Tindersticks and White Material
“ The feeling of the image,” is how Stuart A. Staples explains his inroad to the films of Claire Denis. A better way of approaching the French auteur’s work doesn’t spring readily to mind. This makes sense: Staples is the leader of the Tindersticks, and, as such, is uniquely primed to discuss both Denis and her distinct style of cinema – the lush, broody chamber rock of the Nottingham three-piece (formerly sextet) has twined through four of her films to date. Their latest collaboration is White Material , which finds Denis returning to Africa – the land of her childhood and backdrop of two of her previous films, Chocolat and Beau travail .
The Tindersticks weren’t involved with either of Denis’ earlier African-set movies, so as Staples tells, White Material saw them operating to the left of their comfort zone. “I can’t say it wasn’t a challenge!,” he laughs when Beat commends the band for resisting the obvious lure of a soundtrack impelled by ethnic drums. “There was a moment: ‘Gee, how do you score this and be true to it when it’s in Africa?’ But as soon as we found a palate for it, it just took its own journey.”
It’s the journey—geographic and interior—of Isabelle Huppert’s Maria which White Material makes its dramatic axis. A second-gen Caucasian plantation owner and divorced single mum, she remains resolute—then grows erratically unyielding—when her unspecified African homeland is sundered by civil war. Such political footballs as child military conscription and the privatisation of Africa’s public services and natural resources are folded into the mix, but laypeople needn’t fret: fluency in the continent’s socio-political milieu isn’t required to comprehend or appreciate White Material (Denis is too generous for that). Nevertheless, less cluey viewers (such as your humble Beat correspondent) would do well to pencil in a little post-movie Google time to acquaint themselves with the troubling truths the film collates as its context.
“It’s a very ambitious film,” Staples understates of Denis’ most forthright film yet. Indeed, the director herself confesses in the press notes: “Had I burdened it with all the intentions I wanted, this film would have sunk like an overladen containership.” For Denis, White Material’s making was an exercise in self-extraction, in which her own personal politics were gradually and continually obscured until the right note of ambivalence was found.
“It was quite a protracted, traumatic birth,” says Staples. “It was just such a long period of time. But [Claire] wants to work with people that bring a conversation. To change her mind. She’s so sure of her vision that she leaves it open to other people. She doesn’t keep things close in that way.” It was Denis’ collaborative nature which first attracted Staples and co. to the filmmaker back in 1995. “Claire came to find us after a concert in Paris,” he recalls. “She was just writing Nénette et Boni then, and the album we’d just released ( Tindersticks [Second Album]) was a part of her writing, especially the song My Sister. I think that helped her to get to where she wanted to go. [Claire] likes to build up a relationship of trust, and to trust in the creativity of that relationship. She likes to work that way with her actors, and cinematographers, editors…”
On a Claire Denis film, the creative dialogue generally begins the moment work has commenced on the script. This is true even of her composers, which strikes Beat as somewhat atypical for a role which—traditionally, at least—is largely reactive. “I don’t know how other people who make music for film work with directors,” Staples admits. “I’m sure it’s very different for every relationship. But this is the only one I know, and it’s intense.”
Hollywood is rife with war stories of embattled composers coming to loggerheads with directors who’ve become overly attached to their ‘temp tracks,’ which are temporary soundtracks compiled by a director as a means for expressing the mood they’d like for a particular scene. Denis employs no such shorthand. In fact, Staples leaps to her defense when asked if the intensity of their partnership extends to the directives Denis issues the band. “She never, ever says, ‘I want something like this here,’ or ‘I want something like this there,” he asserts. “She never even tells us the points where she wants music. She doesn’t want to inhibit what can happen.”
White Material hosts Denis’ most conclusive narrative yet. Unlike her more characteristic offerings (Beau travail, The Intruder), its abstractions are almost exclusively structural, and its clarity of plot, motivation, action and outcome actually feel like new ground for the filmmaker, who’s previously put a premium on the impressionistic, the sensorial, the sensual, the indefinite and the none-too-easily discerned. Oddly, Staples tells that this time around, the band’s approach to their subject was inverse to Denis’. “White Material was the first movie with Claire where the inspiration for the music wasn’t necessarily about characters or narrative. It was about the feeling of the earth, the feeling of the landscape.” And so the music is spare and sparsely utilised, all eddying electric guitar, sighing strings and distant, scraping percussion.
There’s nothing innately menacing about the score the Tindersticks have created for the film. Rather, it’s when it’s employed—mostly during transitions and scenes of crackling presage—which summons the sense of a gathering storm. Like their previous soundtracks for Denis—Nénette et Boni (1996), Trouble Every Day (2001) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008), with Staples having scored Denis’ The Intruder solo in 2004—it suggests a band utterly in their element. It’s surprising, then, to learn Staples himself has never harboured much of an interest in film scores. “I’m driven by songs,” he tells. “But David [Boulter, keyboard player and founding member of the Tindersticks] came at music in a very different way. He was very much about soundtracks – a different way of thinking. It was [James Bond composer] John Barry or Morricone. But I’m not a student of film music.”
Of the band’s soundtracks for Denis, only Nénette et Boni and Trouble Every Day have been made available commercially – though that, Staples tells, is soon to change. “At the moment, we’re working towards a box set of the complete soundtracks for Claire for release next year. [They] should all be in there, with a little bit of luck.”
As a band trawls back through the dusty annals of their own career, it seems safe to suppose the assembly of a retrospective collection might engender a little collective self-reflection.
“Working with Claire makes us shift our vision,” Staples replies when asked if the process has brought about any epiphanies. “We come out the other end of it and we always feel kind of changed. We view our music in a different way. We learn something. That’s so important as a band that spends most of our time working in our own little world inside our heads. That’s been a really great balance for us. I can look back on the last 15 years and I can see all the turns we took, [thanks to] working with Claire. And I don’t suppose I can ask for much more than that from working on a project.”
White Material screens at ACMI January 14-February 2 2011. Visit acmi.net.au for more information and to book tickets.