The first thing that clicked for me in Claire Denis’s brutal neo-noir Bastards was the shoes: the loud sound of Chiara Mastrioni’s heels while dropping off her son at school belies her casual look. This dame is clearly more powerful than she appears. It’s soon revealed that the father of her child is an older, wealthy man obsessed with power. As everyone is in a skirmish to top the rest, secrets are revealed, horrors are unearthed and families are tainted. There is room for tenderness, too, and a fantastic sensuality, particularly in the romance between Mastrioni and Vincent Lindon.
Denis speaks in textures. Though her latest film has been called cryptic, all the information necesarry for understanding is there, just not in exposition. Instead it’s in surfaces, colors, and lines. When she walked on stage after the screening at the New York Film Festival, the first thing I noticed was the beauty of her caramel-colored leather bag and her leopard-print boots. I made a quick sketch in my notebook and left, skipping the post-film Q&A in the Walter Reade theater. When I met with her later at Lincoln Center, I complimented her on her shoes. “They’re beautiful,” I told her.
“I know,” she said in her seductive, raspy voice.
We proceeded to talk for twenty minutes about the language of the film: music, textures and shoes. She speaks in carefully considered pauses. Occasionally, though, she would take a deep breath and then utter a stream of something spontaneous and deeply felt.
Miriam Bale: Tell me about shoes in the film. Chiara’s red shoes.
Claire Denis: The red shoes. The pinkish-red shoes, when she’s returning the shirt. But she’s mostly wearing those sort of mules, gold.
Bale: And even before, in the jeans, she’s wearing the grey shoes…
Denis: Grey? She has no grey shoes!
Bale: When we first see her, when she’s walking to school?
Denis: Ah yeah, beige. Yeah beige shoes.
Bale: It’s just her walk is so notable in those, with the heel.
Denis makes a thumping noise.
Bale: So she wears very bold shoes. Was there something specific you were thinking with her character?
Denis: Every piece of clothing for any character is extremely important, you know. Lola Créton is walking in the street, with blood between her legs, she’s wearing the most beautiful Louboutin shoes ever, and she walks with pride. I think you cannot make films without choosing everything. And it has meaning.
Bale: So that was the meaning for Lola Créton, but what about Chiara and that love scene. Was there something specific?
She leans over, grabs my pen and sketches in my notebook.
Denis: Mule is like that, huh? So the fit is half-naked. And this is gold. And I don’t think any woman will walk in this kind of shoes easily. It means something, sexually.
Bale: It’s very seductive.
Denis: It’s not seductive. It means my feet are naked but not in flats, in heels. It has a meaning. Shoes have a meaning.
Bale: Yes, and in the shoe factory that the main character’s family owns as well. The cheap shoes.
Denis: Ah yeah, that’s different.
Bale: Piles and piles of shoes, of cheap shoes.
Denis: The pile means something else, a sort of disaster. And they’re not any kind of shoes, they’re high heeled shoes. And white.
Bale: Is that tacky? The cheap white shoes?
Denis: No. I’m not a tacky person, I think?
Denis: But the pile. Is obscene.
I look back at her drawing of the mule in my notebook, next to a rough sketch I had made of her bag. Embarrassed, I point to this scribble and describe what it is. She smiles, then frowns at the shape.
Bale: It’s quick I know. But I thought the shape and color said a lot. Then I left during the Q&A, because I saw your shoes and your bag, and that was enough.
She leans far back and her eyes widen in surprise for the only time in the interview.
Bale: Is that terrible?
Denis: No, it’s great.
Bale: I like the film very much because it’s very noir. I like the archetypes. I knew all the characters, but it also left room for me to do the work to put it together.
Denis: I didn’t mean for you to do the work. I thought it was like in music from one note to another there is a little space. It’s more melodious.
Denis: It has melody. So it doesn’t need to be built like a wall. When you have a little space, it’s not for the audience to think, it’s for it to GO with the film.
Bale: Yes, that’s true. Part of what’s familiar is the noir aspect, as I said: the strong, noble character and the femme fatale. And also the evil. In the old noirs you get these glimpses of pure evil, and you just went further with it. How are you responding to the noir?
Denis: But I’m convinced, because I’m reading newspapers, watching TV and listening to radio, that the film noir is an expression of the 50s and the 60s, but real life is noir. Life is not better and more moral than it was in the 50s. It’s just the same.
Bale: It also reminds me of noir because of the tender love story. The moments with the cigarettes and the shirt. And also the driving scenes. The song during that driving scene at the end…
Denis: It’s not a song it’s a— [makes a loud noise. And another.] it’s a piece of music.
Bale: How was that conversation with Stuart [Staples, of Tindersticks, who has collaborated with her on music for almost two decades]. Did you tell him just to push it as far as he could go?
Denis: No, I told Stuart I wasn’t going to film the moments of death. I didn’t want stunts with the car. And I didn’t want blood flowing when she’s shooting him. So I told him that the crash was going to be in the music, probably, And he understood.
Bale: And there’s also that song at the very end, during the video scene, the Hot Chocolate song..
Denis: “Put Your Love in Me.”
Bale: Yeah, why that?
Denis: We decided right away to go to that sort of music, electronic music, like Tangerine Dream was doing in the 80s. Because I think it’s the most inhuman music ever, and I wanted to try it with Stuart. And one day when I was still shooting the film, he wanted me to listen to Hot Chocolate. And I said ok, I like it. And he said I’m going to sing it. But in the end, as we were editing the film, he said it could only be at the end. And I agreed. Of course.
Bale: Why of course?
Denis: Because it’s such a desperate song, the way he sings it, you know. The way he pronounces “happiness” is like a scream of pain.
Bale: For the mother, who’s watching the video?
Denis: For the film. It’s inside the film.
Bale: Always in your films the textures are so important. And this film is the first time you were shooting in digital, so we’re looking at some new textures.
Denis: Yeah. It’s in many films now, this new texture. Sometimes I like it and and sometimes I don’t like it.
Bale: You got so close to the faces, so we can even see the pores.
Denis: Yeah. I think I always did that in many films, more or less. But here, inside the car, or when they make love, I think it’s important to show the texture of the skin. But it’s not so easy with digital. Because digital is very cruel. It shows the pores, as you said. Sometimes it’s cruel, so it needs reflection.
Bale: With mirrors?
Denis: No thinking about it! You cannot do digital the way you do film. I tested lens, lights, background, colors with Agnés [Godard, her longtime DP].
Bale: So you found a new palette?
Denis:Yeah. But it’s a lot of work to find that. Making films, it’s all about that.
Photo by Anne-Katrin Titze