French Filmmaker Speaks on Emotion

Claire Denis, critically-acclaimed French film director, visited Emory University on Nov. 14 and 15 to introduce the screening of her most recent film “White Material” and discuss her filmmaking career in a Creativity Conversation.

Praised as the best female filmmaker in contemporary French cinema, Denis has won numerous awards for her films, including “Chocolat” (1988), “I Can’t Sleep” (1994), “Beau Travail” (1999) and “35 Shots of Rum” (2008). Many of her films have been described as prismatic and elliptical, with long fragmented scenes focusing on visual and auditory elements rather than dialogue.

Denis gave a brief speech to provide background to her film “White Material” (2009), which was followed by a Creativity Conversation in which she discussed the nuances of finding inspiration, scriptwriting and her personal aims in filmmaking.

Denis first revealed that the inspiration for “White Material” did not emerge until she read a local news story regarding the political turmoil in post-colonial Africa, which focused on one individual who refused to evacuate despite repeated warnings.

“[It] was not a film that I planned in any way,” she said.

Denis said she began to wonder about this individual, “who maybe seemed blind to what’s happening because she believes that she is stronger than reality, and she believes that her stubbornness will be a shield to protect her.”

This individual manifested into Maria Vial, the main character in “White Material” played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, a frail yet fiercely stubborn woman who refuses to abandon her coffee plantation in a French African colony.

Critics gave “White Material” high praise for its elliptical cinematic language and the focus on themes of violence, war and morality.

After Denis gave her introductory presentation, she quietly walked to the back of the hall as the lights faded for the film. Scenes of violence, dark rooms filled with bodies and huddled masses cloaked in opacity filled the dim room.

Suddenly, a hazy rural landscape flickered on screen, and there stood a lone woman with wispy golden hair and haunting eyes walking boldly in the middle of a dirt road.

The film progressed slowly, with jumbled and fragmented scenes, fueled by the creeping terrors of war mingled with the frustration at Maria’s deranged stubbornness. The hauntingly beautiful background captured the reality of Africa, stripped of its picturesque ideal, as scenes of brutality added to the jarring effects of its various camera angles.

“White Material” had a clearly profound and yet haunting effect, as shown from the somber clapping and low exchanges of whispers in shared awe.

The following evening, Senior Lecturer in the French and Italian Department Catherine Dana and Richard Neupert, associate professor of film and theater studies at the University of Georgia, joined Denis in a Creativity Conversation to discuss her creative process.

When asked about the inspiration for her films, Denis revealed that she finds inspiration through her everyday life routines, including reading, listening to the radio or listening to music.

“It comes in a completely unexpected way,” Denis said, “and I realize it’s more linked to something consciously I get missing from the film, something that is like a ghost of the film before, something that I regret, something that I have missed.”

She also admitted that she not only loves collaboration in work, but that such collaboration is necessary for her.

“I think it’s a necessity for me [to collaborate] because I am a very pessimistic person,” Denis said, “and if I cannot share [my ideas] with a certain type of humor … it turns rapidly into a sort of tragedy for me.”

As if to demonstrate how she infuses airy humor into her dense and dark tragedies, Denis noted, “Already my films are not very funny, so you can imagine if I were working on my own,” The audience laughed.

When asked about the creative process in scriptwriting, Neupert mentioned Denis’ ideas on character studies and plot, and immediately, Denis rejected the term.

“Plot is a word that I am afraid of,” she said, shrinking visibly at the mention of the word amid chuckles from the audience. “It’s all rigid, and it will never move. Plot means that already you are plotting against your own character.”

To Denis, the more important idea was the translation of human emotion.

“I like vulnerability,” she said. “I trust vulnerability.”

The smallest details in her films were built to create and translate the realities of the human experience. Denis emphasized this need to show the intimacy and raw fragility of humans through her work as much as their strength and bravery.

“The day starts with a coffee pot, and I think it’s always important for a film to have traces of the life of the character,” Denis said. “It’s the little details that makes it real for everyone, not only for the actor, but for you [and] for me.”

“It’s not like a sort of magic pot, the coffee pot,” Denis clarified. “It’s not like some voodoo object that I need. It’s a real symbol of everyday life, like clothes.”

After the conversation, audience members eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to ask Denis questions as they lined up behind the microphone in anticipation.

One female audience member asked for the director’s reaction to being a female director in a male-dominated industry.

“I am a female director,” she said, “but it was bothering me more in my life to realize that it’s often not very easy [for] a woman. As a filmmaker, I took it for granted, and it was never a drawback.”

Some audience members were surprised to hear this reaction, including Arzu Karaduman, a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University.

“It must have been a cultural difference,” Karaduman said. “It was curious that it didn’t occur to her.”

Another distinction between French and American film was brought to light when one audience member asked about Denis’ definition of the job of film.

“I don’t need someone to show me where to place my emotions,” she said. “I prefer to feel the emotion of the film. The job of the film is to share small moments that maybe we can recognize … and therefore create a connection.”

For Denis, her aim is simply to depict human nature as simply as she can without preaching any life lessons, only to show the extremities of experience. Sophie Varner, a Ph.D. student from the University of Georgia, also noted the distinct aversion in which Denis treated compassion, which is usually taken for granted.

“In America, compassion is very important part of our lives,” Varner said. “But it is completely different in France. The French idea of thinking is that when you can judge other people, you are looking above them.”

After both viewing her work and listening to her speak about her art, Denis inspired awe and wonder from the audience.

In the discussion, she almost seemed as dreamy as her films, answering questions in a slow and composed manner.

The opportunity to be amongst one of the best filmmakers of contemporary cinema infused the hall with a dreamlike quality, sparking engrossed discussions about film, human nature and the artistic process.

— By Fiona Zhao