French filmmaker speaks on art, life

French filmmaker Claire Denis lives and works within the eye of the storm.

On Monday afternoon, Denis and Jean-Michel Frodon, the editor of French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, spoke to a full house at the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium. Denis discussed the screenings of her well-known films, “Beau Travail” and “L’Intrus.” Yet the breadth of her talk was not confined to her work — she also mused about Barack Obama and her initial fears of being a filmmaker.

“There are many really great filmmakers in France, but she’s one of the more dynamic and versatile directors,” said professor Jean Jacques-Poucel, who teaches French Women Filmmakers. “She has a tendency to go on an adventure every time she makes a film.”

Although the subjects of her films are quite diverse, common themes such as social exile and alienation run throughout. “Beau Travail,” which is loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” takes place in Djibouti, where the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion are virtual strangers in a foreign land.

“I wanted to explore this main theme of being a stranger and what it’s like to be a foreigner,” Denis said.

Denis said she enjoys collaborating, especially with directors Jacques Rivette and Leos Carax, whose film, “Pola X,” was screened prior to the Denis discussion.

Her first film collaboration, “Watchmen,” was with Rivette, which enabled her to eventually overcome much of the fear she once had about her craft.

“In the real world of making films, it is a private fight with oneself,” said Denis. “Understanding production made me aware of what I can do and that there is no need to be afraid of making film.”

Denis said she likes taking risks and being in the middle of things, though this often puts her in a vulnerable position.

“Diversity is a sort of wish when a film is finished and there is an urgency to forget,” said Denis. “There is always a dream of new possibility.”

Julia Elsky GRD ’14, a student in the French graduate program, said she found it interesting that Denis surrounds herself by a familiar production team but still finds novelty in each project.

“I think it’s interesting how she creates a whole community by using the same actors, but she thinks of it as more diversity when she moves on to another project,” said Elsky.

Denis recounted a time when an editor at the Cahiers du Cinema warned her to be aware of a point of view that comes from within the eye of the hurricane, distorting the senses. Several reviews of Beau Travail mentioned this distortion as a flaw of Denis’ film, noting its slow pace. It is more “successful conceptually than dramatically” wrote critic Charles Taylor on the Salon Arts & Entertainment blog.

But is evident that Denis’ sensual films did not heed this advice or critique but found success nonetheless.

“Her style is very much the look or power of the image over the presence of dialogue,” said Poucel.

For Denis, writing is a vital part of the process, but only insofar as it can produce a mood or emotion. The tone of a film can shift from light to dark through the poetry of the script, she said.

While at Yale, Denis encountered a Barack Obama poster with the word “Hope” plastered across it. The message resonated with Denis, who said she likes to shed light on the stories of marginal figures.

“During a period when so many people in the world have a defeated spirit, if something in the world is bringing hope, it’s very special,” Denis said of her experience in New Haven and seeing the “Hope” poster.

Her next film, “35 rhums,” is set to be released March 2009.

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