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Arthouse icon Claire Denis discusses her new movies about sex and space

The director is back with sex-com Let The Sunshine In and sci-fi movie High Life, starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, and Andre 3000

“Allez, allez!” Juliette Binoche yells at a guy taking too long to shoot his load. It’s the first scene of Let the Sunshine In, the new film from Claire Denis, and already it’s a bit of a departure. The French auteur, one of our greatest living filmmakers, has never really been famed for her sense of humour. And yet Let the Sunshine In is hilarious, a melancholic sex comedy full of lyrical interludes and the kind of pathos one expects from the director of Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum.

Not that Let the Sunshine In is laugh-out-loud in the conventional sense. If anything, you’ll cry into your popcorn and conclude that you’re gonna die alone. It stars Binoche as Isabelle, a painter whose romantic life is messier than a Jackson Pollock canvas. Middle-aged and divorced, Isabelle pines for a pure form of love, and along the way we lose count of her lousy bedfellows. An actor with commitment issues. An ex-husband with off-putting sex manoeuvres. An egregious banker who announces, “I just got in from Brazil and felt like banging you.”

That banker, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), also happens to be married. Isabelle confides to a gal pal there’s only one way he could make her orgasm: “I’d think, ‘He’s a bastard,’ and I’d cum. Or I imagined him with a whore. Or with his wife. So ugly with her lifeless face, a real cadaver. Him fucking her out of pity made me cum.” You’re left wondering: why did Binoche and Denis, a dream pairing, leave it so long to collaborate?

When we meet in London, Denis runs through a quick history of Let the Sunshine In. She and her co-writer, Christine Angot, considered adapting Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments – in particular, a chapter called “Agony”. However, the resultant film, initially announced as Dark Glasses, is very much their own thing, even if agony is still the key component.

I ask why filmmakers love casting Binoche as an artist. More often than not, she’s a writer, a photographer, a puppeteer, or something creative. Her greatest performance, in my opinion, is as a starving painter in Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. “Isabelle had to be an artist,” Denis explains, “because she’s somebody who’s mostly working alone. Juliette is a painter (in real life) but I was hesitating. I told her I didn’t want to do it because of Leos. And then one day, she said, ‘Claire, don’t worry. I was a painter anyway. Let’s have at it.’”

Away from her home studio, Isabelle slides into a leather outfit and painful knee-high boots. “It’s like a warrior’s costume,” Denis laughs. The look was inspired by Etta James, whose song “At Last” appears as a refrain. “Etta James, even when she was 12 and 13, if you look at her pictures, she was with the cleavage, the short skirt, showing her body – not hiding her body, not pretending she’s not a woman, not dressing like a young boy.”

“At Last” plays during a quasi-fantasy sequence, when an amorous chancer sweeps Isabelle off her feet. It reconfirms Denis’s status as one of the great directors of music and dancing: Gregoire Colin in US Go Home, Denis Lavant in Beau travail, and an entire ensemble in 35 Shots of Rum. “I used to like, very much, to be in nightclubs, and to feel that contact with the body and with the music, and then suddenly something happens. ‘At Last’, that’s the story of the film.”

So are artists and bankers incompatible? After all, Isabelle’s a sad romantic, Vincent’s a wealthy, happy-go-lucky jerk, and together they’re disastrous. “No, I think they’re very compatible,” Denis says. “I think she fell in love with him before the film started, but their love affair has finished. She’s no longer attracted to him. He says, ‘I admire you. Compared to you, I’m nothing.’ He tries to be mean to attract her, but it doesn’t work.”

In another dying romance, Isabelle occasionally sleeps with her ex-husband. In bed, he licks his fingers, slips his hand beneath the blanket, and gets reprimanded for “unnatural” behaviour. “It’s not (to do with) pornography. It was something he could do, but suddenly, she couldn’t stand it. Suddenly, she realised she’s not attracted to him, or in love with him, anymore. To stand a gesture like that in a sexual relationship, it’s the kind of thing you can accept when you’re very attracted. If you’re not, maybe it’s a little disturbing.”

The film’s magical closing scene is a 14-minute conversation between Isabelle and a medium played by Gérard Depardieu. About 10 minutes in, the credits gently glide across the characters’ faces. It’s an enchanting feeling to be at a cinema where the entire room is transfixed to the very end. Even when I saw Call Me By Your Name, people abandoned their seats during Elio’s sob-fest.

“It’s seven pages of script,” Denis recalls. “When we edited it, it was almost 20 minutes. We tried to reduce it. The producer said, ‘Please, no. Four minutes maximum. No more.’ I could not accept that. Because what Gérard and Juliette are doing, in that scene, is looping around each other. He’s hypnotising her. I thought, ‘There is no end. So let’s do it like that.’”

It’s possible their single exchange contains more dialogue than the entirety of Vendredi soir and L’Intrus. “It’s necessary because if you see a clairvoyant, he can only touch you with words. He cannot touch you with his hands. It’s a film about talking without having much result.”

“If you see a clairvoyant, he can only touch you with words. He cannot touch you with his hands. It’s a film about talking without having much result” – Claire Denis

On a meta level, it’s hard to ignore that Depardieu, in 2010, notoriously dismissed Binoche as “nothing… I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years.” Let the Sunshine In unites France’s two most celebrated actors for the very first time. Was Denis playing peacemaker? “Oh, what’s in the newspapers sometimes…” she groans. “He enjoyed doing the scene with Juliette, and she enjoyed doing the film with him. I never read what he said in the newspaper. I’m not interested by it.”

The director also shoots down speculation that the protagonist’s name is in any way a reference to Isabelle Huppert, with whom she collaborated on White Material. “Oh, no, no. I think Isabelle’s a great name, because ‘belle’ is beautiful.”

Ever since Chocolat in 1988, Denis has been arthouse royalty. Her distinctive, sensual style – a preoccupation with faces, an understanding of time and place – has been studied by a new generation of filmmakers. She can also throw a curveball, like Trouble Every Day, a horror with Vincent Gallo as a masturbating cannibal. Barry Jenkins told Dazed she’s his favourite director, and Greta Gerwig named Beau travail as what inspired her to get behind a camera. Does she see her influence on younger artists?

“Barry Jenkins wanted to meet with me,” she reveals, “and so I met with him. I was touched, of course, very much. It’s so mysterious what inspires someone. My, myself, I was inspired by many different directors. When I did 35 Shots of Rum, although it’s the story of my grandfather and mother, it’s a pure copy of an Ozu film, Late Spring. It’s a strange mystery to be inspired by a movie. It’s not necessary to try to understand it.”

On that note, I bring up The Disaster Artist, which slips in an overt homage to Denis Lavant’s iconic dance from Beau travail. No one asked for her permission, she says. Still, how did she feel when watching that scene? “Yeah, but James Franco, I liked him in it very much. I liked it. And maybe it’s also a bit of a mockery, but who cares?”

Despite her popularity with American filmmakers, Denis has avoided Hollywood thus far. She turned down Boys Don’t Cry in the 90s, although that’s not how she would phrase it. “I didn’t ‘turn it down’,” she politely interjects. “I don’t think I was able to accept it. I was too afraid. After Chocolat, a lot of people wanted me to make sexy stories in Africa. I was offered a few (Hollywood movies). But I was not ready for that. It’s hard to move away from the comfort of my small French economy, and to be pushed into a world that’s so different.

“Me? If I go there (Hollywood), no. I would be maybe too afraid or too fragile or too weird.’ I think ‘weird’ is the word” – Claire Denis

“Like James Franco, I met him when he showed his first film in Cannes. I thought, ‘This guy is such a good young actor and also a director. A crazy guy. But he can fight in Hollywood. He’s strong.’ I thought, ‘Me? If I go there, no. I would be maybe too afraid or too fragile or too weird.’ I think ‘weird’ is the word.”

Which brings us on to Denis’s next film, High Life, set to premiere at a festival later this year. The sci-fi, co-written with Zadie Smith, stars Robert Pattinson, André Benjamin, Mia Goth and, once again, Binoche. The plot involves a gang of criminals sent in a spaceship to investigate a black hole; to their surprise, they become the subjects of sexual experimentation. So will High Life still be recognisably a “Claire Denis film”, even though it’s English-language, in space, and with special effects?

“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s maybe a weird film. It’s not finished, so it’s maybe also a very bad movie. Who knows? We’re doing the special effects now. There’s not so much in the film, actually. I’ve had this story in my mind for a long time. It’s in English because I thought, in space, you have to speak English or Russian – maybe soon, Chinese. So I thought, ‘Let’s do it in English.’ And it’s Robert Pattinson, so it was obligatory to be in English.”

“It’s maybe a weird film. It’s not finished, so it’s maybe also a very bad movie. Who knows?” – Claire Denis

High Life has been in the works long enough that Denis, at various points, considered Gallo and Philip Seymour Hoffman for the lead. “I wanted someone much older. But very miraculously, Robert Pattinson told me that he was not too young, even if I thought that. I believed him, because I realised he was such a mysterious, deep young man. I was not going to say no.”

It will be André 3000’s first movie since his Jimi Hendrix biopic in 2013. What made her decide he’d fit her aesthetic? “Just my admiration for him, for his music, for the man he is, for the actor also, as Jimi. André Benjamin is one of my heroes.” Is she an Outkast fan? “Yeah, of course. But he’s recording new music now. Outkast is a long time ago.”

That new music, she adds, won’t be for High Life. Instead, the soundtrack was recorded, of course, by Tindersticks, the indie rockers who have scored, either together or as solo artists, nine of Denis’s movies since 1996’s Nenette et Boni. “That’s today. Maybe we’ll add someone else.”

“André Benjamin is one of my heroes....he’s recording new music now. Outkast is a long time ago” – Claire Denis

Denis continues, “The film was supposed to have been made with Patricia Arquette, but the film was delayed and delayed for four years. When we were ready to start, Robert could do it, but Patricia was shooting already. Me and Juliette had just finished Un beau soleil intérieur (the French title for Let the Sunshine In), and she said, ‘I’m here. I’m ready.’”

Like Binoche and Depardieu’s closing conversation, our interview is overrunning. But I can’t leave without mentioning my favourite scene from Let the Sunshine In: when a taxi driver switches on the radio to heal Isabelle’s sadness.

“The taxi driver is great,” Denis grins. “He understands that she’s not well. He says, ‘Let’s have some music to make us better.’ She doesn’t know what to say to him. I remember when my mother died a few months ago, the first person I spoke to was a taxi driver. I was in the cab, and suddenly, I said, ‘I just lost my mother.’ He looked at me, and said, ‘I understand. I lost mine two years ago. I know what it feels like.’”

In a strange way, I add, Denis and Wim Wenders are two of the great “car directors”. He made his name with road movies, and she has memorable vehicular scenes in, for instance, Vendredi soir, US Go Home and Bastards. “Wim was in Paris two weeks ago, and I saw him. He’s still very important for me as a person. Some directors, like Jacques Rivette and Wim Wenders, they gave me a belief that I could trust myself more than I thought.”

The connection is that Denis, in her pre-Chocolat days, was Wenders’ assistant director on Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas. When production collapsed midway on the latter, it was just Wenders and Denis holding everything together.

“The monologue was written by Sam Shepard, by phone, the night before,” she recalls of Harry Dean Stanton’s infamous speech. “For the second part of the film, the film was a little bit lost – a lack of money. The finances weren’t good. Wim didn’t need me much, but I thought, even if it needed a miracle, you have to go and finish it – and believe. I am a believer. I always told Wim, ‘We will finish. We will finish.’ My trust was complete, and my belief was complete.”

Later in the day, I rewatch Let the Sunshine In. It’s round three and there’s still so much to discover. But there’s one moment in particular that reminds me of Denis, a filmmaker who, at 71, is still at the top of her game. It’s said by Isabelle, but may as well be Denis: “I am an artist. It is my life.”