Claire Denis didn’t direct her first feature, Chocolat, until she was nearly 40. But she spent the lead-up decades undergoing what could be seen as the greatest apprenticeship in cinema history, working as an assistant director to, among others, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, and Dusan Makavejev. Small wonder that when she did step onto her own set, she quickly established herself among the foremost film artists of her generation. Her visceral yet abstract films plumb the raw, savage depths of human emotion, increasingly leaving behind the strictures of conventional narrative as they work toward more elusive and subjective frames. White Material, her latest, came as a mild shock to Denis fans who were acclimated to the elliptical storytelling of L’intrus and 35 Shots Of Rum. Returning to Africa for the third time, after Chocolat and her masterpiece, 2000’s Beau Travail, Denis casts Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unidentified country on the verge of revolt. Although it’s nestled within a flashback structure, the movie’s story is, at least by Denis’ terms, fairly straightforward, which led some initial viewers to underestimate the film. But while it may be easier to follow than Denis’ baffling L’intrus, the film is no less devoted to telling a story on its own exacting terms, exploring the relationship between colonial holdouts and their soon-to-be-former subjects. In a blandly furnished New York hotel room to which she took instant aesthetic offense, Denis talked to The A.V. Club about the dangers of period pieces, the midterm elections, and why she finds the world “terribly frightening.”
The A.V. Club: Your first film, Chocolat, was drawn on your childhood experience moving around colonial Africa with your father, who was a French civil servant. It’s interesting to compare that film and White Material, which has a broadly similar subject, but is vastly different in its approach.
Claire Denis: Actually, for me, there is absolutely no connection. Chocolat was a sort of statement of my own childhood, recognizing I experienced something from the end of the colonial era and the beginning of independence as I was a child that really made me aware of things I never forgot, a sort of childhood that made me different when I was a student in France. I had other interests, and I realized I paid more attention to certain things than many of my compatriots, concerning not only Africa, but the relations from people to people—the notion of dignity and superiority and things like that.
I never planned this film. It’s because Isabelle Huppert said “It’s been too long now since we decided we have to work together. Let’s work together.” She said “I would like you to adapt a novel written by Doris Lessing called The Grass Is Singing.” This novel takes place in South Africa, in the ’40s before the Second World War. It tells about Doris Lessing’s parents farming in South Africa, and it’s a sort of… They are defeated. They are weak. They try to grab things, and nothing works. I told Isabelle that for me to go back to a period film was very dangerous for me, because when I did Chocolat, I had in mind The Grass Is Singing, but also because I was not interested to go back to Africa to do a period film, considering that in the meantime, a lot of things happened in Africa, especially in South Africa.
So I said no, but I said “If you want us to go together to Africa, find a contemporary story, and I’ll try.” For me, it was completely unknown. I picked up this thing I read in the newspaper, saw on TV, that the Ivory Coast was undergoing a sort of civil war, and the French farmers were expelled. And that’s it. I just started from there. In Chocolat, it was me and not me. It was me stating something. When I was with Isabelle and Isaach [de Bankolé] again in Cameroon… at the beginning, I thought I was going to shoot in Ghana. I had no remembrance of Chocolat. I was in a complete different mood. Even Cameroon has changed so much. It was a different part of Cameroon, the part where they grow coffee. So for me, it was an experience more linked to my work with Isabelle, and to my point of view toward Africa.
AVC: You said that it would be dangerous for you to do a period piece. Is that why the movie doesn’t have a fixed period or location?
CD: For me, it’s Ivory Coast. It’s five years ago.
AVC: But you don’t feel the need to put a title on the front that says, “Ivory Coast, 2005”?
CD: No, because Ivory Coast is still undergoing this now, where the farmers are not considered Ivoirian enough. If I had written the date and “Ivory Coast,” for me the obligation would have been to go to Ivory Coast. But to pick up the landscape and people and places and language in Cameroon and write “Ivory Coast”—this is the kind of thing I would never do. That’s why I wanted to shoot in Ghana, because Ghana is close to Ivory Coast; they grow the same coffee and everything. But to film this very special landscape of Cameroon, those hills where they grow coffee, and say Ivory Coast? Oh no, this is not possible for me.
AVC: Almost everything that’s written about you says you grew up in Africa, but Africa is not a country.
CD: No, it’s not me! I am always asked, “You grew up in Africa?” Every time I introduce a film, or I’m interviewed, “You grew up in Africa?” No, I was born in a suburb of Paris, left with my mother when I was one month old, because my father was working there, we started with Cameroon, then left, went to near Ivory Coast, Togo, then back to Cameroon, then Burkina Faso, then Djibouti, then somewhere else, then Cameroon again. So for me, all those countries were so different. I grew up in Muslim countries, in countries that were mostly Protestant, like the south of Cameroon, evangelist. There were all these different things. The thing for me, the weird thing, was that I always knew I was French, because my grandparents were in France. I was sent there sometimes to spend vacation with grandfather and grandmother. When my brother and sister were born, we were going back to France for medical things. It’s only recently when I’m asked constantly that growing up in Africa made me special, but I kind of ask myself… Maybe yes? Probably yes?
AVC: Being French in African countries, you were naturally set apart. The same with moving around so much, where you wouldn’t have much time to establish yourself in a new place. Did that make you an observer in some way? I’m struck by the title you chose for your portrait of Jacques Rivette, with whom you worked several times: Le Veilleur (The Watcher).
CD: I am the eldest child; it’s lonely at the top. And then moving a lot… At the very beginning, there were no schools, so my mother would teach me to write and read. Then when I was in school, I was changing schools very often, so I never kept best friends for a long time. It’s true, it creates a sort of… A nature, not loneliness, but a way of being. I don’t know if it’s loneliness, but I was interested, curious about the new people, because I knew it was not going to be for a long time. Maybe it urged me to look at people in a special way. I remember each time I would arrive in a new school with new friends, I was terrified, and yet I knew it was not going to be for a long time, so I was also trying to learn more, and yet not to be hurt by being the new student.
AVC: Maria Vial, Isabelle Huppert’s character in White Material, is almost the opposite. Her father was born in Africa, so by most standards, she’s African. Her point of view is “I live here. This is my land. I belong here. I’m not an outsider.” She’s being told that she’s not, that she had better realize that and leave as quickly as she can. And she won’t. She feels and wants to believe that this is her country.
CD: There is maybe something there from Doris Lessing, which is not only the difference between being white in Africa or African in Africa, but also the opposition between businesspeople, people who live in cities and make money, and farmers. Farmers, they are always late in changing, because to grow a coffee tree takes five years. So farming people, they are slower than people doing business. For example, if I take the example of South Africa or a Portuguese colony like Mozambique or Angola, the people who own farms or mines, they cannot leave. They are older, and they’re rooted. People who are doing business in oil companies or administration, they can move easily. They pack and pack, and it’s gone… Like my parents. We never owned something, neither in Africa, neither in France. We were packing and packing. But for me, Maria is someone… She’s a farmer. She’s working with plants, so it’s completely different for me. She’s settled. When you farm, you do settle, which is something I never did.
AVC: That’s the life of a film director, moving around. Unless they’re working in a studio, which you don’t very often.
CD: No. Maybe now with the 3-D economy, it will bring more people to work in a studio, but it’s not my economy anywhere.
AVC: You’re not making a 3-D movie anytime soon?
CD: I don’t want to say never. I wish to experience things, and also I’m happy to do film with the type of budget that gives me a little freedom. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to experience something completely different in filmmaking or in narration.
AVC: One of the things that comes across very powerfully in the film is when Maria is driving down the road and she’s stopped by several men with guns. They want a hundred dollars for her to pass.
CD: Yeah. “Coupeurs de routes,” we say in French. Road-cutters.
AVC: She’s saying to them, “I know you’re my son’s gym teacher, and your father sells seeds.” You think that maybe these are people that, six months ago or a year ago, she would have had a perfectly pleasant relationship with, but there’s this incredible hostility that’s surfaced.
CD: A change. Something changed. That’s what politics creates in a country where people are very poor. I remember reading in a newspaper that in Ivory Coast, teachers were not paid anymore for awhile. So many people ran to Ghana to find jobs. I think when you live in countries where the economy is fragile… here or in Europe, where people own things, they have savings, maybe own their apartment. The changes are not that fast. But me, I see now, I feel now in our country, some people’s lives are changing drastically. I don’t think next week they will stop cars on the road with a gun. But why not, in a month? I think the economy is so unfair. By watching the midterm election, by watching TV, I could see Texas where the Tea Party is so strong. When a rich country becomes fragile, it goes fast. A poor country, they’re used to those changes, so they have a fighting way of survival.
AVC: If you grow food in your backyard, or you own a goat, and no trucks come for a week, you could kill the goat. But if you live in a city, you don’t have that option. If food stopped coming to the supermarket, what would you do?
CD: Every time I’m in New York, every place, restaurant, every shop, it’s more and more magnificent. I say, “There is a lot of money!” But apparently so many people lack money. There are no jobs. It’s the same in France and in Europe. I think it’s frightening. I think it’s terribly frightening, the world of today.
AVC: It’s like in Michael Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf, which also stars Isabelle Huppert, where there’s the sense that for all we’ve built up, our society could turn primitive in a matter of months if someone turned out the lights.
CD: Or the opposite in Africa. It’s true that the guy who stopped you in the street with a gun could be the teacher of your son a month ago. But there is a sort of… Not being used to that, but you would understand. It’s not the end of the world. You would try to discuss. “Okay, if it’s a hundred dollars, yes.” I remember this thing in many countries in West Africa: “If you drive alone, be careful not to go alone there, because there could be coupeurs de route!” I would say, “Oh, I’m not afraid! If they catch me, I won’t be afraid, so they would leave me alone.” I don’t know, maybe I’m a little bit stupid. But if someone would do that in the street in France, I would be afraid to be killed immediately. Because I know if that were to happen in our highly rich and highly opulent countries, when the worse came to the worse, is the end. I don’t think that would be any discussion. I think so.
I was watching this thing with the Tea Party, and I see this woman, she looked like my mother, and she said, “I don’t want nobody to deal with my life! I don’t want no intrusion in my life, and when I get older, I will have my children that will take care of me!” And then, if your children lose their job, you know…
AVC: Or if your children decide they don’t want to…
CD: Or if they don’t want to. But if they lose their job, if suddenly they are in the street. How could you be so sure you are protected by just being an American? I know people in Europe also, they do think that by being European, they have a sort of a transparent protection, as if they were so well-protected immaterially. But when you come to discussion about Social Security and medical coverage and retirement, you could see people are fragile, and they are afraid, very much afraid.
AVC: There’s a sense in your films of people coming to terms with their own vulnerability. Not always in a bad way. It can be enlightening.
CD: No, but at the other end, I think to be reassured. It’s maybe old-fashioned. But for me, today, I don’t think it’s old-fashioned. It’s almost science fiction. I can’t imagine a society with absolutely no solidarity. For me, it’s a nightmare. And I don’t want to live in a place like that.
AVC: It’s like Olivier Assayas said about Carlos. At that time, during the 1970s, there was an active dialogue about revolution, and the argument was about what revolutionary method you supported. And it’s dead now. If you were born after that time, it’s like hearing people speak another language.
CD: But you know, because you speak of Carlos, it’s true that the playground was Europe at that time, and the Middle East. But I was in Chile months ago, and all the people I met, they wanted me—and it’s a long time since—to see the place where Allende’s body was found, the bullet hole in the wall. The driver took me every day along the road where Pinochet’s villa was. In South America, the remembrance is very strong. Of course the revolution is not why, it’s no more when, but the tastes of it and the loss of family members is still very pregnant there. I realize how fast Europe forgot something about this period when I saw Olivier’s film. I remember in the beginning of the ’80s, I was working in Berlin and in Beirut also, and I went to Israel. To be in Beirut in September ’82 during Sabra and Shatila. I thought it was normal to be there. Now when I tell people I was in Beirut in November ‘82, they look at me as if it’s an ancient story with no traces anymore. Of course, it seems like that because of the type of economy we have now, the way capitalism-equals-democracy is the new law. Without capitalism, there is no democracy. Maybe, okay. But it’s like we’re all brain-damaged with that.