Claire Denis on Male Aggression and Making a Horror Rom-Com

Photo: Getty Images

It’s not every day you hear the phrase “that Claire Denis movie was pretty funny.” But her latest, Let the Sunshine In, could be described that way. The legendary French director’s 12th feature film is an adaptation of sorts of French theorist Roland Barthes’s 1977 collection A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, following divorced painter Isabelle (played with beautifully complex perfection by Juliette Binoche) as she traverses the highs and (mostly) lows of the dating scene, entering romantic entanglements with a collection of men whose overall lousiness varies from scene to scene.

The film’s main source of humor comes from the cringes elicited by those interactions, its relative horrors (drunk-dial booty-call attempts and all) a shift from the intense images and themes that Denis has dealt with in her body of work, from the gruesome cannibalistic terrors of 2001’s Trouble Every Day to the postcolonialist brutality of her 2009 masterpiece White Material. We spoke with Denis on the week of Let the Sunshine In’s North American theatrical release about shifting to comedy, her own history of heartbreak, and releasing a film featuring male aggression in the current social climate.

Many have already pointed out how different this film is from the rest of your filmography, but I’m interested in hearing you talk about if there’s any similarities to your other films.
Each film is like a wagon is attached to another wagon. I don’t have a vision of my work. This film was a proposal from a producer, and I made it in a very light spirit. I was happy, I was working with a writer that I like a lot, and it was great.

In its own way, this film is a comedy.
It’s a comedy, but there’s also tragedy.

When I saw this film in a theater, the audience was laughing fairly frequently.
When it was screened at Cannes last year, it was the first time it’d been screened for an audience — it had just been finished. That opening night, people were laughing like crazy. I was there with the actors, part of the crew, and the writer, and we were amazed. We had been laughing during shooting, but we thought, “Maybe no one would laugh.”

Have you ever witnessed an audience reaction to one of your films that surprised you?
When Trouble Every Day screened at Cannes, two or three women fainted, I guess. I’ve never made a film to make the audience suffer. If I do, it’s a mistake. I think films are made to share something. With comedy, you share a vision of life, because life is a comedy. If you look at it closely, you can see that every situation — even the worst — can be turned into a comedy. But it’s also a tragedy, and if you’re in between, like me — a contemplative person — what do I expect?

I expect people to see, to feel what is in the film. I’m not the kind of person where the pattern would be so strict that the audience would feel that. I like when the pattern is strict for me, but open for the audience. The film Robert Pattinson was in last year in Cannes, Good Time — it’s a comedy. And yet, it’s painful. It’s the beauty of the fight of the two brothers. People were laughing, but it’s pain too.

You could technically refer to Let the Sunshine In as a romantic comedy — a genre of film that’s sort of disappeared over the last decade.
Maybe not in South Korea or Japan. But in many countries it has disappeared because the media and the news have such a strong impact on people that people want to be told something that is either a severe judgment of the world and the way it is, or a compassionate look on the misery of life. I’m not so sure films should be made to soothe people’s pain, or comfort the rights against wrong. It’s a strange situation in France, to be almost obliged to be a social worker. You have to say, “This is wrong. This is good.” No. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to share something that is a vision, or a feeling.

Are there any romantic comedies that have stayed with you over the years?
I always give the example of a film I saw at the New York Film Festival, [Hong Sang-soo’s] On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate. I remember I was almost crying, and yet laughing all the time. It’s the disaster of this guy looking for love — disaster after disaster. Even when true love shows up, he doesn’t see it. For me, that’s a very good example of what a romantic comedy could be.

There’s a scene in the film where Isabelle’s ex-husband licks his fingers during lovemaking, and she points out that by doing so he’s trying to be someone she knows he’s not — the idea that knowing someone intimately means also knowing when they’re being dishonest about who they are.
This is something [writer Christine Argot] worked on with me — when you’re married or have been in a relationship for a long time and you think you’re not going to be surprised about the way lovemaking is going to be. Maybe she’s not so hot — if I can say so — and is trying to get a little help. It’s the kind of thing where, suddenly, you just refuse it for the bad reason.

This film follows the romantic travails of a woman who’s a little older than the type of protagonists typically featured in romantic comedies.
But not too old to be very sexy.

It also makes dating look terrifying — almost like a horror film.
As we were writing the script, we were laughing a lot, because we should cry. There’s a scene where Gérard Depardieu is in the car with a woman in the middle of the night and she says, “It’s finished — it won’t work between you and me.” He’s so upset and in shock, and this is something I’ve experienced: suddenly, the person you trust looks at things thinking, “I don’t think this is the right [relationship].” For me, it’s terrible — and of course, it’s also terrible to be the one who has to say that. But to be the one who is told is not right? For me, that’s the most horrible thing.

Are there any similar experiences from your personal life that stand out in your mind?
I’ve been in every horrible situation possible. Even today … I stopped a love affair 20 years ago, and I’m still suffering. I’m still in love with the person. I’m still in pain. Sometimes, I could bump my head on the wall [mimes bumping her head against a wall], saying, “Oh! Oh! What a fool I was.”

One aspect of modern dating the film chooses not to explore is the digital aspect.
Like the internet?

Yeah, apps and online dating services. What’s your level of familiarity with those?
I have to tell you, I have friends who use it, but they use it because they are more interested in — let’s say fuck, or having a relation. Maybe they lie to themselves, but I don’t think they believe they’re going to meet the person. There’s still a dream that it could happen one day: to meet someone and fall in love, with the true love. But meeting online is like … either it’s because you’re old and you don’t want to be alone for your last days on Earth, so it’s like a companionship for old age — like, you’re looking for a nurse or something like that, which is horrible. Or it’s something where it’s like, “I’ve been alone for months, let’s meet someone.”

It doesn’t create this strange situation where … if I can say a crazy anecdote from my youth. I was driving my car in the summer. Paris was empty, it was August. I was not particularly happy, just driving by the river. At the red light, a Volkswagen coupe stopped, and it was a young man driving — and I myself was a young woman driving. I felt like I was going to faint. He was for me. Then, the traffic light turned to green, and this car took advantage on me, and I was following him in Paris until I lost him. I was like, “This is him, this is him.” It’s a crazy thing, you know, but it’s the kind of thing where I understand, even now at my age. Of course, maybe I wouldn’t believe that I could drive fast enough with my car and block him and say, “Hey!” But almost.

On my way to this interview, I saw the news that Bill Cosby was found guilty of sexual assault in court today.
He’s in jail?

He’s awaiting sentencing. One element of this film is how men can be aggressive to women in relationships. How do you think it fits within the current and increased focus on the ways men are aggressive towards women, and the consequences they do or don’t face as a result?
I see it as a situation where when you’re not in the position of power, or when you’re in a social class, or you’re a maid, and someone can tell you “Come here.” It’s not only the power of a man over a woman, because I think … me, because I was educated in a way where I felt fragile, depressed, but never inferior.

Sometimes, when a man was trying to force me — it did happen at least twice, really — I was always so sure I would be able to fight. I did fight, and I was not afraid or being weak. I thought, “No, this is not possible.” And it is not true, but I was raised not to be weak. Not to feel inferior. I was raised in a way where my father always told his children — daughters and sons — we could do many mistakes, but not submit ourselves. I think if I was in a situation where a young girl in the street in the night, and three boys jumped on her — of course, to resist and to fight back is impossible. But it doesn’t mean that she submits — it means they’re stronger, or they are in the social position to submit her, to give her work. If you’re going to lose your job and you’re not sure you’ll find one, and you need the money to raise a child or two, me? Frankly, I will accept. Not to be degraded, but to have sex with someone to obtain something — it’s not submissive. People are raised — no, society makes people slaves to others. It’s not their parents, it’s society. I think it’s terrible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Claire Denis on Male Aggression and Making a Horror Rom-Com