35 Shots of Rum (2008) screens again at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6 PM.
  • 35 Shots of Rum (2008) screens again at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6 PM.

I attended the most recent double feature in the Siskel Film Center’s ongoing Claire Denis retrospective with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, a film professor at Columbia College and a filmmaker in her own right. (Her latest documentary, Jerry & Me, screened at the Siskel earlier this year.) The films under discussion were Denis’s second feature, No Fear, No Die (1990), and the more recent 35 Shots of Rum (which screens again tonight at 6 PM). Both star Denis’s frequent collaborator Alex Descas, and both deal with immigrant communities in contemporary France. The subject matter allows Denis to tackle one of her recurring subjects—the legacy of French colonialism—from a different angle, considering the state of postcolonial France from the perspective of former colonial subjects. Saeed-Vafa and I discussed how these films relate not only to the director’s other work, but to poetry, philosophy, and film history in general. We were joined in our conversation by Roya Mehrnoosh, Saeed-Vafa’s longtime moviegoing companion, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, former Reader film critic and Saeed-Vafa’s coauthor on a book-length study of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. (I had intended to speak exclusively to women for this series, but when Jonathan Rosenbaum asks if he can talk to you about French cinema, it’s very hard to say no.)

Ben Sachs: Of all of Claire Denis’s movies, the two screening this week are the most directly related to other particular movies. 35 Shots of Rum recycles themes and narrative elements from Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, and No Fear, No Die suggests a reworking of a Monte Hellman film called Cockfighter.

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa: I haven’t seen Cockfighter, but I didn’t feel that 35 Shots had any characteristics from Ozu’s film—just the premise of the father living with his grown daughter and the daughter eventually gets married and leaves him. In fact, I found the intimacy between the father and the daughter [in 35 Shots] quite uncomfortable. It had a kind of incestuous quality, which is something I never get from Ozu. Also, Denis’s film seems dominated by a sense of loss.

You sense it not just in the father (Alex Descas), but in the people around him, especially the friend who ends up committing suicide. There’s a lot of tension between the characters. Sometimes that tension is explained, other times it’s left alone, as in the relationship between the father and daughter and their neighbors. It’s very enigmatic, that sense of something in the past that continues to trap the characters.

I think that’s consistent with Denis’s other work. She often leaves loose ends untied. Actually, I think 35 Shots and No Fear are relatively straightforward compared to her other films.

Saeed-Vafa: The structure of 35 Shots is complicated—you often have to rethink what you’ve just watched in the previous scene. No Fear is less complicated in its structure—it had something of a documentary quality. And, in fact, there are shots that give the impression it is a documentary: shots of people looking in the camera, all the handheld work . . . it’s also more political. The characters constantly talk about the past in that movie too.

The bar owner played by Jean-Claude Brialy talks about having known Descas and his mother back in Martinique—which is where he and Jocelyn (Descas) were first exposed to cockfighting.

Saeed-Vafa: It sounds like it was a normal part of life there, but in France, Jocelyn’s hired to do it underground. I think the film even makes a reference to [philosopher] Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks [1967], which discusses humiliation and destruction in colonial society. You know, Brialy talks about the “good old days” in Martinique, but we see that French society hasn’t changed since then. Now there’s a new colonization going on—men [from the former colonies] come to France for work, and that’s all they get. There’s a sense of contained violence in the film, which is really powerful because of the anger underneath it.

No Fear, No Die
  • No Fear, No Die

Both of these films generate a certain amount of tension by focusing on definitely defined communities. In No Fear, that community’s defined by the club that Brialy owns—most of the film takes place in, around, or underneath it. And yet within those parameters, there’s all this movement, violence, handheld camerawork.

Saeed-Vafa: At some point, I read that Denis was thinking a lot about John Cassavetes’s Killing of a Chinese Bookie when she made No Fear, No Die. Apart from some of the music, maybe, I couldn’t really make that connection while I was watching the film. It’s a kind of internal inspiration, just like the Ozu thing.

Well, Chinese Bookie also deals with a déclassé community that the characters take very seriously and approach with a distinct code of ethics. In Chinese Bookie, it’s stripping; in No Fear, it’s cockfighting. In both movies, things start to go bad for the characters when the code of ethics is broken. For instance, it’s treated as a big deal when Brialy wants to put metal spikes on the roosters when they fight, because that violates the rules that had been in play before then.

Saeed-Vafa: The Descas character seems to identify with the roosters, you know? At first it’s something of a metaphor, but at the end, he really starts acting like a rooster!

Yeah, when he gets into the fight with Brialy’s son, he’s flapping his arms and everything.

Jonathan Rosenbaum: The film it reminded me of most was The Hustler, which is also very claustrophobic. That’s about exploitation too—Cockfighter isn’t about that, really.

Saeed-Vafa: [No Fear] is very much about exploitation.

Even though Denis’s films often deal with exploitation, I never feel like they’re outright condemnations of the systems they depict. There’s such vitality to the people in her movies—no one registers as a mere victim.

Saeed-Vafa: She’s so attracted to her own characters. In [35 Shots], there are so many just looking at [Descas’s] skin. And the way that the camera is all over the place in [No Fear] . . . there’s an eroticism to both films. I think of the extended dance scenes in both films, especially in 35 Shots of Rum. In that scene, almost nothing is said, but what is shown to you is very erotic: Descas dancing with one woman, then another. It’s so suggestive. At the same time, Denis just wants you to appreciate the beauty of these bodies.

Denis excels at capturing physical sensations and moods. Her movies often feel closer in spirit to poetry than prose. On a basic level, 35 Shots is trying to capture how it feels to conduct a train every day and then go home to the same place where you’ve lived for decades.

Saeed-Vafa: I really like the beginning of the film. You see all these shots from the windows of trains, but it takes a while before you realize that Descas works as a train conductor and we’re seeing through his point of view. The location shots feel very impersonal—they hint at a loneliness before we know whose loneliness it is.

35 Shots of Rum
  • 35 Shots of Rum

Again, I thought of Ozu in those shots, because impersonal location shots were one of his signatures.

Saeed-Vafa: I agree with you, but I don’t see the world of Ozu. That world is not here. Ozu, like the father character in Late Spring, is part of that older culture that has to die.

I wonder if that’s the point. In the last decade, at least two other major filmmakers made films invoking Ozu as a means, I think, of considering how the world has changed since he died. Hou Hsiao-Hsien made Cafe Lumiere, and Abbas Kiarostami made Five Dedicated to Ozu. All three films strike me as being about concepts or institutions that have died.

Saeed-Vafa: If Kiarostami hadn’t put Ozu’s name in the subtitle of Five, I would have had no clue he was thinking about him. Their films belong to totally different worlds. Ozu dealt with this tragic theme of one generation discovering that its time has gone. Watching the films, we are so conscious of the fragility of life. It’s a poetic approach to cinema, totally different than Claire Denis’s. She’s interested in the poetry of connection and disconnection.

With Denis, scenes are interrelated so that what happens with one character influences the tone of what we see in the next scene with totally different characters. So, for example, when we see [Descas’s] friend who’s forced to retire and he’s so sad—that sadness overshadows other scenes without necessarily changing the point of view.

Roya Mehrnoosh: Her characters are very well-developed. The message of the film comes through in how they behave.

Rosenbaum: You can sense the influence of literature lurking in the background of her films.

Saeed-Vafa: [In No Fear], there’s a quotation from [African-American mystery author] Chester Himes, something like, “Everybody is capable of anything, anywhere . . .”

Rosenbaum: Her other films are steeped in literary references. There’s all that stuff from Herman Melville in Beau Travail.

Saeed-Vafa: In that sense, Denis is like [Jean-Luc] Godard, making references to lots of different sources.

I’ve often thought of Godard during this retrospective, but more as a point of contrast than a point of comparison. Godard often cites his forebears directly, whereas Denis interweaves hers in such a way that they’re not immediately obvious.

Saeed-Vafa: Also, part of Godard’s game is to talk about cinema directly—you could say that cinema is a character in his films. I don’t think Denis wants to make any statements about the nature of the medium.

Rosenbaum: She did make a long documentary about Jacques Rivette, but that’s another story.

It seems like where nouvelle vague filmmakers acknowledged their connections to other films and filmmakers, Denis tries to internalize them.

Saeed-Vafa: I think that comes from working on so many films as an assistant to other directors. You know, I read that Rivette was responsible for pushing her to direct her own films, because she didn’t have enough confidence at first.

Rosenbaum: One thing I find interesting about her—and this comes from knowing her somewhat—is that she’s definitely an intellectual, but she makes her films instinctively rather than intellectually. I don’t think she analyzes everything she’s doing—I think she doesn’t want to know that much when she’s making a film.

That comes through in those scenes—which occur in most of her films—where it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at fantasy or reality. No Fear, No Die and 35 Shots are two of her only films that don’t contain those kinds of images.

Saeed-Vafa: What’s strongest in these films is a sense of loss, even mourning.

I agree with you, yet revisiting the films today, I was struck by the strong unity between characters. The friendship between Isaach de Bankolé and Descas in No Fear is so genuine. It’s very moving.

No Fear, No Die
  • No Fear, No Die

Merhnoosh: Both films deal with communities. The characters support each other—they don’t seem that unhappy.

Saeed-Vafa: But we don’t know that for sure. Is it our projection that the blacks are more united than the whites? It’s a romantic idea that these guys have a community, while the whites are all screwed up. The immigrants have their problems too, but that sense of togetherness allows Denis to idealize them.

Rosenbaum: So, what you’re saying, is that she’s a romantic.

Saeed-Vafa: She’s like Max Ophüls. The way Max Ophüls framed these women he loved, she frames these gorgeous black men.

That’s an interesting comparison, but yeah, both Ophüls and Denis employ very sensual camera movements. One thing that distinguishes 35 Shots of Rum for me is that it has more static shots than any of her other films, with the possible exception of Chocolat.

Saeed-Vafa: That’s probably the influence of Ozu, but it also emphasizes the routines in the characters’ lives. And the characters still have an amazing sense of presence in those shots. So, even if they’re not doing anything interesting, there’s something very sensuous about watching them.

Rosenbaum: It’s a very physical film.

In the DVD release of 35 Shots of Rum, there’s a fine essay by Rob White, which quotes Denis as having said, “I hate the cult of cinephilia.” A major art film director saying this, I think, reflects an important shift in cinema history. Getting back to the differences between Denis and the nouvelle vague, it seemed like in the 1960s and ’70s, it was important for filmmakers to acknowledge their place in film history. In the ’80s and ’90s, on the other hand, vanguard filmmakers were trying to get beyond that way of thinking.

Saeed-Vafa: I think that’s true.

Rosenbaum: Kiarostami, for instance, is not a cinephile at all. So, it’s ironic that he would make “dedicated to Ozu” part of the title of one of his movies.

Saeed-Vafa: Kiarostami’s not an intellectual either.

You don’t think so?

Saeed-Vafa: I mean that he’s not like Godard, who makes a movie to say something about cinema and politics. In that sense, he’s more like Claire Denis, who’s making movies to figure out where she belongs.

Abbas Kiarostamis Five Dedicated to Ozu
  • Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu

Rosenbaum: I think cinephilia is something that many filmmakers start out with—even Denis, to some extent, since she worked so long in cinema [as an assistant director]—but at a certain point, they exhaust that and they want to make films about life.

Merhnoosh: That’s true of artists in every medium—they want to discover.

Saeed-Vafa: If there is a difference between male and female filmmakers—and I don’t quite buy the idea that there is one—I’d say that male filmmakers who are unconventional tend to be more intellectual than women [filmmakers] who are unconventional. The women, at least in their films, don’t seem to want to demonstrate that they are intellectuals.

Agnès Varda is another director who seems to be learning about herself in her films. But Denis is different from her in that she’s not as interested in women characters. So, it’s difficult to read her films as “women’s films.” In some of her films, you can only distinguish her perspective through the visuals—but then, if you didn’t know they were by a woman director, you might assume they were shot by a man who’s attracted to other men.

This brings us back to the idea of using cinema to discover an experience other than your own. That could be one reason she’s drawn to male protagonists—that she wants to explore what she doesn’t know.

Rosenbaum: She’s a voyeur too.

Saeed-Vafa: I read that where Denis grew up [in Africa] there was no cinema. Later on, her grandmother showed her films and introduced her to cinema. You know, I think to be interested in cinema as a child is to view other people through a window. And so, for Denis, cinema becomes a way to connect with other experiences that are not hers.

That would contradict a popular notion that people go to movies to see people like themselves.

Saeed-Vafa: Or to see the exotic, which is true of Denis’s movies. You know, she often looks at men as exotic objects, but without quite making them sexual objects. I think her life experience informs the way she relates to her characters—she’s never looking at African characters from a distance. You sense the warmth. You don’t sense that, though, in the way she looks at white women. I get the feeling she feels closer to people who aren’t like her.

Rosenbaum: She’s a kind of exile. I think the films are about that too. She didn’t grow up in France, so she’s an outsider there.

Mehrnoosh: But growing up in Africa as a white girl, she was an outsider there too. That must have nurtured her curiosity. You feel Denis’s curiosity even in little moments, like when she observes [Descas in 35 Shots] putting his robe on every night or watching him and his daughter eat.

Saeed-Vafa: Those rituals convey a lack of freedom. In No Fear, No Die too, there’s a lack of freedom. Like, when Brialy leads the main characters to the cockfighting pit, they go through door after door after door . . . it’s so claustrophobic. You know, the movie has very few scenes set in public spaces. You feel like these men are trapped in their lifestyle—much like the roosters.

No Fear, No Die
  • No Fear, No Die

Rosenbaum: I kept thinking, “Why did she want to make a movie about cockfighting?” Is it just the people who take part in it or . . . ?

Saeed-Vafa: I think it’s to understand the world of men, which traditionally has been defined by fighting. It’s similar to how the daughter in 35 Shots wants to understand her father.

Rosenbaum: So it’s equivalent to Michelangelo Antonioni filming women in a beauty parlor [in Le Amiche].

No Fear, No Die deals with a culture that’s marginalized several times over. We have a sport that’s illegal as well as arcane, and many of the participants are foreigners. Their world is so specific—and I think that’s what fascinated Denis. For me, the quintessential image in the film is during that scene where Brialy takes the men on a tour of his establishment and he shows them how the disco lights work. Denis lingers on the rotating lights in operation, fetishizing all the noises it makes, and what makes the image so remarkable is that it’s so precise to this location. It acquires a sort of human autonomy.

Saeed-Vafa: Yet the immigrant men who watch the cockfighting . . . their connection to violence may be the only human thing that’s left in them. It’s a source of income for the club owner and for the two main characters, but it’s more than just a job. Watching the violence seems to give them life.

Rosenbaum: I find it so hard to understand how anyone find cockfighting interesting, much less exciting. And Denis doesn’t film the actual fights as if she took pleasure in them—it’s just incidental.

Saeed-Vafa: This takes place all over the world. People fight dogs, goats, other animals . . .

It seems premodern. Like, I can imagine people attending a cockfight thousands of years ago.

Rosenbaum: Sure. I just mean that I feel alienated from it. Why is it exciting? Why is it interesting?

Saeed-Vafa: I think we connect to the two guys [in No Fear] because we understand they have to make money. And they’re good at [training roosters] because they learned this back home.

Rosenbaum: I was fascinated by how close they were in spite of barely talking to each other.

Saeed-Vafa: They don’t need to talk.

They communicate so much through body language.

Rosenbaum: It’s also interesting what you pick up from the periphery of the film, like how much Isaach de Bankolé reads. I mean, he has all those books piled up.

Saeed-Vafa: In 35 Shots too, there’s that scene where Descas’s friend lends him a book. It makes you realize you don’t often see black people reading in movies. That’s a unique way of bringing these characters to life and giving them authority.