Claire Denis has spent over 10 years dreaming of adapting “The Stars at Noon,” but didn’t believe it could happen. In 2020, A24 announced the 1984-set thriller would star Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley, marking a reunion between Denis and Pattinson after her ambitious outer space drama “High Life.” Yet after Pattinson exited “Stars” due to production delays on “The Batman” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Denis was seemingly back at square one.
Enter her latest film, “Fire.” “I thought maybe ‘The Stars at Noon’ would never exist, so maybe this is my last film,” Denis told her friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, during a talk at New York’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by Unifrance and Film at Lincoln Center. “I don’t know, it was a weird thing.”
“Fire,” also known as “Both Sides of the Blade” in its original title, was filmed during the lockdown with DIY tactics like shooting on an iPhone and utilizing a minimalist set. As for “The Stars at Noon,” an adaptation of the Denis Johnson novel about a romance amid the Nicaraguan revolution, Denis wrapped filming in Panama in December with stars Qualley and Joe Alwyn.
“Fire” is mostly a chamber drama revolving around three characters, which made the film compatible with the lockdown. Vincent Lindon, hot off “Titane,” and Juliette Binoche, whom Denis previously directed in “High Life” and “Let the Sunshine In,” star as lovers whose relationship began out of an affair; once Binoche’s character is reunited with her ex (Grégoire Colin, star of Denis films like “35 Shots of Rum” and “Beau Travail”), the love triangle tips out of control.
Denis went on to win the Silver Bear for “Fire” at Berlinale, and the movie will be released in the U.S. July 8 by IFC Films.
“Vincent Lindon called me and said, ‘You cannot stay home and be cooking all the time. It’s insane. Please, you can write a story during the summer and we can shoot in the winter,'” Denis revealed. “I thought, ‘No, no, no, I can’t.’ Vincent said, ‘We don’t know what the future is going to be so please do it.'” Denis added, “Somehow, it was easier than I thought.”
Denis co-wrote the “Fire” screenplay along with novelist Christine Angot, adapting part of Angot’s novel “Un Tournant de la Vie.” “The main thing she explained in the novel was how hard it was to meet in the street with an ex-lover who had dropped her. She was still feeling the humiliation and pain in a way,” Denis said.
The film is known by two (or three) titles, much like Denis’ previous feature, “Let the Sunshine In.” “It’s very simple,” Denis noted. “When I wrote the script at the very beginning, the title was ‘Fire.’ It was just a working title. And there was a reason in the script and I changed it, I cut a scene. And then [Tindersticks] wrote a song for the film, ‘Both Sides of the Blade.’ And because the French title is ‘Avec Amour et Acharnement,’ I could not translate it in English. I said, ‘ ‘Both Sides of the Blade’ is the best translation.'”
As for which name will appear on American marquees, Denis said, “I don’t know now. The distribution here will decide and we’ll discuss that.”
Production on “Fire” was rushed, in part due to pandemic constraints and also a lack of “commission money,” as Denis said, “We did it fast,” including the lush underwater opening sequence, which was shot on an iPhone.
“This part of the film, the opening, was not in the budget. We did it together with the producer and with Vincent and Juliette and four or five of us with an iPhone,” Denis said. “It was end of November and the only place in France where you have a little bit of a sun and possible blue sea is Corsica, so we went there. But already it was freezing. Juliette and Vincent stand in that cold water, and me and [cinematographer] Éric [Gautier] too. I was holding Éric, he was floating.”
Denis continued, “I felt very happy to do it like that. … [It was] almost a little secret between us, ‘We’ve done it.'”
And an iPhone was part of the preconceived process for Denis: “The only thing I like to rely on is the lens because then I feel secure and I know if you use two, three lens, no more. I hate to choose a lens on set,” Denis said. “It’s better in my head while writing. To choose a lens on the set, I feel a guiltiness, you know, like I have not done my homework.”
Still, Denis’ favorite scene in the film is one featuring Lindon’s character smoking on the balcony of the apartment his character shares with Binoche’s. “For me, that was the best moment in the film,” Denis said. “It’s like my dream today: to smoke on the balcony. For someone who has been smoking, it’s part of my best memories of life, a cigarette. I’m not joking, I’m serious.”
The auteur added, “I think Juliette and Vincent were like the engine of the film. They were like a tank. We were trying to follow them. Vincent and Juliette and also Grégoire, they took the story and they were stronger than the script, I must say. We were running after them.” Or swimming, rather.