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From the Archive: Let the Sunshine In and High Life with Claire Denis

Nothing Concrete text
26 May 2021
26 min listen

On this week’s podcast edition, we spend some quality time in the company of legendary French film director Claire Denis.

Since her film debut Chocolat in 1988 she has been inspired by her upbringing in West Africa and France, inspired by long-term collaborators on and off camera and managed herself to inspire to inspire other filmmakers, in the process re-writing the rule book of European cinema making along the way.

Never one to stay in the same filmic universe long in this podcast we explore Juliette Binoche search for love in 'Let the Sunshine In' and then we stare into the void and desolation of space in 'High Life'.

 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Transcript

Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast

I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s podcast edition, we spend some quality time in the company of legendary French film director Claire Denis. 

Claire Denis: ‘There are many loves in a life – the first one, the second one, the bad one…sss…and I thought maybe to use the people in death corridor if they accept. They are not told there is no coming back, but of course there is no coming back... of course’ 

Since her film debut Chocolat in 1988 she has been inspired by her upbringing in West Africa and France, inspired by long-term collaborators on and off camera and managed herself to inspire inspire other filmmakers, in the process re-writing the rule book of European cinema making along the way.

Never one to stay in the same filmic universe long in this podcast we explore Juliette Binoche's search for love in Let the Sunshine In and then we stare into the void and desolation of space in High Life.

'Ben je suis rentrée avec lui et j'ai pensé que j'étais très heureuse, que j'avais beaucopu de chance, que ma vie était extraordinaire. Et puis alors le lendemain ben c'est le contraire quoi'

Let's begin with 2017's Let The Sunshine In. Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an artist, a mother, struggling to find her version of true love. fleeting and funny, she finds herself in and out of love with her caddish banker, a handsome actor and a sensitive fellow artist who's skittish about commitment. The director is fierce yet funny in her films, and as we'll discover, also in real life.

Claire Denis: The starting point was I did a short film with Christine Angot, I filmed a 40mins film with dialogues. She collects from a novel she wrote, and I made this film for an art school with very little money and two actors and Christine. And we enjoyed so much that moment that, 'let's keep on', with no project at all, let's keep on. And then this producer came to me and said 'Claire, would you be interested to adapt fragments of Roland Barthes?' I was not so sure, because for me, the strength, the reading of that book was still from my youth, from my, 18 now, was so much in me, and I printed my life in so many ways that I thought, 'Is it going to be very difficult', and I told the producer, 'You see, the reality of that is the only one of that I remember, is Agony. Because if I have to tell you something about Roland Barthes, is I remember agony because that's what I felt most of the time, when I was in love. I said, and I'm sure you don't want the film to be called 'Agony'. and then I said, maybe with Christine we could make some fragments of our love life.

BE: So is it about you and Christine sitting down and talking about all the bad relationships you've had?

CD: Or the good one we missed! 

BE: Oh yes. The thing I really latched onto in the film was this exploration of love and you very much saiyng that there are no right or wrongs, it's complicated and this character in the film has been struggling, is still struggling

CD: But she's a real woman, I mean, she wants something, she had been married, she had a child, she wants, she said now, it's time to meet the real true love. There are many loves in a life, the first one, the second one, the bad one....ss... The real true love, the one I could lean on, you know, like the song, of course, at last, that's why I choose that song so much, and I told Juliette, the song is for you, At last, At last. That's the song and she is a singer I like a lot. also she is a singer you should look at very precisely because she is a very sexy woman.

BE: That woman in the film, which is a big moment, that's where you perhaps have the idea of a fairytale romance, someone arrives

CD: Because that someone is probably exactly what she was looking for, pure and right and with no, maybe not that perversity that the others have, free. and she doesn't see that she missed him for a stupid reason. That's why she cries so much after, when she's at the clairvoyant.

BE: Let's go back to the beginning though, because if he is mister right, the beginning, the banker is mister wrong. 

CD: He's Mister Wrong, but with a certain limit because it was clear to me there was a time when probably she was very attracted by this guy, and she wanted this guy. And they really probably made love ferociously and she was seduced by him, you know. Maybe also she was a little bit seduced by the fact, there is a little bit of perversity in their relationship, but this is also a part of a certain type of seduction, you know. She's not a victim, because there was a journalist right before who says, were you inspired by the Weinstein scene? I was like oooh god no, it was before. It has been vanished since the origins of the world probably, no, I think there was a connection, but it's the end, and the only thing he can play with, because probably he feels she has enough of it. So he's playing, he doesn't know if he has to admire her, or reject her, or humiliate her. He's trying many tricks on her

BE: And then in between, we have shades of grey of that. We have the man who talks too much

CD: The actor, the man who talks too much, I like him also very much because he is the one that thinks, his hesitation is his power. he thinks by hesitating, by a little bit there, a little bit there, he's holding the situation together, but no, of course no.

BE: It's interesting that she's an artist. I would suggest that that allows you to have someone who's very sensitive, very open, very up for different experiences

CD: Yeah, although I don't feel like being an artist, and I think Christine knows she's a writer, but we never speak of ourselves as artists, but hard workers, mind diggers, you know? I think what affects me the most is that Juliette is really a painter, she paints for sure really, and she liked it. So I thought, let's do that.

BE: And when you're working with an actor who has such experience, she's the focus of the film, what sort of conversation do you have? Do you give her the script?

CD: She read the script, because we have the same agent. She called me, we know each other very well and she called me and she says 'This is me. I want this part'. We met in a café, we had lunch and I say yes. But one condition - I want to see the cleavage I want you to be very, very, very sexy woman, not hiding a body. It is important for me that she walks like a fighter in the street you know. She's not a victim. Her  body is full of conquests, you know, it's not a victimised body, for me it's very important.

BE: What I really liked in this film was, as you say, she's strident, she's in control, and it's her decision whether she starts a relationship or ends it.

CD: Yeah, it's her decision and also it's also a weakness in a way. Because of course she's so, when the clairvoyant says 'Open', the word is open, she is open but she's too strong, maybe, sometimes, and because she is strong, she is fragile. I remember when I was, let's say from 40-30, when nothing matters more than love, love or not being in love, being in love. It matters, also after, but in that sense where hormones are everywhere, even in the air you breathe. I think even if you feel strong about that, I realise that being strong, attracted by love is also so, makes you very fragile. Not weak, but... You give so much of yourself, but somehow you surprise you get slapped you know.

BE: In the film, we don't see Gerard Depardieu until the end. I wondered if it was always going to be like that?

CD: No, the scene was always at the end, and the producer and distributor they were discussing one day, they said, he was at that time working with Gerard Depardieu, and he said 'Oh, maybe the banker could be Gerard'. And I said Oh no, no no, I thought I was thinking about Xavier, because Xavier Beauvois  is also a director, he's a friend, and I wanted that perversity of his youth, and craziness you know. I wanted that for the banker. I thought then, immediately I said, 'If Gerard was into the film, only the clairvoyant at the end. Nobody else. If. And then, Gerard read it and the next day said yes. One condition: only one day  of shooting. and seven pages.' So, one angle on him, two takes, one angle of Juliette, two takes. By 4pm, because it was the winter, so Agnès told me at 4pm it's finished. 4pm we were done.

BE: Finally, do you think that she perhaps met the right person in the film? Is she still to find the film? That's what maybe was going through my head.

CD: I think the clairvoyant thinks maybe it's him, the right person. I think that's my opinion. In our mind she keeps asking about this man she met in a nightclub and she still hopes he is going to come back. but she is afraid, in a certain way. I don't know. The film has no ending, because I think Gerard understood immediately that it was written in loops and that there was no ending, it could go on for one hour easily. I kept 60 minutes, but I think I had 20 in fact.

BE: And did you do much editing? 

CD: The only thing I did when the distributor said 'the end scene... Claire please no! Not 60 mins'. I said ah ok, I have an idea, and I decided to put the credits on and nobody complained.

BE: where next, for you? This has been a slight departure I think, a little different

CD: I'm finished editing now, I'm a bit tired because it's in between these two films. And also this film I'm just finishing now, it was shot in English, in studio in Germany, and to do a film without my not speaking French, with no one, was not an easy thing.

BE: But do you like to challenge yourself? Is that fair

CD: No, I was offered by this English producer, to do a film in English, and I said yes. But it has to be a place where it's normal to speak English, otherwise I won't believe. And I chose space. Because I know in space you have to choose English or Russian. No other language. Some Chinese I believe.

BE: Well congratulations, it's a brilliant film, it's different, it's unique, and as all good cinema, it makes you think.

CD: Thank you very much.

BE: Next, we transport ourselves now to the deep corners of space, for Denis' first English language drama, as she just mentioned. in the film High Life, we begin near the end, focusing on Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, a convicted murderer who was sent into space, and his companion, his young daughter, Willlow. They are the last survivors of a dangerous scientific mission to the outer reaches of the solar system.

Monte (Robert Pattinson): I just don't understand how you can still believe in your quest or mission. It's like you become a shaman of sperm. It's just a new religion for you

Dr Monk (Juliette Binoche): Because, I'm totally devoted to reproduction, happy monk. going to sow your fields?

BE: As the incidents that led up to Monte's isolation are slowly revealed we encounter again Juliette Binoche who plays Dibbs, the dangerous doctor in charge of the crew. With a side mission to create a baby despite the radiation of space. The film also stars Andre Benjamin and Mia Goth as Monte's fellow prisoners. The film starts with a sense of disorientation, we see a garden, then we hear a baby call out, we don't know where we are. Is it important to you where you start the story?

CD: No, I always thought the film was starting, even before I started writing the script it started in a nice little garden with a little mist, and then suddenly we can hear a baby crying and then we realise this baby is a little baby girl o nher own in a strange room and there is a voice, a soft voice, 'Dada, dada'. and it's the father but he's in space repairing this old shitty ship, you know, vessel That' it, it was always like that. I never had another idea

BE: It's kind of like a Robinson Crusoe

CD: Oh no, Robinson Crusoe is so terrifying, Robinson is with man Friday and they didn't' make love, I don't know, Robinson Cruseo is, it's not a story I like. I was afraid by Robinson Crusoe. I only like man Friday, and in my film there is always a sort of man Friday in all my films, I think, it's a character I prefer

BE: And the credits, the title of the film appears certainly later in the film

Ah, yeah the title appears when the body are falling. because title High Life, I thought, there was this idea of, i was told by the astro-physician that there is no gravity so if you fall, you fall  like a stone forever, so I thought that's the title, yeah

BE: Do you think quite visually sometimes?

CD: I mean it's mostly visual. It's not visual then I write ideas, I write things, moments, and then I say what will I do with that, if it's not visual, it's not a film. the writing is a process of telling a story with image and sound. So each aspect is already in the script and there is a saucer and a cup and coffee and this is scriptwriting. Otherwise it's just writing.IT's not scriptwriting. 

BE: Your first film in English

CD: You have two countries that have cosmonaut, first the Russian then the Americans. So both languages, Russian and English were adopted by all cosmonauts even when they come from other countries. I think soon, Chinese will also be a language for space.

BE: There was also a connection between the fact that if we have American voices in the film, that allows us to connect to a country that does have the death penalty and we're dealing with these prisoners

CD: No this came after ,when I thought of the language of American and Russian. But then I thought in America maybe there is always this fear, this cultural thing of making a profit of everything, and I thought maybe to use the people in death corridors, if they accept, to be redeemed by this sort of mission. Why not?

BE: They've been sold a false promise that they're

CD: The false promise is sort of let you be redeemed for your family bla bla bla, but they don't, they are not told there is no coming back, but of course, there is no coming back.  And you know why there is no coming back, because of time. The speed of the ship makes that time very different than the time on Earth

BE: Were you fascinated by the science behind the film, or telling a story in space?

CD: I'm not fascinated by telling stories in space but I am, I think, science is great. I love to read about that yeah.

BE:  The deaths are quite beautiful and poetic within the film, such as the character that André Benjamin plays, Tchemy, he sort of takes off his shoes and becomes part of the garden within.

CD: Yeah, his wife told him instead of giving me your her heroic destiny, you burying me twice and he wanted to lay down on earth and disappear there, you know

BE: And the character that Juliette Binoche plays, Dibbs, although she is the villain, that's probably the wrong word, she's kind of 

CD: Medea, she's the woman what no woman should do, kill her own children. And she tries to kill herself, she didn't succeed, then she's condemned

BE: And she will do anything to complete this mission that she has

CD: Maybe I'm a bit crazy about that. Maybe, you know. The villain, no, she is not

BE: Maybe there are no villains.

CD: No villains. There are never villains in my films. I don't remember if I had a villain

BE: Is this film a little bit about the innocence of Willow?

CD: Is a child innocent, I don't know, maybe she will fall in love for her father, maybe she will have sex with her father, I don't know. I don't know like innocence, nobody is innocent, what the fuck

BE: Was there any mirroring with the idea of Adam and Eve, because again we see the garden at the beginning of the film, and the fall of innocence?

CD: Ah the garden of Eden. Yeah. Of course. Yes. But it's also something that's scientists know by now, you send every ship to Mars or even further, they will need some plants in it for vitamins and stuff you know. It's not sort of a pharmacy, and it became a garden of Eden, and a tomb for Tchemy and a place where they all enjoy to be.

BE: When you were choosing the actors to be in the film, I think you were searching for a sort of rebellious broken youth?

CD: I remember Mia. I told Mia, you know, that character is wild, and Mia said 'but I was wild, me too!'. To direct actors, it's not like to push a little car, it's not like pushing a toy, they have their own understanding of their characters, you know.

BE: I think it's unfair to perhaps compare it to too many other films, I think this is really unique piece f work. I did think a little bit about Tarkovsky

CD: Ooh, the film, in its own way, has 2-3 homages to Solaris

BE: And a little bit of Stalker as well, perhaps?

CD: No, except what I like in Stalker is the relation of the father and the daughter, which is like a wholly relation, and the end of Stalker, and maybe there is a dog in Stalker, but there are dogs in many films. No, I think there were like three homages to Solaris.

BE: It was there in the mood too, perhaps a cinematography and the choice of colours?

CD: No, no, I think what is interesting is a lot of science fiction movies now it's war movie, it's about soldiers, it's about conquest, what I like in Tarkovsky, Solaris, the scientists is, the hero is an astro-physician and he accepts to go back because he has lost his wife and he has this strange hope that maybe memories will come back, you know, it's not about conquest of the universe.

BE: You also collaborated with Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the beautiful kind of space, the black holes and the stars, I presume

CD: Him yeah. and especially the yellow gold colours at the end, yes. Apparently, when we saw the real image of a real black hole, was the same colour

BE: And do you enjoy collaboration, is that at the heart of everything that you do?

CD: No, but I had a chance to meet Olafur and we did this little film, Yellow Light, together and I told him this is going to be the yellow light I will use for my black hole. No, I'm not used to working with Olafur. It's one thing, and Aurelia was really necessary. Because I knew nothing about gravity, about artificial gravity, about space and time.

BE: When you finish a film, how do you value it, do you just come to a full stop with it, does it give you enough money to make the next film, is it someone's reaction to the film

CD: It helps me to do the next film, that's for sure, a good reason. The rest, the feelings are so mixed, memories, regrets, I don't know. It's good to think I will have money to do the next film. Yes, that's for sure.

BE: Do you get a satisfaction for doing something you haven't done before in regards to the setting and the language?

CD: Satisfaction, I don't get, no. No, satisfaction, no, no, it's not something like 'wow', no, this is not like that. There is sort of stress, was it well-done, am I going to do another one, what did I do wrong, it's not... I'm a very anxious person, I have to say. And not easily happy.

BE: Bleak if beautiful – High Life is another chance for Robert Paterson to shine in indie cinema and Let the Sunshine In untangles modern love with a fantastic performance from Juliette Binoche.

I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.
 

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