Claire Denis arrives at her Upper East Side hotel’s sparsely populated restaurant one afternoon during the 60’sTh edition of the New York Film Festival, clutching a drugstore item she had just purchased after searching for a Duane Reade for quite some time under incessant rain. “It’s easy to find Chanel and designer things around here, but not a pharmacy,” she rightfully notes about this part of town, before going on to compare the weather of her hometown Paris to New York’s. She corrects me when I indicate that they are perhaps comparable. “No, New York is much more brisk,” she observes. “In France, there is the Gulf Stream, the winter comes slowly, the spring comes slowly. Here, I arrived on Saturday, it was warm, and now suddenly became wintery.
The ever-productive French filmmaker is similarly reluctant to equate Both Sides Of The Blade oath Stars At Noonthe two erotic thriller-adjacent films she made in close proximity to each other and released in 2022. Starring veteran Denis collaborators Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon as Sara and Jean, Both Sides Of The Blade charts a mysterious Parisian love triangle, while the sultry Stars At Noon with Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn unfolds through a secret tale where sex is currency and love is ruinous.
“For me, they are very different for chronological and maybe emotional reasons,” explains Denis. “For Both Sides Of The Bladewe were in the beginning of the second [Covid] lockdown. The winter was coming and it could get worse. [But] Stars At Noon was written, and I was in my mind preparing myself to shoot that as soon as I could.” Still, she ended up shooting them in succession, running to Panama—a stand-in for Nicaragua—for the latter as soon as she finished editing the former. “No insurance company would insure [a production in Nicaragua] pre-election,” she recalls about the controversial election that reinstated Sandinista National Liberation Front leader Daniel Ortega as President in 2021. “And [in terms of the pandemic]nobody believed that they had the right vaccine [at the time]. So I said, ‘Let’s stay in Panama!'”
Still, the projects did share something in common. Namely, Denis’ personal touch that took liberties with the source materials for both movies—novels by Christine Angot and Denis Johnson, respectively—transposing them into cinematic canvases in synch with the overarching themes of her filmography; those defined by sensual cues and characters in exile.
Below, Denis talks through both projects and reflects on overarching preoccupations and ideas at the heart of her cinema.
The AV Club: Let’s first talk about how you landed on Both Sides Of The Blade as well as your approach towards adapting Christine Angot’s novel.
Claire Denis: Christine, whom I worked with Let The Sunshine Inwas finishing a [new] novel, and she wasn’t prepared to work on a new script. So she said, “Maybe you can use some page[s] of my last novel.” [And that’s what I did.] In the Christine Angot novel (like in the Denis Johnson novel), the [female protagonist] speaks in the first person; says “I.” I wanted to transform that because it was a very autobiographical novel for Christine. I had to completely change things because I knew the two men she was talking about [in real life]. I thought, “That’s not going to help me. I have to clear my mind. So I changed both me completely, and their situation. I made Juliette Binoche the heart of the story [instead of] the person who [narrates] the story. So I did that quickly. We had a very short schedule [and little financing]. I did location scouting near where I live and [also the suburbs] where my grandparents [used to] live.
AVC: And you made it happen in the midst of the pandemic against the odds.
cd: It was a very strange exercise. Everyone was expecting the worst winter. Everyone in the crew was frightened. But nobody went sick. We were tested every day. We had no money to bring a camera to the opening sequence in the seaside, so we shot it on an iPhone. It was the end of November and the water was already freezing. [That experience] took me so far from Stars At Noon. I thought maybe that Stars At Noon would never happen. It was not a very optimistic moment. But that in a way protected me from realizing how [emotionally] violent the story of Both Sides Of The Blade was.
AVC: Please elaborate on that violence.
cd: This couple is happy together, but the memory of the ex-lover, when she sees him, brings back the past. And not only the past but also a big question: why is he there? Is it by chance, or maybe not? It’s like a trigger. Sara knows whatever she would say to Jean about [François] are only words. They cannot [honestly] translate the turmoil she was going through [on the inside].
AVC: How did you navigate Stars At Noonshooting it in Panama?
cd: So many people exiled from Nicaragua in Panama helped us with the accent. The beauty of Nicaragua is unbelievable. There is a big lake in the middle of it, like a sea, and it’s surrounded by volcanoes. It’s unreal almost. Panama is beautiful, but there are no volcanoes. The big thing there is the canal so I tried to figure out a way to recreate in Panama what I felt when I was in Nicaragua.
AVC: Were you attracted to Denis Johnson’s novel because it had parallels to the themes you explore in your films, like alienation or being in exile?
cd: I discovered Denise Johnson [approximately] 17 years ago. He is such a great writer. I started with Jesus Son, his most famous novel. And then [read] feeling poetry. When I read The Stars At Noon, I cannot say I recognized something in it from my own life, but I recognized very much the scenes that were described. I had the feeling, as I was reading the novel, that I knew those things. I’ve never been in Nicaragua. I never wanted to be a journalist. I’m not an Englishman. But I felt this frustration, this desire to succeed and try desperately not to face failure as Trish is trying to. I didn’t dare to think this is a film for me. But then I wrote to Denis Johnson. We met. He was laughing when he said, “Don’t ask me to help you with a script, because this was something I tried to do and it was a mess. It’s a very painful story for me because it’s completely autobiographical. I wanted to be a journalist. I was in Nicaragua during the Civil War. And it’s the worst part of my life. And I wrote the novel because I had no chance as a journalist. So I wrote it with my memories.
Then I was shooting High Life with Robert Pattinson, I was in Germany, and I learned that Dennis Johnson had died from cancer. We had shared a lot in a way; not about Stars At Noon, but his travels in Africa, the music we like together, this way of always being a little bit ironic … He was a very sensitive man, but he had a soft, melancholic irony with everything. The love scenes he described touched me so much. So the novel has nothing to do with the Civil War. It’s only about them in bed in a way.
AVC: On that note, there is a very specific way you approach eroticism in this movie. There are layers of meaning in it. First, sex is transactional, done for money. It’s also a pastime born out of boredom. And it also propels love.
cd: I always knew that both Daniel and Trish approach love in their own very different ways. She would never admit she’s attracted to him. She would be mean in a way, you know? But we had to feel, of course, that she was attracted to him. And when she calls the hotel and hears that he checked out, she’s really desperate. Maybe it’s because she was hoping he would help her with money, but I think it’s a little bit more than that. It’s a deception. And he doesn’t want it. He says “I have a wife,” but he is the one who says, “I love you.” During the dance in that empty bar, he wants to hold her tight. Both try to reach each other to admit they are in love, but in a very different way.
AVC: How did you help Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn get into that intoxicated headspace and be bare in front of the camera, both physically and emotionally?
cd: I was bare too, you know? Because it’s the first time I was working with them as opposed to Vincent and Juliette. And I am shy too. I didn’t want a [intimacy] coordinator. We just had to trust each other. We started with the bar scene, the encounter, and then [went into] the room. So it gave us the [actual] trajectory of them [having] a sexual relationship. But I have to tell you something. And maybe it’s a little bit naive, but I think the way it was written, the way we spoke about it, we felt we agreed on everything. There were never [disagreements]. I never remember Joe or Margaret telling me, “Oh, this is not possible.” They were so easy to work with. I was falling in love with them, actually.
AVC: Margaret Qualley is a fiery, spirited performer. I am wondering what performance of her made you notice her.
cd: I saw her in Tarantino’s movie [Once Upon A Time In Hollywood]. I had written the script already, and thought, “This is her! This is it!” She’s a little arrogant, she doesn’t want to admit she’s suffering. She has this pride and I thought, “this is her!” I flew to New York, met with her, and she said yes. And she’s been waiting for more than three years for the film to be made. Joe, on the other hand, was a surprise because I wanted someone else, Robert Pattinson. Another actor [Taron Egerton] came in the end, because Robert was still in the Batman thing. Robert was probably tired and maybe not so convinced he was that Englishman. I do not know. I never asked him, really. And then I met Joe through Zoom. He was in London. I was in Panama. And it’s strange, the way Zoom is such a hard way to communicate, but with Joe, I felt okay. He had read the script in the morning. I asked him, “Are you ready to fly?” And he said, “Give me one hour.” 50 minutes later he calls and says, “Yes, I’m coming.”
AVC: In both movies, and your entire filmography, you’re very attuned to the environment of the story. You focus on sensations and behaviors rather than over-explaining situations. You drop us in the middle of something so clearly defined in feeling and have us figure out the details.
cd: I am like that, but not on purpose. When I am working on a script, I fear sometimes that I need an explanation in the first version. But most of the time I think it makes the film too busy. And also, the Denis Johnson novel is like that. The characters don’t want to speak their truth. And so I invented [their truth]. I [thought] she came from Texas, and things like that. But I didn’t want to have that explained. And the way the Englishman is introduced in the novel: he’s the Englishman, no name. She [describes him as]”it’s like fucking with mist.”
AVC: Your cinema has such an undeniable influence, particularly on several contemporary American filmmakers. I’m thinking of Barry Jenkins who is often vocal about his admiration for you. Also Eliza Hittman, and Charlotte Wells who made Aftersuncome to mind.
cd: I know Barry, and I’m [aware of these filmmakers]but also I’m not aware [of my influence] because it would be terrible to be aware of being influential. I approach each film as closely as I can. I try to be true. I always feel as if I am inside [my] films. Like with Joe and Trish, [I feel I’m] in that motel room and that car, intruding their intimacy and [being] moved by them. It’s so fragile. I feel so fragile making films. I don’t have a technique. And therefore, I would never think I could influence someone. And it’s not fake humility. It’s completely true. Each time a film is finished in the editing room before mixing, I think, “Oh my God. I’ve been through that.”