Arguably, the best film to premiere at Cannes last May was Claire Denis’ Les salauds (known in English-speaking territories as Bastards). Was it included in the competition? No, it was not. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with premiering in Un Certain Regard. None whatsoever. But with a competition selection largely consisting of dreck (with a few notable exceptions), the slight-of-a-sort seemed all the more curious. Particularly for a French film festival and a French film.
The next appearance of Bastards occurred at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow spoke with Ms. Denis there; a portion of that conversation appears below. The U.S. premiere of the film took place at the New York Film Festival in October (where Marlow and Denis spoke briefly again).
Jonathan Marlow: A few months ago, Agnes Godard was in San Francisco presenting a handful of films at the Pacific Film Archive. Several of the films that screened were yours, of course. We talked a bit about Les salauds [Bastards]. I saw the film at Cannes and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. There is this tendency among most film critics to speak very specifically about spectacle. It’s easier to talk about something like Gravity because they can visually see that something very unique and interesting is happening on the screen. But many are less attuned to unconventional narrative and editorial constructions. I am reminded in Bastards of The Intruder and how you’re taking what is traditionally thought of as a literary device of a fragmented narrative and doing something that is truly unique. Something revolutionary, I believe. This partnership that you have with Agnes Godard, your cinematographer, makes Bastards something else altogether. I am genuinely amazed by what you’ve accomplished… That’s a long-winded set-up.
Claire Denis: It was never a decision between me and Agnes to make something… As an example, we are both anxious to find the right way to express something and we never surrender when we are not happy with what the image would say or express. Therefore, we don’t need to speak a lot together. There is always the moment where we will say, ‘No. This doesn’t work and the only interesting thing is to find out why.’ I remember when we were doing The Intruder. The landscape in the beginning—in this part of France near Switzerland—was amazingly beautiful, with the lake and the house. It is a place I’ve loved since my childhood. That morning—in the autumn, at the end of September—was gorgeous. I said, ‘We need a shot of him remembering forever that landscape.’ I can tell you that I don’t trust landscape. I don’t want to use landscape to illustrate a place. A landscape needs to come from inside a character. So we set a tracking shot—a long tracking shot—and we start tracking one take. I didn’t watch the little screen. I was walking with her and I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘What doesn’t work?’ She said, ‘Maybe it’s too fast?’ I say, ‘Yes. Maybe.’ So we did it slower. I said, ‘No.’ Then at some point she said, ‘Maybe very fast?’ I said, ‘Maybe we can do it a million times. Higher, lower, whatever. This film will never accept this shot. This film doesn’t want tracking shots.’ If we look at something, it is static. We did it and, suddenly, I understood. Even though the landscape is very important—even the boat in South Korea with all the ribbon and the wind and the light—we put the camera on a tripod…
Marlow: Very static.
Denis: Yes. I think the film was like that. She understands. She would not complain about that. Agnes will understand that, ‘No, it doesn’t work.’ Then she understands. It’s not an easy thing to understand because it could just be a sign of a bad mood.
Denis: No, it’s true. ‘Fuck this tracking shot. Let’s stop it.’ No, it’s something that we understand.
Marlow: Is this something intuitive? Is this something that the material requires?
Denis: I think this comes from the film itself.
Marlow: Exactly. With Friday Night, for instance, it is the exact opposite. The material asks for something and the unity of the partnership between you and Agnes and the music, Tindersticks… all of these things come together. Each person brings what the project demands.
Denis: I think my other collaborator, Jean‑Pol [Fargeau], when I’m working on the scripts, he is always disturbed because sometimes we find we work a day or two and we are very happy with the work. Then Agnes says, ‘No, I cannot visualize this.’ It’s not a question of image. I don’t feel I will be moved. I think it is the kind of scene that would be boring for me to do. It may be better to stop immediately. Sometimes we will abandon a week of work. I guess Jean-Pol understands, also, that there must be a sort of script that defines a project. It comes from our bodies and our sensations and it will be the material with which the actors will be elevated. If it’s just their point of view, ‘I’m looking at this landscape because it’s here.’ I think landscape is something that brings an emotional dimension… When we did Beau Travail, I took Agnes there and, of course, as with everyone’s first time in Djibouti, she was amazed by the landscape. I said, ‘Now, Agnes, swear to me and I swear to you, we will never film the landscape without actors. The landscape will be their territory. We will never do them and the landscape. Together, always.’ And we did. The temptation was big.
Marlow: There was no footage of the landscape that you chose not to use?
Denis: Never. It is better…
Marlow: …not to have that temptation? [Laughs.]
Denis: No. If you get to the editing room with a lot of garbage, I think that the editing room… Maybe I’m wrong. The editor can say, ‘You made only one shot. You should have done a close‑up of this…’ or whatever. At least I don’t bring a lot of material…
Marlow: Extraneous? Unnecessary?
Denis: …for the editor to deal with. I like things to be missing. ‘Oh God. I knew this was one sequence short.’ I like this feeling of a void.
Marlow: I do, too. When you’re constructing the script for a film, how early in the process is it already clear whom you would want to cast in the film? With Beau Travail or 35 Shots of Rum or even…
Denis: Beau Travail, I knew.
Marlow: You knew immediately, yes?
Denis: Denis Lavant and Michel Subor.
Marlow: It seems like you would have to. You would have to.
Marlow: I cannot imagine anyone else in those roles.
Denis: Nobody but Denis Lavant, for certain. And Michel Subor was very important for me, too.
Marlow: The same for Bastards?
Denis: Yes. Vincent [Lindon]. I have been working with him for ten years and I knew it was an important meeting for us. I was here—stuck one week in Toronto on September 11th [in 2001]—in a hotel with Chiara Mastroianni. I said, ‘Yes, because of this, we’ll make a film together.’ It is strange the way that a character… Casting is an interesting word in English. Not in French. In English, it’s like a magician.
Marlow: Or like a fisherman. Casting a net… whatever happens to venture into it.
Denis: To cast, also, is like a magician who casts a future that perhaps will never happen. You take a risk. But the link of the casting is very strong. Like with Isabelle [Huppert]. With Isabelle, I was… I don’t know. She was interested already while we were writing the script. It is a very strong relation. When we were shooting White Material, she was mine. Actors… I like when they’re mine. I like when they belong to the story. They belong to the story of the script because I have them in mind. I don’t like actors who are invited on a film. I like actors who are already inside.
Marlow: To what extent, then—as I am drawing these parallels between The Intruder and Bastards in their use of an elliptical narrative—are you not providing everything to the audience? You’re asking the audience to be intelligent enough to participate in reconstructing the narrative (which, in itself, is relatively unique in cinema these days).
Denis: I would never…
Denis: I would never assume that.
Marlow: But you do ask?
Denis: When I’m told that, I feel, ‘My God, I did not know.’ There is something I don’t know. It’s like in music, when cutting from one scene to another. When there is a little gap, it becomes very physical. It did happen that I wrote an explanatory scene already when I was shooting them. I was not very excited about it but then, in the editing room, suddenly, two blocks… The little gap is not because I think that the audience is intelligent. I’m not an intelligent person.
Denis: No. I am a sensitive person. Sensible. I think it’s creates a little emotional moment… like in the rhythm of music.
Marlow: So you play with the equivalent of silence?
Denis: I’m not an intellectual. I’m maybe not stupid but I’m not an intellectual. This is really the way I am moved.
Marlow: I agree that your films are not intellectual exercises. The reason they work is that they create specific emotions in the viewer. They connect with the emotions of the audience. The films would not be effective if they did not. I think it would also be very challenging to explain why that is. It is a unity of all these different factors. I could not necessarily lay it out. I don’t know if anyone could effectively lay it out…
Denis: Me, neither. Sometimes I say it is because, when I was a child growing somewhere in Africa, I also was suffering from very severe asthma. My life was not a solid line. When you have asthma, you have good moments and then, suddenly, ‘the crisis.’ Suddenly, you don’t breathe. You don’t sleep. Suddenly, life is cut and then it’s gone. Just as suddenly, it is over and you can breathe again and you can eat. I was four or five. I always told my brother and sister that I had this feeling my little childhood was a defining moment. Those times of not breathing anymore and searching for air, it’s a moment when you don’t have any more bets. You’re completely alone. It was a joke when I said that for the first time. Then, one day, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s true.’