by Mark A. Reid
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 67-72
Mark: Where were you born?
Claire: In Paris, but I left when I was two months old. My parents took us to the southern region of Cameroon. During my youth, I also lived in Somalia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, which at that time was called Upper Volta.
Mark: What brought your family to West Africa?
Claire: When I was seven years old, my father worked for the French Government, which sent him to Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
Mark: Was he a Cooperant? [author's note: A French Cooperant is a governmental worker who may be affiliated with education, foreign aid, or French cultural centers in Africa.]
Claire: That was before the creation of the French Ministry for Cooperation with African Nations. When I was a child, my father was working for the French colonial administration.
Mark: You're referring to the pre-1960s?
Claire: Yes. And during the post-colonial period, my father worked for an African company. Actually he still works for Mali even though he is now quite old.
Mark: Did you attend grammar school and high school in these African countries?
Claire: During the colonial period, French people organized their own schools. French children could also attend schools where they'd mix with African children. My parents always favored schools attended by both French and African children and were against sending us to French schools exclusively enrolled by white students.
My father was very interested in African culture and spoke many African languages. Politically, he was always in favor of African independence; many of his African friends were already fighting against the French government. My father was a friend of Felix Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of Ivory Coast [Ivory Coast received its independence on 7 August 1960]. During the colonial period in the anti-colonialist movement, Boigny was a brilliant intellectual and activist. It was only during the post-colonial period that he became a dictator.
Mark: When did you leave West Africa?
Claire: When I was thirteen something terrible happened when we were living in Yaounde, in Cameroon. Unfortunately, my sister and I had not been vaccinated against polio, and we contracted it. We spent a month in Yaounde trying to fight the disease, but our health worsened so we returned to France where we were hospitalized. My sister became paralyzed. My father continued to do business in Africa, but my mother was traumatized by my sister's condition and refused to return because of my sister's paralysis. At seventeen, I returned to West Africa and attended school in Senegal, where I lived with my parents' friends.
CHOCOLAT: CLAIRE DENIS FILMS HER AFRICAN PAST
Mark: I want to shift our discussion from your childhood memories of growing up in West Africa to how you use these childhood memories in your film work. Would you say that your film CHOCOLAT is autobiographical or semiautobiographical?
Claire: I started writing CHOCOLAT as a very autobiographical script. It was like writing a journal until I decided to add fictional elements to it. While working on the script, I decided that I needed someone to help me write the actual screenplay, who would help me put distance between my personal life and the story I wanted to tell. It was then that I first started working with Jean-Pol, co-author for CHOCOLAT, who would later become co-author for S'EN FOUT LA MORT and J'AI PAS SOMMEIL.
Mark: Jean-Pol Fargeau?
Claire: Yes. I told him I wanted to work with him because I was interested in discussing my writing an African diary. I initially started to write the script based on real incidents from my own African childhood. I knew that French colonials and Africans led very separate social lives, and I also knew French children commonly became friends with the black house-servants. I also had heard that some of the wives of French colonial administrators had had sexual relations with their African male servants.
When I decided to turn my personal memory of life in West Africa into a fictional film, I thought about using this material. In my story, however, the black servant, played by Isaach de Bankole, rejected his white mistress's sexual overtures. I imagined the manservant's interests as limited to psychological rather than physical, sexual involvement with the white woman. In CHOCOLAT I expanded upon this social reality to dramatize how a lonely white woman might desire her black manservant sexually. I added this material because during my childhood, in the colonial period, such incidents of sexual liaisons between African male servants and white females occurred several times and resulted in big scandals. Then I remembered a novel I'd read by a Cameroonian writer which influenced how I developed the black manservant's role.
Mark: Was the author Mongo Beti?
Claire: Not Mongo Beti. The novel dealt with a young manservant in a French colonial administrator's house. While absolutely no love affair took place between the black servant and his white mistress, he became offended when making his employers' bed, when he would visualize that couple's private sexual life. I borrowed this idea from this Cameroonian novel and placed it in my script. I decided to create the possiblity of a sexual relation. At a certain point in the narrative, the black manservant would refuse his white colonial mistress. What I find most interesting is the black manservant's ability to refuse this sexual liaison.
Mark: Why does this interest you? And why would he refuse an opportunity to have sex?
Claire: First, this film is set in 1957. I think then even a politically uneducated young man would fear that if he gave into his sexual desires, he would be imprisoned. Second, he would never be an equal partner in the relationship. Last, he could not run away with the woman. I thought his best reaction would be to reject her advances.
His rejection of this white woman demystifies the prevalent screen image of the black stud and the exotic black, something imagined in Hollywood films like OUT OF AFRICA. CHOCOLAT rejects images of the colonized black African as an always passive subject who bends to the white European's whims. I wanted to show that the choice lay in the black man's calloused hands instead of in the woman's finely manicured sexual fantasies. Personally, this story is more interesting than most stories about Africa, which usually show that if the white woman wants sex with the black man, the black man is more than happy to have her.
Mark: This reminds me of race relations in the United States — for example, the Gus character in D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION or the way contemporary U.S. media construct young African American males as killers and rapists and portray black women as insatiable crack addicts and whores. It is also interesting that during the 1950s U.S. racists and European colonialists used a fear of black sexuality to criticize whites who participated in both the Civil Rights and the anti-colonial movements.
CLAIRE DENIS ON CASTING BLACK MEN
Mark: For your three features, CHOCOLAT, S'EN POUT LA MORT and J'AI PAS SOMMEIL, how did you go about securing a producer and distributor? And what were some of the problems you encountered? Richard Courcet (who stars as Camille the leading role in J'AI PAS SOMMEIL) said when I interviewed him a week ago that it is difficult to cast black actors as major characters in French film. He said that producers and distributors would not accept a black lead. I want to know if this was true for any of your three films since all three have a black lead?
Claire: It's a little more complex than that. I think that before Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING, producers might have been reluctant to cast black actor as leads in French films. Perhaps, if I wanted to make a film like John Singleton's BOYZ N' THE HOOD, producers might find the project attractive because it would reach a market of French, multi-racial, working-class youth. These kids like world beat and rap music. Film producers react negatively to how I dramatize a topic in my films, rather than to how blacks are featured. They don't understand how I want to cast blacks; producers regularly suggest that if I cast black actors, then they should be erotic "objects."
In my films, black people are never objects. They are subjects who actively choose what they want. Producers usually have a very exotic idea about what black actors should do and where they should be seen. Producers' scripts would liken black characters to lions and elephants. In contrast, I think Blacks featured in my films are "noir" (black).
Mark: "Noir" referring to a genre type, as in film noir.
S'EN FOUT LA MORT: HOMAGE TO FRANTZ FANON
Claire: A typical producer would prefer a film like CHOCOLAT with more action. Although you haven't yet seen S'EN FOUT LA MORT, it is the second film of a trilogy which begins with CHOCOLAT and ends with J'AI PAS SOMMEIL. S'EN FOUT LA MORT is really the missing link between CHOCOLAT and J'AI PAS SOMMEIL.
Mark: You mentioned that your reading of a Cameroonian writer [Ferdinand Oyono] and your adolescent experiences in colonial French West Africa helped you co-author the scenario for CHOCOLAT. What influenced you to write your second feature film S'EN FOUT LA MORT?
Claire: It's a film that's influenced by Frantz Fanon's Peaux noirs, Masques blancs (Black Skins, White Masks). I understood something in Fanon's book that touched me immensely. I am a very sensitive person who can't stand the feeling of humiliation, regardless if blacks or whites are the objects of this humiliation. Reading Fanon did something important to my life. When I read Les Damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), it increased my anger over the social inequities that groups and individuals are forced to endure. I bought Fanon's works in a bookstore. At this time his writings were not taught in school, but my father told me a lot about this book. Many people rejected The Wretched of the Earth because Fanon went to Algeria and supported the Algerians during France's colonial war with Algiers. I would say Fanon was considered a villain then, but when you are fourteen or fifteen and you read Les Damnes de la terre, and you've been raised in the midst of the African colonies, it shocks you. Really, that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Mark: What does the film say about the black experience in contemporary France?
Claire: In S'EN FOUT LA MORT, I deal with a French West Indian man here in Paris, exploring his psychological weakness and the spiritual tragedy of his life. Fanon describes a special type of neurosis — colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future. Thus, the film tells a story about two black men who have migrated to France. Isaach de Bankole stars as Dah from Benin, and Alex Descas stars as Jocelyn from the West Indies. Both men decide to make quick money by training roosters and staging illegal cockfights. Of course, they must overcome racists who set obstacles in their path. Dah, the African, would try to overcome these obstacles but his West Indian partner is unable to deal with the setbacks.
Mark: How did he French press and the African and Caribbean communities receive S'EN FOUT LA MORT?
Claire: The press liked S'EN FOUT LA MORT even though it is a very weird film. I received a lot of letters from the black community here in France, especially from Caribbean people. They reacted strongly to this film and asked me how I came to know this secret of thefts. I told them about Fanon's revelations in Black Skins, White Masks and assured them that this knowledge did not result from my own findings. I think the African community liked the film. Also Abdullah Ibrahim of the group Dollar Brand did the music for CHOCOLAT and S'EN FOUT LA MORT. Abdullah is a South African musician who immediately understood what I was saying in S'EN FOUT LA MORT.
J'AI PAS SOMMEIL: A BLACK PARISIAN GAY SERIAL KILLER
Mark: How did the public react to J'AI PAS SOMMEIL? Could you comment separately about the mainstream French audience and the black West Indian community in France. Then could you follow with comments on your reception in Germany, Britain, the United States and Canada?
Claire: I think Variety really disliked J'AI PAS SOMMEIL. I was told that they said it was "boring shit" or something like that.
Mark: The music for J'AI PAS SOMMEIL was composed by Kali, an Afro-Caribbean musician/ composer and Jean-Louis Murat. How did you end up selecting the work of these two artists for the soundtrack of J'AI PAS SOMMEIL?
Claire: I've known Kali for years. I find that without the song "Racine" the film would not work. Jean-Louis Murat is a well-known French lyricist and composer, whose song "Le lien defait" describes the theme of this film.
Mark: What other types of music has Murat composed?
Claire: Murat is very famous here in France. But I chose him for different reasons than his fame. His songs speak about sex, and his songs contain something very dark. In the film, Camille dances to the song "Le lien defait." The lyrics say, "The link is cut, there's no more connection." I thought that this was the film's central theme because a society and a city work best when the links are tight. For me, life is a story of connections — without them society will self-destruct. So I chose this song, and then Murat offered to compose music for the film.
Mark: How did you cast the three films? Was your casting for CHOCOLAT any different from when you sought your cast for J'AI PAS SOMMEIL?
Claire: CHOCOLAT was my first film, so I chose professional actors. I got along very well with Isaach (de Bankole) during the shooting of CHOCOLAT. When I did S'EN FOUT LA MORT, I asked Isaach to work on the film. Isaac is a close friend of Alex Descas, so we wanted them to work together. We, as a group, decided the casting of the film.
The casting of J'AI PAS SOMMEIL was much different. I had to find the right guy to play the leading role. It took me a year to find Richard Courcet, who plays the role of Camille, a black gay man living in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. He is both a thief and killer of elderly women.
Mark: When you were looking for Camille, what characteristics were you looking for that Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankole did not have? Physically, Camille had to be a young Afro-Caribbean man. But what other characteristics were you looking for in this role?
Claire: I wanted a young Afro-Caribbean man because I knew only an Afro-Caribbean could understand that feeling, that very special feeling. So I interviewed 200 Afro-Caribbean adolescents.
Mark: You would not accept an African or an African American?
Claire: Why should I interview an American? I interviewed young Afro-Caribbean men who lived in Paris because they knew about "l'Affaire Paulin" [the story of serial killer Thierry Paulin].
Mark: But Richard Courcet said that before hearing about your film project, he had never heard of this Afro-Caribbean serial killer who murdered elderly Parisian women.
Claire: He knew, he knew. He did not know it by heart, but he knew and he understood exactly what I wanted. The Afro-Caribbean Parisian community knew about the film I was going to make and that I was casting actors. When Richard arrived for the cast call, he said, "I don't want to be in the film. I don't want to be an actor. But I want to see what you're going to do with this theme because I'm interested in the story." He kept watching me direct the actors as they read the script. Richard had problems with wearing a dress and doing the effeminate things that the character Camille must enact. That's why he didn't initially want to read for the role, but still he hung around the set.
Two weeks before I began shooting the film, I had this young man ready to play Camille. I'd decided I'd cast him in that role. When Richard asked if he could read for the role just for fun, I said, "No it's too late." Then I said, "OK." He did the test, so badly it seemed a masterpiece of shit. He said, "You see I'm bad. Now I'll leave you and go home." I'd decided to cast Richard in the role of Camille and felt he wanted to be in the film, so I called him and told him he had the role if he wanted it. He hid the fact that he was very happy.
Mark: When I first spotted Richard Courcet walking around Rue St Denis, I thought he was a professional actor. Then he informed me that this was his first role. What about the other cast members? I read that Katerina Gulubova is also new to film. How did you get Beatrice Dalle, whom you cast after you had cast another young woman for the role of Mona, the wife of Theo?
Claire: Yes, I had chosen another actress, younger than Beatrice Dalle. The film calls for Camille's brother, Theo, played by Alex Descas, to have a young child with Mona, a young white French woman. In the film, their daughter is a preschooler, whom Mona finds requires too much of her time. Mona abandons her daughter and husband and then goes back to them.
Three weeks before the shooting, the young actress who was to play Mona decided that she did not want to make the film. She said that her agent told her that the role of Mona would be bad for her career. She explained, "I have a very nice image among the French public."
Mark: Is she a well known actress?
Claire: A very well known actress — there's no need to name her. I told her, "OK, I can find another actress." I admit I wasn't happy, but if an actress says a film will hurt her career, all I can do is say goodbye and wish her luck.
After her departure, my producers wanted to cancel the film. My agent called me the next morning and said, "You're in deep shit because you have no bankable actress." I said I'd do the film without her and would find another actress. The producer called and said, "We can't make the film. We raised money based on your ability to cast a famous actress. If we don't have a famous actress, we don't have enough money to make the film."
Luckily, my agent is also the actress Beatrice Dalle's agent. She phoned when she heard my film project was in trouble. She said that although she hadn't read the script yet, she'd accept the role of Mona if I wanted her. She said she liked my previous work and she liked Alex Descas, the Afro-Caribbean actor whom I cast to play Theo, Mona's husband.
Mark: Can you say something more about your co-scenarist Jean-Pol Fargeau, who co-authored both S'EN FOUT LA MORT and J'AI PAS SOMMEIL?
Claire: Jean-Pol Fargeau is a dramatist whose work has appeared in the theater journal Actes Sud.
Mark: How did you go about writing the scenario for J'AI PAS SOMMEIL?
Claire: First, I wrote a ten-page story. I needed to work on my own then to find out where it was heading. I worked for a month doing research on the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. [This is the Parisian neighborhood where the murders actually took place]. I would get up in the morning, go to the eighteenth arrondissement and spend the day there in cafes and bars. After spending days in this area, I arrived at a sense of the neighborhood. I then knew how I wanted to begin the film: Somebody from another country would arrive in this neighborhood. That's how I got the idea for the character Daiga, the young Lithuanian woman who arrives in Paris and takes up residence in the same eighteenth arrondissement hotel where Camille lives.
Mark: Daiga, played by Katerina Golubeva, must fictionally represent Claire Denis? Does she parallel your foreign-like presence in the eighteenth arrondissement when you were doing preproduction research?
Claire: Perhaps Daiga is me. The first image I had for the film was to show Daiga as a young woman from another country driving to Paris, knowing nothing, and meeting public enemy #1, Camille.
INFLUENCES OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT AND FRANCIS BACON
Mark: You have mentioned in an earlier interview that modern painters greatly move you. How has modern painting influenced your second feature film, S'EN FOUT LA MORT?
Claire: When I did S'EN FOUT LA MORT, I needed something to support my images. The work of the African American painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, haunted me. When I directed Alex Descas in S'EN POUT LA MORT, I took him to a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition. The exhibition showed Basquiat paintings that had corpses and skeletons with deathlike smiles. I told Alex that I wouldn't direct him when he gets stabbed in the film's final scene, but he should remember Basquiat's images with death-like smiles.
Mark: In your third film, you are heavily influenced by homoerotic art. Will you to talk a little about how you used homoerotic art to decorate Camille's hotel room?
Claire: For some reason, when I was thinking about my third film project, J'AI PAS SOMMEIL, I thought that the hotel rooms should be reddish-pink, so flesh looks raw-like. Then I found out that this idea for reddish-pink flesh was not my own invention. My idea had come from Francis Bacon's paintings. I wanted to film an image that expressed all those bodies in Bacon's raw, fleshy pictures. I thought that this feeling should pervade my film, which is a story about raw flesh. It was almost my invention.
Mark: You were not influenced by the work of Egon Schiele?
Claire: No, Bacon has a very peculiar use of color so that you never know if something is raw or rotten flesh. I never returned to look at Bacon's paintings to write the film. Do you understand what I mean? My color selection was based on my memory, and I did not return to Bacon to verify this memory. That's why we painted the hotel room this special red tint, and the bed sheets this special purple.
Mark: You have spoken solely of Francis Bacon, but I saw many references in Camille's room and elsewhere to the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition to Mapplethorpe references, a few of your images and characters remind me of the drawings and paintings of the French artist Pierre Molinier.
Claire: Perhaps you are correct about Mapplethorpe. Maybe this is true for the black and white stills that are present in Camille's hotel room. And, of course you cannot do anything with homoerotic photographics without reference to some of Mapplethorpe' s black and white photography. My first response to Mapplethorpe's homoerotic work, however, was one of shock mixed with disgust. This repulsion lasted for a year in which I could not bear to look at his work, could not stand viewing his objectification of the black man's body.
Mark: This is similar to what you have earlier said about the way mainstream films use black actors. You said that film producers want black characters portrayed as exotic sexual objects rather than subjects in control of their destiny.
Claire: If you want to make a film like OUT OF AFRICA, with lions and beautiful, half-clothed, black people, film producers will not reject your project.
NOT A STEREOTYPE: THIERRY, CAMILLE AND RICHARD COURCET
Mark: How did you research the homosexual and transvestite material in J'AI PAS SOMMEIL?
Claire: I went to many travestite clubs so as to create a realistic dance scene in which Camille is dressed in drag. I did not want Camille to appear effeminate by wearing false breasts, high heels or thick make-up. I wanted him to still appear masculine with a young man's hairless chest.
Mark: Can you say something about Thierry Paulin, the real killer of elderly women who lived in the eighteenth arrondissement neighborhood of Paris?
Claire: Thierry Paulin lived in Paris and killed old ladies. He lived a homosexual life with rich white lovers. The real Paulin was hot. He was a famous dancer, liked by all who knew him.
Mark: How were you able to direct a debutant actor like Richard Courcet to perform the role of a dispassionate killer of defenseless, elderly white women?
Claire: I don't have a concept for directing actors. In a way, I see it more like choreography. This is to say that for me, directing is something that goes through the body. Directing and acting exist in an organic relation similar to a dance between director and actors.
For example, Richard Courcet never acted before, but he understands the rhythm and movements needed to act. He is a great actor even though inexperienced. He's clever. I would never manipulate an actor. Don't think I used an innocent guy and directed him like a puppet. Richard felt the continuity of the part, even the killing scenes. I wanted Richard to grow into the role and dramatically dominate his scenes. I did not want any scene to dominate Richard, so in the long sequence in which Richard strangles an elderly lady, he controls the scene and directs himself. If he wants to become an actor, he has everything that it takes.
Mark: Are you working on another film with Courcet?
Claire: I try to help him make decisions about his acting career. First, he has to make up his mind about whether he wants to be an actor or not. I try to help him with that. I think he's very talented but I don't want to interfere with his final decision.
Mark: In my interview with him, he did not appear arrogant, even though he had a feature role in this film.
Claire: In Libération [a Parisian newspaper], they said Richard Courcet is this year's only film star. Richard pretends that he did not care, but in fact he really did care what the paper reported. During an interview on French TV [Channel Antenne 2], a reporter asked Richard, "So you must trust Claire Denis, since performing the role of an Afro-Caribbean killer of old ladies is difficult, especially for a member of the AfroCaribbean Parisian community." Richard wisely replied, "No, I did it for money."
Mark: Yes, he told me the same thing when I asked him a similar question.
Claire: He was so witty. And he followed with an even better response. The television interviewer asked him, "Was it difficult for you to do the scenes in which you are killing?" Richard looked directly into the guy's face and said, "Difficult? But I'm Black!" So the television interviewer could only respond, "Yes, of course."
Mark: Do you view casting an Afro-Caribbean man who kills old ladies as a "politically incorrect" thing to do?
Claire: I prefer "political incorrections."
Mark: In what sense?
Claire: In the sense that women and racial minorities remain protected from being represented as both evil and good. I happily made a French film in which the black character is bad. I think taking this freedom permits us to make a human image of black people. A black man should not have to be always characterized as a good guy. Films that portray Blacks as always good and eternally suffering promote racist images.
Mark: I am the first to agree with you. But the term "politically incorrect" is bogus. Racist imagery is not what your film projects. Rather than limiting your film to depicting an evil black man, you portray a black guy who is sensitive, loving and also bad. This method of portraying Blacks does not occur in the many U.S. mainstream films that portray black men as bad black men.
Claire: In my film, Camille is bad but remains human. He is not a cliché. Although I am a white French woman, a part of myself is similar to Camille. This fictional person Camille and the real person Thierry Poulain exist — something made him into a serial killer.
Mark: What makes Camille's brother Theo, played by Alex Descas, different from his murderous sibling?
Claire: The script initially called for Theo to be a nice guy. He was the good brother, a sort of brother's keeper to Camille, his bad brother. What I like in BROTHER'S KEEPER is that one of the brothers has chosen to remain "bad" while being the "good" brother seems pure chance. You don't decide whether you're going to be the good one or the bad one. If there's a bad one, then the other automatically gets deemed the "good" one.
Alex Descas, the actor playing Theo, found his "good" brother role naively written. He rejected Theo's unquestioned goodness. Alex disagreed with my direction and suggested alternatives. He said, "I'm going to be a bad guy — but not a killer. I'm going to be bitter and unhappy." So Alex emphasized Theo as a moody malcontent — moody because of his social experiences in Paris. I finally accepted Alex's decision because his direction here balanced and humanized the actions of his brother Camille and his wife Mona, who otherwise would have seemed like a bitch.
Mark: How did the African-American audience react to S'EN FOUT LA MORT?
Claire: I presented the film in New York. At the second screening, a group of young African Americans said that they did not like the character Jocelyn, played by Alex Descas, because at the end he dies stabbed by a white man. I explained that Jocelyn wants to die and seeks death by looking for trouble. I told these young kids that Jocelyn's role is based on what I found in Franz Fanon and that they should read Fanon to understand why Jocelyn seeks death. Why not portray a very pessimistic black man whose dignity is destroyed and who prefers to die rather than continue living? They responded, "Why not? Because you're using our brother."
Maybe I have gotten old and my thoughts out of touch with this new generation. But I still don't think that serious social inequities can be solved by nonviolent means. I really believe this.
I would like to thank Claire Denis, Richard Courcet, Fabienne Vonier, Valerie Goodman, Veronique, Pyramide Films, Arena Films and First Run Films for their assistance in bringing together the right people. I would also like to thank Robert O. Crummey, the former College of Letters and Science Dean at UC-Davis, for providing the research funds for this ongoing research project on Black subjectivity in recent French and British cinema.
1. Sony Classic distributes CHOCOLAT and First Run Features distributes NO FEAR NO DIE (S'EN FOUT LA MORT). At this writing, I CAN'T SLEEP (J'AI PAS SOMMEIL) is not distributed in the United States.
2. The Cameroonian novel that Claire Denis refers to is Ferdinand Oyono's Une vie de boy (Paris: Editions Julliard, 1956). It is available in English as Boy!
3. The film also features Jean-Claude Brialy as Pierre Ardennes the owner of the arena where the cockfights are staged, and Solveig Dommartin as Toni who is Pierre's lover.
4. For more discussion on mainstream characterizations of the good/ bad black, see Mark A. Reid, "The Black Gangster Film," Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Grant (Austin: University of TX Press, 1995): 456-473.