it, took us all out for champagne on a terrace and it was wonderful.
Your earliest memory of the cinema?
They were films that I had not seen but that my mother told me about, because we were living in Africa in a place where there was no cinema. And since I was the eldest of her children, when we would take a nap, she would tell me the stories from films. She told them very well, and she liked to tell me about the films that were frightening, and I loved that too. Like all children, I loved to be scared by my mother. For example, I remember the 39 Steps.
What made you want to make films later on?
I should say that perhaps unconsciously, I wanted to do what my mother wanted, but I am not sure I can say things like that. I would say that when I became an adolescent, living in France, I loved to be in the cinema audience. I loved organising the film club at my school, where I was able to see a film by Satyajit Ray for the first time – it was the Apu Trilogy. Suddenly, I had the impression that there was nothing nobler or more beautiful than making films. I had the feeling that the cinema was more than just for fun. Of course it was entertainment but it was within a certain way of seeing the world. I had the impression that I was learning how to live, and that life was serious. I was living in the outskirts of Paris and I would arrive at the Gare Saint Lazare to go to Saint Lazare Pasquier. I remember seeing Au hasard Balthazar there. I saw movies that today we would call films for film buffs, but at the time, that wasn’t the case at all.
Where do you like to watch movies?
At the cinema. I must say that I have become somewhat used to watching them on airplanes, but really just to put me to sleep or because I can’t read any more. At home, I have many DVDs. I don’t often watch them to the end or I have to prepare myself for it, get myself ready and watch without any interruption, because otherwise I dissect them, I pull them apart, and that is not as enjoyable. In fact, I don’t even like to operate the machine, I need to do nothing, just let the film come on and then turn off, so that I am the film’s captive and not the film’s operator.
Do you have a ritual or any obsessive behaviour associated with the Festival de Cannes?
Wearing a good fragrance that is not too strong, so as not to bother the people around me, something fresh. That’s very important. It’s a purchase I like to make when I arrive in Cannes.
What do you do when you are not making films?
Nothing. I love doing nothing. Really nothing. Hanging around. Taking my time. Getting ill. Another way of slowing down, is getting a little sick, feeling poorly. Afterwards, I get really anxious and so it has to stop…
… and you when you are making a new film?
That would be too easy if it were like that because I don’t just snap my fingers to make a new film. I gather my strength. I always have a heap of ideas for films in my head. And one morning I just get to work.
There are not many women in the Official Selection. Do you think it is harder for a woman to make films?
I haven’t had that impression. When my eye meets Agnès Varda’s, as it did on opening night, and she gives me her courageous look and she takes me by the arm, I feel that she is telling me “go for it, don’t give up”. But she is telling me that as a film maker. Even though she is a woman and I am a woman. If she didn’t like my films, she would not do it.
Interviewer B. de M.