Claire Denis: America’s Long Shadow

The days when Claire Denis worked with Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas in the middle of the American desert are long gone. In the last 40 years, the French director behind Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, High Life, and Stars at Noon – winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2022 and now streaming on Hulu – has become a leading figure on the independent film scene. While none of her movies have been set in the United States, the country is a source of inspiration and a symbolic space where she challenges her narrative approach and taste for the bizarre.
© NathalieEno/OgnonPictures/Alamy

Claire Denis’s love story with America began in Portugal in 1983 when she was 36. She was looking for financing for her first movie, Chocolat, and had spent the last decade working as an assistant director. This diplomat’s daughter who grew up in Cameroon had graduated from the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, and had already worked with Robert Enrico and Jacques Rivette. One day, while in Lisbon, she received a call from German director Wim Wenders. He had just finished filming The State of Things and asked her to help him with his new project, Paris, Texas. At first, Claire Denis didn’t take him seriously; working with Wim Wenders on a film in the United States seemed too good to be true. “He convinced me that the best way to work on my own projects was to work with him,” she says. “He persuaded me to pack my stuff and meet him in Houston.”

This is how Claire Denis took her second trip to the United States. As for the first one, she remembers it like it was yesterday: “I was on the plane and I was so moved, so excited. When I arrived at customs, I was already exhausted.” The future director saw America as a land of film and literature, having discovered it as a viewer when she was younger. “When I was in middle school, my dad took me to see North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock as a reward for my good grades in English. Then, in high school, I watched Suddenly, Last Summer by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. I had never read Tennessee Williams and the only things I knew about the South were what I’d learned in Gone with the Wind. There was something mysterious about the movie, something hidden that deeply moved me.”

Paris, Texas: An American Immersion

After arriving in Texas, Wim Wenders and Claire Denis went scouting. “I felt like the happiest tourist in the world,” says the French director. “It was almost the stuff of legend.” They traveled through the Devil’s Graveyard, a vast stretch of rock formations and cliffs in the middle of the desert, which would be the setting for one of the movie’s first scenes. They then stopped in Port Arthur, a desolate town on the Gulf of Mexico. “Every bar was empty. It used to be a gambling city, but then the law changed in Texas and it became a ghost city.” The young woman was living her childhood dream, wandering through the country like the traveling writers she admired so much. “These images belong to America – the hobos, poets, and writers like Jack Kerouac who were able to live without rules. This was the freedom of America for me. Later, I realized that this freedom came at a price.”

Shooting Paris, Texas in the Devil’s Graveyard, near Big Bend National Park, 1983. © Robin Holland/Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argos Films/Westdeutscher Rundfunk

Paris, Texas was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d’Or in 1984. “I have never felt emotion like that, even for my own films,” says Claire Denis. “In Cannes, we were all afraid that the copy would desynchronize. For me, it’s like kids who share a blood oath. I experienced something with Wim Wenders that was bigger than life itself; it gave me the confidence I needed to make my own movies.” The French director returned from her U.S. trip ready to film her own stories. “Shooting in the American Southwest, I saw cinematic landscapes, landscapes that belonged to Wim’s movie, but they didn’t belong to me. The landscapes that did mean something to me were those from my childhood. So after shooting Paris, Texas I went back to Cameroon and wrote the screenplay for Chocolat.”

Four years later, after a third trip to the United States where she worked with Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law, Claire Denis finally finished Chocolat, which was released in 1988. In the movie, a child inspired by the director as a little girl observes the strange habits of her family in Central Africa during the 1950s. She filmed the hills, the savanna, the colonial houses and, for the first time, also depicted otherness and the difficulty of belonging – a theme that would continue throughout her work. Her characters are from different cultures, which makes mutual understanding a challenge. They all weave fantasies about each other and this contrast sometimes leads to outlandish behavior.

The movie launched her career, and was followed by No Fear, No Die (1990) and I Can’t Sleep (1994). The TV film U.S. Go Home was also released in 1994, and the director cast Vincent Gallo, a star in the American independent film world. Gallo played Captain Vito Brown, who seduces two young girls near a U.S. Army base just outside Paris in the 1960s. Claire Denis then directed Beau Travail (1999), her first international success, and Trouble Every Day (2001), which saw her reunite with Vincent Gallo after Nénette and Boni (1996).

Filming American Actors

Trouble Every Day was the director’s first foray into genre movies. Vincent Gallo stars as a depressed American researcher on his honeymoon in Paris. The young man is actually suffering from an illness that drives him to cannibalism. He is hoping to find a cure in Paris by working with a neurologist whose wife, played by Béatrice Dalle, has the same symptoms. In this terrifying, raw, realistic horror movie, Vincent Gallo embodies a man torn between his loving marriage and his monstruous thoughts.

Throughout her career, Claire Denis has often cast Hollywood actors to communicate her taste for the bizarre and the feeling of being an outsider. In her 2018 movie High Life, she tells the story of a group of prisoners condemned to float through space on a lost vessel. She particularly focused on one character, Monte, whose daughter is born on the prison ship. “In the script, he was a man in his fifties,” says the director. “But when I met Robert Pattinson, for the first time, I saw a real Monte and not a moody version of myself.”

Claire Denis with Robert Pattinson, who stars in High Life (2018) alongside Juliette Binoche. © Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Filming in English and having American actors interpret her deepest feelings has challenged the director and forced her to reinvent herself. Much like the characters she dreams up, Claire Denis has come face to face with other realities. Her latest project, Stars at Noon, which picked up the Grand Prix at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, is part of this approach. Adapted from a novel by American writer Denis Johnson, the movie focuses on the protagonist played by Margaret Qualley, whom she discovered in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Audiences follow an American journalist stranded in Nicaragua during the Covid-19 pandemic. Blending a love story, espionage, and life in Central America, Stars at Noon could also be a documentary about its leading actress, whom Claire Denis films with palpable delight.

Revered by Cinephiles, Scholars, and Directors

Claire Denis was visiting New York City in 2022 as a guest at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival. In a delightful twist of fate, she took part in a discussion with Jim Jarmusch in the auditorium of Lincoln Center. She spent more than an hour answering questions from the director whom she had helped on Down by Law in the early 1980s. “We’ve known each other for 37 years,” he said, before talking about different chapters in her career. “How many incredibly beautiful films has Claire made… What a gift!”

Claire Denis has garnered a following of devoted cinephiles in the United States, particularly since the release of Beau Travail. According to Marjorie Vecchio, editor of an anthology about the director, “Claire is an outlier. Her work has that French layer, but is too multiplicitous to pigeonhole.” These tensions, combined with the filmmaker’s interest in identity, has resonated with American audiences. “Claire Denis is best known in the United States as a post-colonial filmmaker,” says Anna Shechtman, a fellow at Cornell University. “Perhaps her films allow Americans to negotiate our own anxiety about empire and White supremacy.”

The passion that Claire Denis’s films inspire among U.S. academics and critics has also gripped directors themselves. Noah Baumbach has described the influence that Beau Travail has had on his work; Amy Seimetz has been photographed wearing a T-shirt with her face on it topped with the words “Legends Only”; and Greta Gerwig has praised her ability to film bodies and the sensuality of movement. However, it is Barry Jenkins, whose movie Moonlight won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture, who has most often lauded the French director. “What’s my favorite movie? That’s easy! Beau Travail by Claire Denis, because she’s the world’s best director.” Just like her, he films outsiders and studies both culture shocks and the difficulties of belonging. Describing himself as a “student of Claire Denis,” he is also her spiritual son and heir in the United States.

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.