For more than 30 years, French director Claire Denis has always been one of the most unpredictable and least cautious filmmakers in the world. Since his first feature film Chocolate in 1988, she shot films in Korea, Tahiti and various African countries. She’s made genre films — or rather films that are her own idiosyncratic, counter-intuitive take on genres like thriller, sci-fi, and gore-infused erotic horror — as well as numerous documentaries. As a singularly free-style director, she has been compared to great jazz improvisers like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker. So you can imagine she would be comfortable with the idea that her films are leaps into the unknown.
No way. Speaking in French from Paris, Denis recoils at the thought, in his distinctly hoarse voice: “No, absolutely not the unknown! On the contrary, it must be the known, the super famous. That’s why working on a screenplay is so important to me. This everything must be known. I need to search places like crazy – and even when everything is known, there is always the fear that something will escape you. The unknown? I would rather die.”
Yet Denis’ films often explore territories far removed from the familiar map of European art cinema. His most acclaimed film, the 1999 Foreign Legion drama Good work combined realism, muscular male dance sequences and allusions to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Boudd. The too little seen the intruder (2004), ostensibly about a heart transplant, is a hugely fragmented globe-trotting enigma. And the hallucinogen of 2018 high life saw Denis explore black holes in space with an international cast including Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, and collaborators including Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson.
Given this penchant for the off-road, fans of Denis may be surprised when she directs a film as seemingly conventional as Both sides of the blade which, superficially at least, resembles that all-too-known quantity, the French marital intrigue. It again stars Binoche, opposite Vincent Lindon – the brooding and imposing actor often seen as the Gérard Depardieu Nowadaysrecently seen as a muscular firefighter in the outraged Cannes winner last year Titanium. Binoche meanwhile plays Sara, a radio host happily married to ex-sportsman Jean (Lindon) until a glimpse of an ex-boyfriend sends her into a quivering state of passionate turmoil.
A straightforward drama becomes more complex if one takes into account Jean’s relationship with his mother (New Wave veteran Bulle Ogier) and mixed-race teenage son (Issa Perica), with Denis also inserting fragments of radio testimonies about Lebanon. and on the problem of “white thought” — the latter by the author and ex-footballer of Guadeloupe origin Lilian Thuram. Raised in West Africa, the daughter of a French civil servant, Denis, now 76, frequently returned to themes of race and colonialism in her films, including the 2009 one white materialan apocalyptic evocation of civil war in an unnamed African country.
However, Both sides of the blade might look like the classic Parisian bourgeois drama. However, what is really at stake is the complex relationship between a middle-aged couple who are madly in love and intensely attracted to each other, even when the woman has a yen for another younger man. . Binoche is 58 and Lindon 63, but their love scenes are without an iota of false decorum.
“For me, says Denis, the only problem with sexuality is when the body doesn’t want it anymore. Age has nothing to do with it. I’m going to be rude: if someone wants to fuck, then that person is hot, deep down. I don’t think Vincent and Juliette worried about that. There is sexuality in the three of us, myself included, because if you want to make a film about sexuality, you have to know what it is.
Someone who definitely knows about sexuality — in fact, has built her literary identity around it — is Denis’ co-writer on the film, Christine Angot. She has long been celebrated – and controversial – in France as a leader in the “autofiction” genre, building her novels around candid fictional depictions of her own sometimes disturbing experiences. Denis has already worked with her and Binoche in 2017 Let the sun inas close as the director made it to a comedy.
Freely inspired by Angot’s novel A turning point in life, both sides of the blade is another study of a woman’s desire for men, but Denis rejects the idea that the two films are a kind of diptych. “All Christine and I were thinking about was Vincent and Juliette, Juliette and Vincent – you absolutely believe they’re a couple.” Angot, she says, was a reluctant collaborator: “She always said to me, ‘I write books, I’m not a screenwriter, I’ll give you a few pages but that’s it.’ Being in the service of a film does not please him at all. At all. But I love working with her. We found a way to do it.
Talking to Denis is in itself unpredictable, she sometimes deviates on degressive paths. When I mention that On both sides has tantalizing shortcomings — like, why has Jean recently spent time in jail? – she thinks: “Are they shortcomings? Maybe we don’t need to know everything in a story. Then she launches into a speculation about the “back story” business and wonders what the late New Wave maestro Jacques Rivette (Denis was her assistant director) would have said about it. Case in point: Frank Capra’s classic 1934 comedy It happened one night, which fortunately dispensed with a back story. “It takes you from Miami to New York in 90 minutes. Now that would take a director three and a half hours.
Since Both sides of the blade debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Denis has created another feature film: The stars at noon, a riskier but slightly less convincing adventure, which nevertheless won a Grand Prix at Cannes. A political adventure and erotic thriller set in Nicaragua, it is based on a novel by American writer Denis Johnson, whom the director met before his death in 2017.
“He’s amazing, he’s a poet. His way of writing is always very real, but there is always a dimension above reality. It is really about psychic reality.
Denis would have liked to shoot in Nicaragua itself, but settled for Panama. “American insurers wouldn’t touch it – they see it as a Marxist country like Cuba.” Even more than Both sides of the blade, The stars at noon is about passion and flesh – with stars Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn throwing themselves body, soul and sweaty skin into the story of a dangerous tropical affair.
“I can’t make films otherwise,” says Denis. “I couldn’t imagine recruiting actors who wouldn’t be ready to physically throw themselves into a film. I’m definitely getting into it physically. It doesn’t matter whether you are shooting in a hot or cold place. Making movies is a physical business.
‘Both Sides of the Blade’ is in UK cinemas from September 9
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