Claire Denis’ Bastards was the subject of a minor scandal when it was left out of Cannes’ competition and relegated to the second-tier Un Certain Regard section, but the story of a commercial boat captain (Vincent Lindon) who leaves the sea to investigate the sexual assault of his niece (Lola Créton) turns out to rank with the best of Denis’ recent films. Recalling the fragmented style of The Intruder, but with a more solid core, the movie sticks close to Lindon’s obsessive attempts to avenge his niece, though it isn’t initially clear what that has to do with starting an affair with the mistress of a wealthy businessman (Chiara Mastroianni) who lives downstairs. Denis’ first movie shot on digital video, Bastards is duly chilly, but not enough to dampen the smoldering masculinity of Lindon’s performance. While in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival, Denis sat down with The Dissolve to talk about why she likes silent characters, how shooting on digital changed her style, and why she doesn’t like movies that portray women as victims.
The Dissolve: You’ve said Bastards came together in a different way than your other films. How did it start?
Claire Denis: For me, it was similar to what happened when I decided after Chocolat to do No Fear, No Die: this energy to do something that deals with family. I don’t feel so different. Of course, it’s different than White Material. But White Material was born from other thoughts and knowledge. It’s more like I did 35 Shots Of Rum, which for me was a film about love, about only love, and how deep that love is. Then I needed to go maybe to the opposite.
The Dissolve: They’re very different, but 35 Shots Of Rum, White Material, and Bastards are all, broadly speaking, about parents, children, and siblings.
Denis: And Nenette And Boni, too. And No Fear, No Die. I think it’s commonplace for film. I don’t know why. My family story is not such a drama that I am marked forever by family. But I have brothers and sisters. I realize how fragile all those relations are.
The Dissolve: It isn’t as strong as it is in Trouble Every Day, but the idea of blood, and the contamination that can be passed along with it, is strong in Bastards. In some ways, the more closely related people are, the more poisoned their relationship is.
Denis: Of course. Same with me. In a way, my relation to family—siblings, parents, children—it’s an obligation. You cannot run away. I guess that’s why he chooses to be a sailor, or maybe why I choose to make films. Because it’s another way to escape the mundanity of family. You can run away from your family, disappear, or whatever, but the link is there. As in a Conrad novel, you go as far as some island or deep in Africa, but somehow you will be marked by your destiny. As in a Faulkner story, where it’s a small territory, everyone knows everyone, these families. You don’t need to go far.
The Dissolve: Vincent Lindon’s character in Bastards could have inherited a share of the family manufacturing business, but as he says, “I chose another life.”
Denis: He doesn’t want to deal with that. He doesn’t want to deal with shoes, he doesn’t want to deal with family. He has his own children, but of course he is not there every day. It’s a good job. He’s free. He’s traveling on the sea. It’s a great life. It’s the ideal life, I think, for a man. It’s the type of life that is not ideal for a woman. It’s the very masculinity of the job that interests me.
The Dissolve: You talked about men and women in the press conference, and their relationship to the female characters in the movie.
Denis: In a family business or a family tragedy, women are always deeply involved. Being a victim makes them react very violently by denying, but also making decisions. Like with Chiara [Mastroianni], the fact that someone could say she’s some kind of whore because she lives with this old guy—she doesn’t care, in a way. Women have, as it says in the Bible, the narrow pass. So I don’t judge them. I’m the opposite. Even the daughter, when she decides to take the car. Only women make decisions in the film.
The Dissolve: And the men just are what they are?
Denis: They can judge, they can decide. I don’t like films that take for granted that women are victims, so we have to be redeeming them. No, I don’t like that.
The Dissolve: For how important she is to the story, Lola Créton has very little dialogue. Did you always conceive of the character that way?
Denis: Of course. I don’t think what lines she needs. She’s the one who carried the film on her naked body on high heels with pride. I don’t know what she could say. It would be stupid or psychological to say… I don’t know. The only thing she says is “I love him.” What would she say? “I love him, dah dah dah dah…” No. Maybe it’s not stupid in another film. For me, it was not necessary. I like dialogue. But it’s not because a character has dialogue that she is the most… she is the core of the film. When I made Chocolat, Isaach De Bankolé was the main character, and he has not a line.
The Dissolve: Your documentary Vers Mathilde begins with a choreographer talking about the idea of scratching space with the body, the idea that movement leaves a physical trace.
Denis: Yeah. When I heard a voice telling me that she could scratch the space, scratch the air, I immediately understood. I’m not a choreographer, I’m not a ballet dancer, but I know exactly. In filmmaking, there is always this feeling of what kind of space you want a body to occupy: If that body is going to scratch laterally, or enter, or leave. This is very much the question, not movement of the body, but scratching the space. When the scientists speak about the cosmos and getting out of the solar system, the scratching of the space is physically right.
The Dissolve: Speaking of space and the way you conceive it, how did shooting digitally for the first time affect your relationship with your longtime cinematographer, Agnès Godard?
Denis: We did some tests. I used mostly the same lens, because I used the lens I always use. But the ratio of the same lens with the RED Epic is completely different with a 50 [mm]. Which for me, when I was shooting film, was my favorite lens, maybe. And the 40 has the strength of scratching the space. Suddenly I realized the 50 was in between, and to get that feeling of being with it was something like 65. But I was lost at the beginning with that feeling. Also, I was completely lost because Agnès was wearing this earset, and there was this guy with a computer nearby. And me, when I’m filming, I stand by Agnès—sometimes I hold her—and I speak to her while shooting. So suddenly I say, “Ugh, if you are listening to someone else, I’m going to freak out. Not because I don’t trust your work, but I want to be the only one in contact with you.” Otherwise I’m too frustrated. We did manage. But it’s not easy at the beginning.
The Dissolve: Bastards mostly takes place in an apartment building. Was it helpful to be working in a contained space when you’re trying out a new way of filming?
Denis: It was nice. I don’t know. I always thought digital was more urban. I would’ve been sad to do Beau Travail with digital, because the light in Djibouti deserves to mark a film. It’s such an impressive light, it deserves a better translation than digital, in my opinion. And also, at that time, I remember, a digital camera could not stand that heat. You cannot drink, everything is a desert, and suddenly you have a camera that needs an icepack? No, come on. We had this little Aaton; I mean, it was so easy. The night shots we did in Beau Travail with the faster Kodak at that time, we had no generator and no lights; we did it with a car’s headlights. I’m not sure we could’ve done that with the digital of that period. Today, yes, maybe.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting that your first digital film builds to, and ends with, a very different, much more low-def form of video.
Denis: It reminds me of some paintings of Francis Bacon. I didn’t try to make it look like Francis Bacon, but the white skin and the red theme—suddenly I realized it was like the portrait of the Pope he made.
The Dissolve: You mentioned that it was important for you to show that footage. Why?
“Women have, as it says in the Bible, the narrow pass. So I don’t judge them. I’m the opposite.”
Denis: Many people have asked me to take this footage out. But I would imagine I would feel terribly ashamed of myself. What would’ve been the film if all this situation of showing this red bed in daylight, and you know what it’s meant for, and you know there is a camera, and then nothing? Come on. Too unfair. And I think the footage I show is not that horrible.
The Dissolve: The last scene is scored to Tindersticks’ incredibly creepy version of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me.” How did that end up in the film?
Denis: It was a weird thing. The film was not edited yet, and one day I was with Stuart Staples, and he said, “I want you to listen to one song.” And I listened to the Hot Chocolate version. Because I told Stuart at the beginning, I would like to have like Tangerine Dream music, like Michael Mann’s first film, Thief. It’s so inhuman; this electronic music has no humanity. So I was very happy with that. Then when he made me listen to Hot Chocolate’s song, this fake disco, it was terrible. The film was not even edited, and I said, “Yeah, we’ll see.” When he made me listen to his version, I thought it was, in a word, happiness. I said, “Yeah, of course I accept.” Maybe people will resent it, but I trust Stuart. He’s one of the people I trust most with my work. He’s such a real human person. If I had to trust someone, I would say Stuart immediately. Because he’s not only a great musician, he’s a great human.
The Dissolve: Listening to the box set of Tindersticks’ scores for your movies, it’s striking how different they are. They’ve gone in different directions as a band, but never as dramatically as when they’re working with you.
Denis: I think my works brings them a new element to deal with, and they bring me such a deep relation with the music. Most of the time, if I had not met them, maybe there would be source music some of the time, but mostly no music. But with them it’s different. It’s completely different.
The Dissolve: Bastards is a very compressed, elliptical film; it almost feels like a four-hour story you cut all the fat out of. Was it that way from the script stage?
Denis: The script was small, and suddenly I said, “Oh, everything is there, but it is small.” I thought, “Wow. We’ll see.” The fat never came. The script was, in a way, not fragile—it was strong—but like barbed wire, thin and pointed.
The Dissolve: It seems deliberate that you disorient the audience right at the beginning, concentrating on several different characters before introducing Lindon, who’s more or less the protagonist.
Denis: I was not disoriented myself, but one person I like told me after Cannes, “I’m very disoriented at the first minutes. You should try a voiceover.” I did, and I couldn’t stand it. I think it was completely the opposite direction to the film. It was explaining things, but for nothing, for no reason at all. I did try, and I realized it was painful.
The Dissolve: The Intruder is more of a movie where—
Denis: The Intruder, I must admit, I realize now how easy it was for me. It’s the film I made, like walking the forest, I knew exactly everything. We were traveling all around the world, and I never thought it was going to be a complex story. For me, it came directly from the book of Jean-Luc Nancy, and I thought everything was explained when he said, “A new heart—this is like to buy a new watch.” So I have Michel Subor go buy a new watch. For me, everything was so clear, but when the film was finished, I was in Venice film festival. People all said, “Oh, it’s a little bit complex.” And I thought, “Huh?” But for me, while shooting, it’s the best memory of filming I have.
The Dissolve: I saw the movie just after that in Toronto, and I remember some people in the audience almost being angry at you for making a difficult film.
Denis: Yeah, I remember. I was there. I just arrived by plane, and Piers [Handling, director and CEO of TIFF] told me, “Oh, you are strong enough.” But what can I say? I cannot lie and say, “I did it very complex on purpose.” No, of course not. Because I’m not a very, what you can call intellectual person. I read the book, and everything was clear to me. A new heart transforms your life completely, and your body is saved by the heart, but rejects the new heart because it’s an intruder. For me, it was so simple. And I tried to make that story. I was not trying to be an intellectual.