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145 million live within three feet of sea level. Rising oceans are a first world problem too

Poor nations such as Bangladesh are especially vulnerable, but the West’s prime real estate hotspots are also at risk.

What a pity that President Trump does not believe in climate change. Had he developed the modest critical thinking skills required to understand that the world is warming and sea levels are rising thanks to our continued burning of fossil fuels, he could have found his métier: building big, beautiful seawalls to keep out the increasingly frequent floods and storm surges that are hitting the US.

As a globetrotting Jeff Goodell reports in The Water Will Come, these are puny interventions in the face of potentially catastrophic forecasts. The faster-than-expected melting of ice sheets at the top and bottom of the world suggests that we cannot easily dismiss predictions that global sea levels could rise nine feet by 2100. And this in a world where 145 million people live within three feet of sea level.

Poor nations such as Bangladesh are especially vulnerable. But Goodell concentrates on high-end submersion: at-risk areas include prime real estate hotspots strung around the coasts of developed countries. There is a political reluctance to utter the phrase “climate change”, for fear of triggering a collapse in property markets. There is also scant incentive for authorities, particularly in the US, to acknowledge a hotter world when fossil fuels have generously oiled so many political campaigns.

Goodell, a Rolling Stone journalist, begins his watery odyssey in Miami Beach, a playground built on swampland with the intention of “defeating nature in pursuit of pleasure”. Flooding has become a fact of life: residents are, regularly and literally, up to their knees in shit. Sand is trucked in to replenish eroding beaches and pumps have been installed to clear waterlogged streets.

One of the most jaw-dropping vignettes is Goodell’s encounter with Scott Robins, in charge of Miami Beach’s flood mitigation plan (viz: raise the city by two feet). When challenged on this, given that scientists predict that nine-feet sea level rise, Robins reveals his misunderstanding of the most basic science: “If we can’t even predict the tides this week, how are we going to predict sea-level rise in the future?”

Tides are determined by small, chaotic changes in winds and currents; sea level is about long-term averages. It is hard to tell whether Robins’s slippery grasp of facts is due to ignorance or (fiscal) calculation: Robins is also a local property developer.

In increasingly affluent Lagos, Nigeria, Goodell finds luxury waterfront condominiums being built with flood-prone underground car parks – and massive sea defences. He makes excursions to Greenland to report on ice sheets (the pilot urges passengers to enjoy the views while they can); to the Netherlands, 30 per cent of which is below sea level; to a sinking Venice; and to New York, which wants to encircle Lower Mahattan (ie Wall Street) with a protective barrier. There are not-very-revealing interviews with Barack Obama and John Kerry, and more illuminating conversations with scientists.

This engaging, pacy book does not seek to convince sceptics that man-made climate change is happening; to disbelieve today is to be a flat-Earther. Goodell’s reportage amounts to a snapshot of a world in denial, fiddling with sandbags and buckets while the water creeps menacingly upwards.

Despite accords such as the Paris Agreement, he also makes clear that we have contemplated only in the most shallow terms the profound consequences of a sinking world. What moral, political, legal and financial obligations do richer countries, which are responsible for the bulk of historical emissions, owe to poorer ones? Do developing countries deserve compensation for being unable to pursue the kind of carbon-burning economic expansion that developed nations historically indulged in?

Then there is the existential threat to low-lying nations such as the Marshall Islands. If its lands disappear under the waves, will the effect on its people, language and culture amount to genocide, as the Marshallese argue? And how will the world deal with 200 million climate refugees by 2050, as predicted by the International Organisation for Migration? We can expect geopolitical consequences too. The Maldives now permits foreign ownership of land that it has expensively reclaimed from the sea. It is a means by which China may enhance its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. 

Local politics also becomes worrisome. Does a homeowner pay property taxes if his home is underwater? While some residents in vulnerable areas are being bought out – the state of New York spent $240m to buy 610 properties slammed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – that does not look financially sustainable. Who decides which communities are bailed out and which abandoned? At what point do landlocked taxpayers refuse to subsidise their coastal brethren? The inability of a local government to provide meaningful help may stoke civil unrest.

This dystopian spectre has prompted talk of “seasteading” – creating floating cities able to rise with the oceans, and out of the jurisdiction of any government. Peter Thiel, the Paypal co-founder and Trump ally, has previously championed this vision of ultra-libertarian Utopias on the waves.

Which brings us neatly back to Trump, the climate sceptic. It’s been reported that the bridge to Trump’s Miami playground, Mar-a-Lago, is being raised by four feet. Somebody knows what’s coming. 

Anjana Ahuja is an FT contributing writer

The Water Will Come
Jeff Goodell
Black Inc, 352pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge