The boldest body of work in contemporary cinema belongs to Claire Denis. And yet the Paris-born filmmaker insists on a kind of timidity.
"I'm not a very brave person," said Denis during an interview at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. "It happens that sometimes I know something [about myself] and then I pretend that I don't know it. I hide myself in a foggy place for a while, where it's possible to disguise what I consider to be my flaws, or my guilt. I can live there a while until someone tells me that I should have seen it all along. It's not procrastinations. It's choosing the tip of the iceberg – the part of yourself that you prefer to show."
There's plenty lurking under the sleek, immaculate surfaces of Denis's cinema. Indeed, the director's brilliant new thriller Bastards, which kicks off a comprehensive month-long retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, could have been called The Lower Depths after the classic film by Akira Kurosawa; Denis says she was partially inspired by two of the Japanese master's other classics. "I watched High and Low and Stray Dog. In my film, Vincent Lindon plays the sort of French guy that you can lean on – not a hero like Toshiro Mifune [the iconic, frequently sword-wielding star of many of Kurosawa's films], but then the world has changed. He's a sort of French hero. He's a good person. He's strong. He has a trust in himself that he can solve things, but then he turns out to be a victim."
Lindon's character in Bastards is Marco, a ship captain who returns to Paris to help his sister in the wake of her husband's suicide. On the ocean, Marco is free; on land, he's trapped, both by the bonds of family and the sinister machinations of his late brother-in-law's former business partner Édouard (Michel Subor), who uses his money as a shield against suspicion for some twisted nocturnal activities. The film's title undoubtedly refers to Édouard and his buddies.
Denis's last film, the acclaimed White Material (2011), was similarly about a protagonist caught in the roots of a gnarled family tree, and the director acknowledges the importance of blood relations in her work. "It's the source of sensitivity, jealousy – everything is planted in that ground. I've experienced love and ambition and desire in my life, but never in the same way as in a family. Everything is extreme."
Denis is no stranger to extremity, whether in the gore-soaked provocations of Trouble Every Day (2001), a neo-vampire fable that daringly mixed art-house and grindhouse sensibility, or the intensely homoerotic imagery of Beau Travail (2000), the phenomenal Herman Melville adaptation that made her reputation as a modern master at the beginning of the last decade.
Her work has also been dark before – both Trouble Every Day and The Intruder (2004) contain passages bloody and brutal enough to pass for horror filmmaking – but Bastards is especially bleak. Denis admits to being angry when she made it, but while critics at Cannes invoked the recent controversy around disgraced French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn to account for the film's free-floating sense of sexual menace, the director says she was gripped by a long-ago memory of waking in the middle of the night to the sounds of an after-hours sex parlour near her parents' house in France.
"The next day, workers opened doors on the ground level and put all this strange furniture out on the street: sofas, armchairs and round beds, all covered in red material, like plastic or fake leather. I heard this place was very famous, as if it was a 'temple of love.' But it looked like a misery of love. I never forgot it. I wasn't shocked, but I was surprised. I knew these things existed, but I was surprised by how cheap and small it was."
The way that Bastards integrates this clandestine subculture into its story may upset some viewers, although Denis insists that she's simply reflecting the world around her. "There are these newspaper stories about families, about incest, and they're not hidden like they were before now that we have the Internet," she says. "People think [these stories] are about the depravity of the modern world, but I disagree. I think they have always existed, naturally. People talk about it like it's new, but it's not."
Considering the beauty and eroticism of so much of Denis's work – the dance sequence in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), scored to the Commodores' Nightshift, could be a classic romantic short film in and of itself – Bastards marks a strange point to start the process of looking back. Not that Denis worries overmuch about the shape of her career: In fact, she hates the word itself. "People say it's a 'career,' and I say, 'Don't say that to me.' It never seemed to be a career. It's like a path. A career for me is something like building a bridge. You know, where to put the lifts. You have a plan. I have a blueprint for each film, but not for my life."
Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis runs at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox from Oct. 11 to Nov. 10 (tiff.net).