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Question and Answer – Claire Denis L’Intrus – or how not to run a Q & A

After a short introduction to her work in German from the moderator, Claire Denis came in and gave a lovely introduction to the the film to come in English. She told us about how she had carte blanche after Beau Travail from Arte Television and decided to take full advantage of it to make a visual poem she had been working on for four years. That film was L’Intrus. Her collaborator on the adventure was the French film producer Humbert Balsan.

He committed suicide shockingly enough just before the film was released. Claire Denis visibly moved said she felt that somehow Humbert’s spirit was captured in this film. Somewhat chaotic but very beautiful. So far so good.

L’Intrus (The Outsider) is a relatively long film at just over two hours.

A wonderfully visual film with a magnificent sequences on the Pacific ocean, looking up through Palm trees in Polynesia and Pine trees in Switzerland, Korean shipyards, sled dogs, blood in the snow, cityscapes, babies faces.

The story is somewhat difficult to follow. A puzzled but enriched audience.

We are just after eleven pm now.

Claire Denis returns with the moderator who admonishes us that the session will be conducted in English. Although Claire Denis stumbled a little through the introduction it was charming enough. When I saw her speak at the Toronto Film Festival, she was magnificent – charismatic, illuminating and fluent. At TIFF in 2002, she spoke in French with the moderator providing some translation to English.

L’Intrus would be a difficult enough film for a native speaker to discuss in English. Hopeless for a French film director in English. Moreover Claire Denis conceded that she’d had a bit too much to drink in Vienna. Normal, it is well after the supper hour. No doubt she was just coming in after dinner.

She started with a long monologue how the film was originally planned as a two part film with Claire Denis directing one half and another director the other half, mirroring the before and after a heart operation. In the end, her choice for second director did not take up the offer, feeling that it would not come enough from him. So Claire Denis decided to direct both halves herself which became one whole, as the divide of the operation in the end felt somewhat artificial. But there remain two stories. One of which is the Northern Hemisphere before the operation and the other which is the Southern Hemisphere after the operation.

Originally the shipyards were supposed to be Chinese but Claire Denis had such good contacts with the Koreans when she went there for a couple of film festivals that she decided that she preferred Korean shipyards. And in general, the Koreans were wonderful to work with – full of energy, enthusiasm and passion.

A few interesting questions and answer:

How much freedom the Agnès Godard have with the camera and the actors to improvise? [Indeed, much of the camera was handheld and moving so it did look quite freehand.]

Answer. None at all. L’Intrus is the most tightly choreographed films that I have ever made. It was the first time Agnès and I were working on Super 35mm for blowup to wide angle so we spent hours deciding on every lens, every shot in advance. Moreover, we were working on a television film budget and had no money or time to spare shooting things which were not going to go straight into the film.

How much of the film was reality and how much was dream sequence – was Gregoire Colin really murdered for his heart?

All of the film was reality and all of the film was dream sequence. For me to know and you to find out.

Apparently the film was reedited since the version presented at Cannes? How did the reedit go?

There was never a reedit. The distributor asked me to cut the film shorter. Reediting a film is a very, very expensive process and we had no money for a remix of the sound. So we just cut out two sequences. We cut about four minutes. One part was with the girl in the snow pursued by the hunters which we shortened. There was also a sequence of Gregoire Colin’s dead body floating across the Pacific ocean, washing up to the shore.

In general I don’t like reediting films. They are enough trouble to make in the first place that the time to get it right is the first time.

But quickly enough Claire Denis tired of speaking in English (it is very fatiguing trying to speak in a foreign language when you are tired). The answers stopped making a lot of sense. There were long pauses. The Q & A went on for nearly an hour. Austrian audiences are concentrated and patient, but people began to leave the auditorium.

Afterwards I managed to speak with her briefly in French and Claire Denis was her usual insightful and charming self.

We talked about dream and reality.

When filming L’Intrus I had a script in my hand which did have the story. We used it for the team readings. I had a story. Agnès Godard, the cinematographer wanted to film the dream sequences in a special way. I insisted that dream and reality be shot in exactly the same way. [poetic, imagistic but real]

In my opinion, this obsession with narrative story in cinema – fundamentally a visual medium like painting – came about because of television. Before television, directors had much more freedom to express an artistic vision of a story.

She likened her work to William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absalom, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Does Proust really see the girls going by in their summer dresses, or does he just remember that day. It is never exactly clear.

Claire Denis claims that liberty for herself. She is tired of the conventions.

Lessons for the organisation of Film Q & A.

Be careful with late night Q & A sessions.
Discourage the film maker from having any alcohol with dinner.
For heaven’s sake, let the film maker speak in his or her native language and have translation handy.

Lesson from other Q & A sessions in Toronto – be damn sure that the translators are fluent, accomplished and charming. They better be good.

In defense of the Film Museum moderator, he did have several good questions prepared to attempt to keep the Q & A on track and stimulate the film maker.

Claire Denis will be doing a long dedicated session at 21.30 with Michael Omasta and Isabella Reicher who have just finished the first book on her work in German.

I had regretted missing that session on account of my own trip to Prague tomorrow for The Golden Prague International Television Festival where Lapinthrope is in competition.

As the session will be in English, no doubt, tant pis. But if you are in Vienna tomorrow night, don’t miss it.

The Claire Denis retrospective carries on until May 19th at the Vienna Film Museum.

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