This interview was conducted in March during Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema.
The incomparable Claire Denis has come to New York City for Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema, where her latest feature “Both Sides of the Blade” (formerly known as “Fire“) has been set for its US premiere. The third collaboration between the director and her recent muse Juliette Binoche, the drama finds the mature yet sensual Sara torn between men — her fresh-out-the-clink amour Vincent Lindon and her ex Grégoire Colin — as well as the versions of herself they represent. From a pat template for conflicted desire, Denis builds a spikier, more finely shaded portrait of a woman bristling at the demands everyday life places upon her, and the men caught in her riptide. As is the case for so many of Denis’ protagonists, Sara has to contend with a hunger she doesn’t know how to articulate, a constant dissatisfaction with her circumstances that follows her no matter how she changes them. Coming from a restless, unpredictable artist, it’s easy to take as a personal statement.
Denis’ appearance at the festival has landed at a hectic time for the seventy-five-year-old, caught as she is between touring with “Both Sides of the Blade” (which netted her a Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale earlier this year) and post-production on her next film, “The Stars at Noon.” The A24-fronted literary adaptation sends Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn into Nicaragua as a pair of journalists, both in search of an escape from the revolution of 1984 as it rages around them. The second English-language outing for Denis after 2019’s “High Life,” it’s a reaffirmation that there’s no predicting the turns of her eclectic filmography, which spans erotic vampire nightmares, youth-in-revolt social realism, and military psychodrama. As she readily confesses, not even she knows what she’s going to do until she’s already doing it.
The morning after a warmly received screening at the opening night of the Rendez-vous, Denis sat down with The Playlist at a tony Upper East Side hotel to discuss her shyness about sex, the profound impact that Batman has had on the logistics of her next film, and how she made “Both Sides of the Blade” into a family affair.
I’ve been looking forward to speaking again. We’ve sat down once before, for “High Life” after the premiere in Toronto back in 2018.
On that huge screen in that huge theater. Fuck me up. When I think of it, I was seated by Robert [Pattinson], and for me and Robert, that was like a nightmare. I told [Toronto International Film Festival CEO] Cameron [Bailey], “You cannot do that to film.”
So! How would you say your new film relates to “Let the Sunshine In?” “Both Sides of the Blade” isn’t a sequel, per se, but it does seem like there’s a connection between the two.
The connection is that I wrote the scripts with Christine Angot both times. This time, it’s more or less an adaptation of one of her novels, and they’re similar in that Juliette [Binoche] is in both of them. But I think “Beau Soleil” was me answering a producer who asked if I could adapt a fragment of “Discours Amoureux” by Roland Barthes, and I told him that when I was reading the fragments, I was like twenty. I was crying all the time. I had this feeling, reading the fragment, that love would lead me to a sort of constant despair. I told him, “Maybe you let me write, with Christine, my own fragment. So it’s closer to me and how I’ve gone through life, with love and disaster.” As we were writing, it was fun! We were laughing because when you have a certain point of view on love stories, it becomes maybe a little sarcastic.
This time, it’s different. This is a story I know, that I knew Christine knew, that Juliette knew. Maybe even Vincent [Lindon] knew. We entered a tempest.
There’s been a little confusion over the title, whether it’s “Fire” or “Both Sides of the Blade.” Could you clear that up?
The thing is, the title of the script was “Fire” because when I first wrote the script, there was a gun. [Juliette Binoche’s character] Sara, she used a gun, shooting at [Vincent Lindon’s character] Jean, not killing him or anything. Then before we started shooting, I suddenly disliked the gun scene and cut it out. Then Stuart Staples from Tindersticks started working on the music, and he wrote that song, “Both Sides of the Blade,” and I really liked it. I think “Fire” is not completely fitting for the film. “Both Sides of the Blade,” it’s sharp. There’s passion, but it could be divided in a painful way. It’s cutting!
The final scene really struck me, when Sara goes to get her iPhone fixed. The moment is pregnant with emotion, but she’s also going to do one of the most banal errands there is. What kind of note did you want to land on?
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but this happened to me. Dropped my phone right in a kettle full of boiling water. Boiled the phone, and I immediately run to the iPhone store, and ask what I can do. They say, “Your phone’s all fucked up. It’s done.” I thought for Sara, this could be the opening of a new chapter. New phone, new people, new connections, new life. But it’s also an erasing, a drowning of the past, and that’s painful. I wanted to be in the middle of these things, the hope for the future and the pain of the past. The close-up of Juliette, I love, because you can read this conflict in her. She’s not crying, she’s not smiling. She’s just considering what’s happening, deeply.
My girlfriend said that the phone she drops in the bath is yours.
She’s right! It is.
What was your approach to shooting sex? There are some scenes in this film that are highly erotic, yet they don’t feel cheap or tawdry.
There’s no one key to it. It’s hard because I’m shy and afraid of that shyness. It’s a process of getting to where you can say, “[deep breath] Okay, let’s go.” I have to feel it, you know? If I only feel a sort of choreography, I’m out. I’m not easy with nakedness, but I think it’s great when you can really feel something going on.
The camera looks at their bodies with the un-shyness we might want to, up and down without worrying about being seen looking. Is it easier to look at someone through a camera?
It’s a strange situation. Without the camera, I am very shy. But after framing everything and talking with the DP and the actors, the minute we start shooting, there’s a sudden greed there. The shyness might still be there, but a cannibal instinct overtakes it. A hunger for the body.
It was surprising to see Lola Créton pop up in the film, I haven’t seen her in a movie for a good long while. How’d that come together? Who reached out to who?
Oh, she’s my neighbor. She was on a theatre tour, and I asked if she could be with us for one night. We are close, but COVID made meeting up impossible. The bars and coffee shops were closed, and then she moved with her boyfriend during the pandemic. I still see her mother on the street every morning in Paris! But everyone was invited. Alice Houri, who played Nenette in “Nenette et Boni,” she’s in it. The postman (Richard Courcet) is the young boy from “I Can’t Sleep.” Mati Diop, she plays the pharmacist, coming back after “35 Rhums.” I wanted this to be a family affair! The only one missing is [cinematographer] Agnès Godard, who couldn’t be with us.
Speaking of COVID, did working under the lockdown and safety regulations make things difficult? Intimacy appears to be a big part of your process.
We were tested three or four times a week, a lot of precaution. [Sighs.] In the end, nobody got sick, so it was all for the best. But it was heavy, in how it felt. Once we were in the film, though, it gave us a sense of freedom. Once you’re cleared, in the scene, you can be closer to one another. The crew was supposed to wear masks, but when you’re looking into the camera, you’ve got to briefly pull it down. Little freedoms.
Can we get a status report on your next project, “The Stars at Noon?” Is the plan for a festival premiere in the fall?
I’m in the process of editing now, still working on image. I have no sense of the future right now, I’m too sunk into the edits to think that far ahead. It takes time to see a film while you’re working inside it. My choice was that I tried to stay as close to Denis Johnson as I could, the beauty of his writing and dialogue.
Robert Pattinson was set for the lead role, but then he dropped out. How’d things play out there?
No one saw COVID coming, of course. The plan was he would finish “The Batman,” and I’d wait for him, and he’d be free by September of that year. That was good for me as well, because it would be the right season in Nicaragua. Then in one moment, COVID came, and Robert was working in London. I couldn’t even go and see him. Then Nicaragua went through a terrible thing: Daniel Ortega, the President, wasn’t supposed to re-present himself in the election. But he did, and he isolated Nicaragua even more. So there was an issue, I didn’t know what to do. And Robert was still in the middle of the Batman process at this point, which was a painful moment because I love both Robert Pattinson and Nicaragua a lot.
I was losing every part of the film, except for Margaret [Qualley]. Because she told me, “I’m waiting,” I decided I had to do this. Every morning, I’d wake up and say, “I quit.” But I’d think of Margaret, and she’s been waiting without complaining, so I kept on. I thought Panama could be our plan B, not totally sure. As soon as I could travel, I went to Panama, and at this time, Robert is still in London playing Batman. I must cast someone else, which at first made me feel like I was dying. But I did it! Because Margaret was still there. She is such a young woman, incredibly generous. Same with Robert, who’s the same way — a movie star, and a real person. But most importantly, because of all this, I met someone I really like: Joe [Alwyn]. He’s been so great. To be honest, I saw “The Favourite,” and I cannot say I was crazy about the film. Maybe I was in a bad mood. But when I met him, I was sure right away. Very deep connection.
This recent pattern of French films and English-language films with Hollywood actors, is that a surprising shape for your career to have taken? Is this something you’d like to continue?
It’s just a matter of what’s right for each project. When I was writing the script for “High Life” with Jean-Pol Fargeau, I thought, “Who could be these people, traveling in space?” For me, they could be only American. You don’t really see many French cosmonauts. I suppose they exist, but I don’t see them much. This is a story that belongs to American literature in a way as well, sci-fi.
I get the sense that your films are gaining in popularity in the United States. Have any new doors been opening for you in your career recently?
Honestly, I’m supposed to have an agent here in the US, in LA. They never call me. I don’t know if he still exists. I’m in deep shit with this editing. I left a dinner last night, I was too tired from the late nights in the editing room and then coming here for three days. It’s hard, you know?
Do you find that stress is a motivator?
Oh, no. I’m so weak. Working with actors, that is my motivation.
Have you ever thought about doing theatre? That’s where you really get to spend the time with your actors.
Yeah, I have thought about it. There was a moment when I was talking about doing something like that with Robert, before he was our Batman.
“Both Sides of the Blade” arrives in select theaters on July 8.