Claire Denis Talks to Barry Jenkins About Director Anxiety and Expectations
DENIS I had not a very easy youth. I got married. I ran away from home when I was 15. I did a lot of crazy things, but you know, ’68 Europe was a sort of vast change. Nothing would be the same ever, so we thought.
I became interested in photos. I met someone who told me maybe you should try to go to a cinema school. I spent there three years, and then I divorced. I had to find work, and the headmaster helped me to find a job, and that’s how I became an assistant director. I adored that. People always ask me, were you frustrated to be an assistant? No, the opposite. It was great. I wanted so much to be useful.
And once or twice, with Jacques Rivette, the French director, he urged me to do my own thing. And in the end, I was with Wim Wenders doing “Paris, Texas,” and suddenly, I knew my first film was going to be an evocation of my youth in Africa. Because I thought: If I don’t start with “Chocolat,” I will be always unbalanced. Something I have to say, it’s me, and that’s it.
JENKINS “Chocolat” was the experience of having to express yourself?
DENIS Yeah, but I was not expressing myself in the first person. I was trying to express a group of persons, black and white, living under the same roof. For good or bad reasons, I wanted to speak about that guilt, and that moment where this young domestic decides it was over for him to be serving white people.
I remember very well some friend of Isaach de Bankolé [a star of the film] told him, oh, Isaach, you’re not going to play a domestic of white people, it’s so humiliating. And I said, no, it’s the main part.
JENKINS There have been quite a few actors, black actors, in France, in Paris in particular, who have come to fame through your work, Isaach being one — Alex Descas being another. Talk about working with those black men. I assume that feels no different than working with anyone else, but it is a very particular thing because, in French cinema, those actors don’t typically get roles that are very central.