I spoke with French filmmaker Claire Denis in September 2004 and wrote an article
about her latest film. Old news. In anticipation of seeing the film again tomorrow at the San Francisco International Film Festival
, I'm posting a few tangents that I wasn't able to fit into the piece.
One of the movies I was most excited to see at last year's Toronto
International Film Festival
was the latest from Claire Denis, The
. Denis' movies always ask a little more of me than
I expect them to, and The Intruder
, as an extremely abstract,
dreamlike meditation, is no exception. It scatters its story — or at
least its images; story may not be the right word — across the globe
showing us people who may not be people at all but just phantoms in
the main character's mind. It very gradually develops a poem about the
very human desire to craft a better personal story than the one that's in progress, a cleaner, simpler story where failing hearts are replaced with a snap,
where complications are erased and redrawn, where sons who are
distant, lost, are brought back into the fold and life continues at
the point where the relationship was derailed. Easy.
I've been thinking about L'Intrus again recently because I'll have a
second opportunity to see the film when it plays at the 48th San
Francisco International Film Festival tomorrow at the Kabuki. (It
plays again on May 1 at the PFA in Berkeley.)
But back in September in Toronto, as luck would have it, I sat down to talk with Denis the
day after I saw the film, and I'm using the San Francisco festival as
an excuse to post some long-promised outtakes from the interview. I'm a writer, not an interviewer, so my rare chats with
filmmakers tend to be very unfocused and sprawling, full of tidbits
that I can't figure out how to include in the final piece, or that I
can only include after abbreviating them.
But I like those bits all the same. Maybe you'll enjoy them, too.
Rejection and Coincidence
Jean-Luc Nancy's reaction to the film.
Robert Davis: I know you've said the film is based on Jean-Luc
Nancy's heart transplant, his writing about that. It seems unusual to
base a movie on a philosophical work, but philosophers have often used
fiction to convey their ideas, in stories and novels. Has he seen the
Claire Denis: Yeah. Jean-Luc Nancy told me he has to think
about it. Because he was surprised. I don't know, when he saw it I
think first of all he was suffering, deep in himself. When he saw the
heart, the bloody heart on the snow, I could see his face. It was
painful to him, and the scar was painful to him. So I think he needs
to see the film once more so it becomes more abstract to him, because
the first time he saw the film it was too physical, you know?
Because he does have a new heart, it's something he
knows. Rejection. His own body suffering from that. He knows.
Also, I think he was surprised because there is a
coincidence. I was preparing the film and he wrote a small book called
Noli Me Tangere [full title: Noli Me Tangere: Essai sur la
levée du corps] about the resurrection of Christ, the idea of
resurrection. And when Madeline on Easter morning finds the door of
the cave open, she sees a man and she thinks he's the gardener, and
she asks him, "Is the Lord gone?" And the gardner turns and she
recognizes the Christ and she wants to touch him and he says, "Don't
touch me." "Noli me tangere."
And Jean-Luc studied that, not in religious terms but because it was
inspiring so many paintings, you know, the resurrection of Christ.
And Madeline, her hands want to touch a body that can't be touched,
because I think the translation of the word is not "don't touch me"
but "you cannot touch me, I'm untouchable now" because resurrection is
maybe something you cannot understand.
So he wrote that book, and I read it while I was shooting and I
thought, how strange, because, me, I was inspired by this
intrusion of the new heart, this very precise and physical book he
wrote about rejection. And now he writes this thing about
resurrection, which is another aspect of the film, without me knowing,
R: Yeah, the son is even a little bit sacrificial, it seems.
C: Of course, yeah. I had not read the book, and I thought,
it's as if we had been traveling in the same train or boat without
knowing, you know?
R: That is weird. There are lots of crosses in the film, too. I
remember that great shot of the cross with the crane behind it like a
He's Like a Snail
We were talking about actor Michel Subor and the footage from Paul Gégauff's aborted film Le Reflux that Denis uses in L'Intrus.
C: That film [Le Reflux], I must say,
I could have used more cilps. I mean there was something, but Canal+ bought
the negative and they sold it very expensively. Anyway—
In that case, also, Michel was not an actor in the film. He was already
himself in a way. You could see how much of himself— I think he was a
good actor, Michel, but he would not believe in a character unless it
was himself, you know what I mean?
C: There was, um— I would say a Russian disbelief in Michel, a
R: He needed to find himself in the film somehow.
C: Yeah, or, why pretend this, you know? Let's try to [get me
and] the character to meet. It's enough. A sort of laziness of being
anyone else but himself. Although he's a good actor. He was the voice
in Jules et Jim, and in Petit Soldat he was great. But he's
dragging everything to his own enigmatic soul, for me.
R: Yeah. And it shows in his physical presence. In fact you've
worked with a lot of actors who have very unique physical presences.
R: Beatrice Dalle is another. I wonder if I could ask you about
her character in L'Intrus. There are a lot of things that are still
mysteries to me about the movie and I'm waiting for them to sort of
unfold as I see it again. Her character in particular is one of the
C: For me it was very... [pause] Maybe she should not have been at the
end of the film, but it's because of the loop, I decided to have the
last loop going back to the North. But in fact she was just a woman
raising dogs, attractive but self-sufficient, and she is the only
character that does not need him and he is like attracted to her
behind her barrier, as if he couldn't touch her because she would not
even consider him, you know?
All the other characters are more or less— not depending on him
but sort of attracted to him. She's the only one that has no—
absolutely no— her vision of him is kind of realistic. She's the
only person who just— "Go away." You know? "Who needs you."
That's all. I thought she was that person. I needed a character that
was not attracted to him, someone who would reject, because the film
is about intrusion and rejection and I needed someone to reject him.
R: That final scene, where she's on the dog sled, also reminds me of the
scene where he's dragged by horses through the snow. I'm not sure why,
necessarily, but it's—
C: Yeah, as if she was part of that rejection, yeah. Because of
course a lot of characters accept him and almost help him. I mean like
the nurse in the hospital they accept him. Of course he rejects his
son, but I wanted him also to be rejected. He couldn't have everything
he wanted even with money and smiling and self-confidence, whatever.
I wanted, but forgot, to ask Denis about the auditions for Louis's son, where we see one face after another, each a potential son. None of the candidates is quite right. Too tall, too short. It's a funny, absurd moment in the middle of a movie that I remember on the whole as very dour. It reminds me of something from Donald Barthelme, who readers of this site know is one of my faves. He created textual caricatures of fathers and sons in his novel The Dead Father and his short story Views of My Father Weeping, which I've alluded to a thousand times because they've so scratched my brain.
Well I like all of these faces in your movies. You cast
C: Yeah, kind of always the same. The same actors, always.
Guitar Loops and Dead Men
A musical loop, and a connection between Denis's films and Jim Jarmusch's.
R: I love the way you use water in this film. It seems to
convey so much distance in time and space. There's that shot near the
end, while the music is playing, you hold on the water for so long. Do
you know how long that shot is? It's very long.
C: It's a minute and 17 seconds, I think.
R: [laughs] It's great. Who wrote that music? The guitar loop.
C: Stuart Staples, the leader of Tindersticks, the band, you
know? But he decided not to work with the band this time. In a way the
film was working like a loop so he recorded that guitar loop.
It was more interesting for me, as he said immediately, even before
the film was finished shooting, that probably if we were stuck with a
melody, it wouldn't be a good idea for the film.
I knew I wanted guitar right from the beginning. I told him I need a
guitar sound, no violin, no... but then we thought maybe it's going to
be like a ballad so let's make it a loop.
R: Hmm. I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Jarmusch earlier
C: Oh yeah? I think he just started shooting last month.
R: Oh good. I'm excited to see his new movie. I'm always
looking forward to his movies. He told me you were one of his favorite
filmmakers. You worked with him—
C: Yeah, I was his assistant.
C: I think really I was not needed. I think he enjoyed the fact
that when he was about to shoot Down By Law, it was like a sort of
poetic gesture to decide I was going to be the assistant. I was not
even allowed by the union so they changed my name or whatever. But I
mean I really worked. I was not just invited to watch shooting. I
really enjoy working with him, yeah, very much so.
And it's still strong, because he is— I don't know— we
don't see each other very often, as you might imagine. But it's
important for me to know that he's working. His work is important for
Also probably people think there is absolutely no relation between his
work and my work, but for me there is one: a sort of openness, a sort
of— an open cinema. His films greet other filmmakers, you know
what I mean?
C: Other filmmakers, and life, and faces, and the way he
chooses people and the way he films them. I feel so close. Yeah.
R: You know, the music in L'Intrus even reminds me a little of
the music in Dead Man, the guitar loop that Neil Young wrote. And that movie is also kind of a circle, come to think of it. A
circle of death.
C: Hmm. I always thought of Dead Man while I was shooting, when
I was lost, when I was desperate with shooting. I thought this heart
was also like the bullet in Dead Man, the bullet inside the body. It
was suddenly coming back to me that Michel was also— it was not
a bullet but this new heart was almost a bullet in his body killing
R: That's very interesting.
Distance and Rhythm
How does Denis create films with such strong rhythms?
R: Your films are so rhythmic and musical, you must work very
closely with your editor and cinematographer and sound designer. Can I
ask you a little bit about what your process is like and how all of
this comes together into such a cohesive whole?
C: When I prepare shooting and I start preparing with Agnès
Godard, the [director of photography], I try to explain to her through the script what I have
seen. It's difficult to express, but when I'm working on the script I
feel that I have already chosen the length. I don't know why. There is
something there that is almost like a choice. It's not a technical
choice, but it's a relation to the film that is already inside the
It's interesting that she describes the screenwriting
process in terms that could describe L'Intrus: rejection and dreaming.
Because script writing takes a long time, with a period of rejection,
a period of dreaming, so already there is a sense of length, you know?
Which is— when I say length, I mean distance also.
So when I start working in preproduction with Agnès I try to express
to her what I feel about that, you know?
And often I write when I already have locations. I don't look for
locations after writing the script. Very often I look for locations
then I write the script.
So, therefore, when I take Agnès to visit locations with the art
director, there is already a feeling of distance and location and
camera. I think it's already contained by the site and by the story.
So already it's a very closed approach, as if the camera and Agnès
are already inside the script, you know? And sometimes it's difficult
for them because I don't give them the opportunity to propose another
distance. But even if I tried to say, OK, let's propose something
different, I know it's too late, it's impossible, so they have to come
to the script. You know what I mean.
C: And then I think it's easier, because from there it's like
writing together. We agree on everything, because the most important
thing is decided. Let's say for this film 125 for the length, so once
you decide that and Agnès proposes Super-35, which is a sort
of fake 'scope, what else can you do? The rhythm just happens, it's
what you do when you're filming. It's almost as if the framing and
distance were made already. What I have to feel with Agnès is a sort
of internal rhythm of shots.
Another interesting similarity to Dead Man: the
score and film have a rhythm like Denis describes. Jarmusch says that
improvised the Dead Man score in real time and that when they later tried to
shift the music's location in the film, it didn't work as well.
So, when I reach the editing — it might be difficult, I don't
mean it's easy to edit the film like that — but there is already
sort of a physical rhythm inside it. And it never worked when we tried
to edit differently. It's like grrr
. [motions as if fitting square
peg in round hole] It never worked.
R: Who designs your credit sequences? They're often so whimsical
C: A young girl named Charlotte. She was thinking of the loop.
C: You think they're good?
R: Yeah, I like them a lot.
[The opening titles appear on the screen in odd clusters and with a
steady, almost syncopated rhythm. The closing titles have a strange
paint, scroll, wipe, paint, scroll wipe pattern, and some of the
characters are whimsically identifed with names like "Queen of the
R: Have you had a chance to see anything else at the festival?
C: I wanted to see the film by Jia Zhangke, The World.
R: Ah, The World, yes, I've heard good things about that.
I also missed The World
in Toronto, but I'll be seeing it at
But I could not because I had a screening at the same
time. But I saw Hou Hsiao-hsien's film.
R: Café Lumière? Did you like that?
R: Yeah, me too. He's great.