On my radar: Claire Denis’s cultural highlights

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Born in Paris in 1946 but raised in west Africa, the film director Claire Denis worked as an assistant to film-makers such as Jacques Rivette and Wim Wenders before making her unforgettable debut with Chocolat (1988), a semi-autobiographical film set in Cameroon. Her work is broad-ranging, including fiction and documentary. Highlights include Beau Travail (1999), loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and more recently High Life (2018), her first film in English, which starred Robert Pattinson. She has two new films: Both Sides of the Blade, which won the best director prize at the Berlin film festival and is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now, and Stars at Noon, joint winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes.

1. Book

A Violent Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Italian film director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini.
‘I was amazed by his depth of feeling’: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Alamy Photograph: Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

I read a new French translation of this Italian novel [by the Italian director and writer] this summer. It’s a book I had not forgotten, but I had read it a long time ago. It was translated with so many Italian slang words that I felt I was speaking like those little kids growing up in the suburbs of Rome after the war, and I was amazed by the depth of the feeling of Pasolini describing their lives, their hopes, their deceptions. I was touched because everything was as if it were inside my flesh. The novel is very spiritual, like Pasolini’s films. I feel lucky every time I see one.

2. Film

Memoria (Dir Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

I saw this screened at Cannes in 2021 in a huge theatre. I realised when the lights came back on, I was – like the entire audience – in a state of hypnosis. Nobody could move. I ask myself: am I able to believe in film-making enough to do a movie like that? Usually, people today will ask you: what is your film about? What is the storyline? And you imagine someone who says it is a woman [Tilda Swinton] waking up, and she thinks she has heard a sound, and she is looking for a special sound. Would you think it’s a film? And yes, it is. Memoria is really a special experience.

3. Music


I have been working with Tindersticks and their singer, Stuart Staples, for almost 25 years. The music is in me. When I saw their first concert in Paris, I was writing a script that was about a sister, and when they sang My Sister, for some reason I felt this is it. We know we are not obliged to work together, but doing so is always new and rich for me. The music, the beauty of Stuart’s singing and the melody, the way they play. Stuart has a way of saying things about sex and flesh that are very poetic.

4. Theatre

The Cherry Orchard at the Avignon festival

The Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues, who is about to take charge of the Avignon festival, made this beautiful version of The Cherry Orchard with Isabelle Huppert and many other actors I know, including Alex Descas, whom I have worked with in many films. I saw it in Avignon and maybe four or five times in Paris; I was addicted. Always with Chekhov, you go deep into your own life. At the end, you know what life is about and it’s not fun. The real matter of life is there in front of you. That’s all.

5. Dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

For me, dance is the most mysterious thing. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy said even if you are awkward in your body, when you watch ballet your entire body is following each gesture and everything is possible. Dance comes into your own body. I have seen The Goldberg Variations [a solo that De Keersmaeker performs with a pianist playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations] before, but if I could, I would have come back to London immediately when she danced it last week. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is someone who matters.

6. Place

The Mediterranean

After two and a half years of the pandemic, suddenly I realised that the thing I was really missing as if it was the last wish in my life was the Mediterranean – not only the sea, but the landscape, all the countries around it. The mysterious Mediterranean Sea: the birth of writing, of culture, of colour. When I was growing up in Africa as a little girl, I was already dreaming about Ithaca, about Troy, about the Greeks. Nothing compares to it for me. Many places in the world have enchanted me, but the Mediterranean is special for mankind.