Director Claire Denis, known for such works as Chocolat, Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, shot Let the Sunshine In in two short months last year. The project was triggered by a producer who suggested she consider adapting A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the classic analysis of the experience of falling in love by the French theorist Roland Barthes. Casting Juliette Binoche as a contemporary divorcee looking for love in all the wrong places, Denis took the idea in her own direction.
Can you clarify for me the relationship with Barthes’s book?
It has nothing to do with the Roland Barthes. It was something I read, like everyone, when I was young and I didn’t have the distance I needed at that moment.
The producer asked me if I wanted to adapt some fragments, but I decided to work with a friend, the writer Christine Angot, and we decided to do the agony of love, but from our point of view.
Tell me about why you cast Juliette Binoche in the role of Isabelle.
We have the same agent; she heard about it, she read it and she called me and said she wanted to be that woman. I had absolutely no idea of who the woman was when we were writing the script, [nor] who was going to be interpreting it. When it was a script it was a mixture of two women; it was just Christine and me in a way. Then Juliette, she clarified everything by saying “I want to be that woman,” because suddenly it became a real character. When Juliette entered the room she brought flesh, a lot of humour …
Of course, she’s sexy, very sexy. We wanted her to be sexy.
The film was shot very quickly. Was that because of budget?
Yes. When you have a short time, a small budget, it’s great. You have that kind of energy. It’s tyrannical on the director and crew, but it also gives you a lot of energy for the character and the moment. You feel completely free then. I enjoyed that. Not always, but this time I did.
This time it worked out?
It always works out. A film has to work out, whether [the time] is long or short.
Critics often characterize you as a director who produces remarkable imagery but in Let the Sunshine In dialogue is very important …
This was exactly what we wanted, to use the words − it’s not dialogue, it’s a lot of monologues − the words are their own landscape.
Why is Isabelle so obsessed with finding a man?
I don’t think she’s obsessed with finding a man. I think she’s strong enough to live without a man. I think she’s obsessed with finding one true love; it’s different, I guess. It’s not that her husband was bad, or that she’s special. She thinks she needs one true love, like many people.
I was thinking of that scene at the end of the film with the fortune teller played by Gérard Depardieu …
It’s not played, it’s more than played. It’s incarnated.
Well, I wanted to ask you about that, too, because that is such an interesting piece of casting. How did you choose him?
I did not choose him. I knew he would be the best and I wanted nobody else and when I asked him he enjoyed the idea.
What did you think he would bring to the role?
His voluptuous voice, his incredibly charm … he’s trying to charm her. And his huge body. Gérard is one of the greatest actors I’ve met. Gérard is more than an actor; he’s a human being.
The casting might seem counterintuitive. Our image of the fortune teller might be as a woman and also someone airy, but he’s so solid …
He’s like a god, he appears from obscurity and the light comes up on him. He’s like a magician more than a fortune teller.
The advice he gives her is sensible: These men may not be the one; she needs to remain open. Isn’t it surprising that at the end of the film she still hasn’t learned that?
She’s like a little bird hypnotized by a big animal; in fact, he’s almost seducing her.
So, her quest for one true love continues …
She has not renounced it, no. I wanted it to be an endless movie.
Tell me bit about High Life, your new film about a father and daughter living in space. That sounds like a departure.
No, it’s natural to me; it’s not like a different film for me. It’s not a genre piece; it’s very much like a film of mine. It feels very familiar to me. And [star] Robert Pattinson, he is familiar to me, he’s like an old friend already.
What about switching to English?
It’s not my natural way to express myself but if you go with Americans in space it would be weird to do it in French.
So English is the language of space?
Let the Sunshine In opens June 1 in Toronto and Vancouver, and June 15 in Montreal