Always thought-provoking, iconic director Claire Denis takes a familiar genre for her latest film and breaks the mould. It’s about what it means to be human, she tells Lanie Goodman
When it was first announced that French director Claire Denis was shooting a sci-fi movie starring Robert Pattinson, it was hard to predict what kind of film High Life would be. “It takes place far outside the solar system, near the Milky Way,” the 72-year-old writer and director explained to the audience attending a preview of the film in Beaulieu-sur-Mer last October. “But don’t expect to see people floating or looking out a window at the Earth.”
Denis, who had come to Nice to give a series of master classes for art and film students at contemporary art institution La Villa Arson and audiovisual school ESRA Côte d’Azur, had very particular ideas about what a film in English, set in outer space, might represent. Predictably, in Denis’s universe, there are no special effects, green screens or hi-tech gadgets. The vessel is indeed claustrophobic, but looks more like a shipping container than a futuristic rocket.
“I hate the idea of the military in space,” the director says with a shudder when we meet the following day. “The film is not about conquering. There are so many aspects, but my first idea was about isolation, and what it means to be human.”
THE PLOT THICKENS…
We talk over lunch at Chez Pipo (Denis’s choice), a simple eatery on the port that is always jam-packed with locals. “The interior of the spaceship is actually a prison, inhabited by petty criminals who were banished from Earth,” Denis says between dainty bites of socca, a Niçoise crêpe made from chickpea flour. “It’s a floating penal colony and there’s no escape. The mission is doomed from the start.” Her voice is soft, throaty and melodious.
If the plot of High Life already sounds grim and dark (much like Denis’s other films, such as Trouble Every Day and Bastards), the gorgeously shot scenes flooded with red light are eerily fascinating.
It is also Denis’s first movie in English. “Why?” She smiles. “It’s very simple. Because one of the producers, Oliver Dungey – he’s British but lives in New York – asked me if I’d like to do a film in English. I said ‘yes’, but only if it’s justified. I can’t do a film in English just like that.
“Then Oliver tells me that he’d love me to write a story about a femme fatale. I laughed and said, ‘that’s not really my style, but I do have an idea… It would be about a woman who is in space, so of course, they’d be speaking English or Russian, not French. And there would be a man with a child.”
From there, says Denis, the idea developed into a story, told in flashback, where Robert Pattinson plays the part of Monte, who ends up as the last surviving prisoner of the mission. Unlike the others, he has remained resolutely celibate throughout the years. He’s in charge of baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), an adorable infant with strong vocal chords who cries and whimpers when she’s unhappy (quite often). This is where the convoluted plot thickens. It turns out that the baby is somehow his.
GRAVE NEW WORLD
Flashback, and as the spacecraft hurtles towards the Milky Way and a black hole, everyday life goes on as usual: in fact, the metaphoric abundance of bodily fluids is at the centre of the characters’ own universe. When the prisoners are not tending the garden – the spaceship’s only real luxury – the male characters (played by André Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell) are expected to masturbate into cups and give sperm in exchange for drugs that knock them into deep sleep (an allusion to the pharmaceutical candy in Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World?).
Meanwhile, the women (played by Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo) are impregnated. When they give birth, the babies are immediately taken away before they can nurse them. The results – presumably scientific data about birth in space – are beamed back to Earth.
The person who has masterminded these experiments is Doctor Dibs (played by Juliette Binoche with a waist-length Rapunzel-like black mane), who considers herself a criminal of the highest order. One night, she forces herself on the monk-like Monte in his sleep to extract some of his sperm and plant it in Boyse (Goth), the most resilient of the female crew.
“In fact, the whole idea began with the solitude of a man and a tiny baby in space, knowing that he could never come back,” Denis goes on. “His friends are dead; his life no longer has any meaning. But the baby forces him not to commit suicide. In a way, she obliges him to become a man again – to share and communicate.”
So was working with a child as fraught as the old adage would have us believe? “Filming with an infant was actually a delight,” says Denis. “Maybe because she was so comfortable with Robert.” And no wonder: Willow (alias ‘Miss Scarlett’) is the child of Pattinson’s best friend. Which brings us to the subject of Pattinson. By all accounts, the actor actively pursued Claire Denis for three years, hoping to make a film with her. “I was afraid to meet him at first,” Denis admits. “He is very impressive as an actor, but I didn’t want to have to tell him that he wasn’t right for the lm. He was too good-looking and it was supposed to be an older character.”
That all changed when Claire Denis flew to Los Angeles to discuss High Life with actress Patricia Arquette (originally cast to play the part of Dr Dibs, but had to drop out because of a conflicting shooting schedule). After several phone calls, the director finally agreed to see Pattinson. “He told me all about his break-up with Kristen Stewart,” Denis says. “I was very touched. He also told me that he had met someone whom he adored and intends to marry, and showed me his engagement ring. I thought to myself, either this young man is sincere, a really great guy and he trusts me, or this is a lot of garbage and he’s trying to seduce me.
“Well, the first is true. He is very sincere,” Denis adds with a laugh. “It’s hard to be an icon – the bodyguards and girls screaming at the sight of him. I think his real life was waiting for him after Twilight.”
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Predictably, Denis and Pattinson are now good friends. The same goes for Pattinson’s co-star, Juliette Binoche, who played the lead in Claire Denis’s 2017 romantic drama, Let The Sunshine In (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur). “Juliette was willing to replace Patricia and I thought she was perfect for the part because she’s so physical.”
In one much-discussed moment in High Life, Dr Dibs enters what is vulgarly referred to as “the fuckbox”, and performs a long dreamlike masturbatory scene. “In the film, it’s to show that here is a woman who still has a very powerful relationship with her own body and can still have pleasure, whereas the other women are treated like objects.”
Wanting more scientific background on space travel, Denis and her co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau consulted astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau. “We even went to his classes at the University of Grenoble,” Denis recounts. “I’d already read Stephen Hawking’s views on birth in space, but I really wanted to know more about was it’s like when you’re outside the solar system – when there’s no air or atmosphere and you’re in a real void.”
Would the director contemplate making another film in English in the near future? Denis is pensive for a moment, then orders a second espresso. “A producer recently asked me to shoot a film in English, but it would have had to have been shot very quickly. I turned him down because I need to explore the setting for at least six months, plus it isn’t my language. The project was about people who live in a trailer park. Of course, there is poverty in France, but it’s quite different in the US.”
Denis has glowing memories of her first encounters with the American landscape while she was working as an assistant director for Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984) and Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, 1986). “With Wim, it was an incredible journey. We went to Louisiana and took Route 10 all the way to LA, making every detour possible. We had very little money – just enough for gas, a motel and to have a bit of food at truck stops. I kept detailed notes of everything I saw. When we stopped in Arizona, the heat was unbearable. There were black widows crawling around the motel, but I didn’t mind a bit. It reminded me of my childhood in Africa.”
Denis, who was raised in colonial West Africa, then went on to make her highly-praised debut feature, Chocolat (1988), a semi-autobiographical tale about African colonialism. Now, 30 years and 20-odd films later, what does the director have in mind next?
“Gérard Depardieu has asked me to collaborate on a project, but honestly, I don’t know yet. There are plenty of people whom I’d love to work with, but at the moment, I’m trying to replace all my identity papers,” Denis sighs. “My handbag was stolen recently – at lunch, with my niece and nephew, in a crowded Parisian restaurant – and I won’t feel like an individual until I get that settled.”
As if on cue, a 50-something woman who has recognised the director, comes to our table and tells Denis about the deep impact her films have had on her over the years. The director smiles graciously and rises. This stranger has just summed up everything about Claire Denis’s singular, quietly powerful voice in cinema. Moving, masterful and unforgettable.
And although die-hard sci-fi fans may well be baffled, High Life will most certainly take you to a place you’ve never been before.
From France Today magazine