by Steven Prokopy
For more than 30 years, French filmmaker Claire Denis has been making shorts, documentaries and features. While many of her earlier works have dealt with themes of colonial West Africa (drawing from her upbringing), other works explore very modern ideas of sexual politics, emotional violence and human expression, all within the context of an array of genre, in such works as 1988’s CHOCOLAT, I CAN’T SLEEP, NENETTE AND BONI, BEAU TRAVAIL, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, 35 SHOTS OF RUM, and the masterful WHITE MATERIAL.
Her previous film, LET THE SUNSHINE IN, starring Juliette Binoche, was something of a breakthrough for Denis; and her latest, HIGH LIFE (only her second film in English), is a thought-provoking, provocative, science fiction piece about the crew of a deep-space mission made up entirely of death-row inmates, including Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a deranged doctor (Binoche). As their mission to collect energy from a black hole nears its end, it becomes clear to the entire crew that they were never meant to return and that the only way to “escape” this floating prison is to resort to extreme behavior. The film is a bit of a slow reveal, as it begins with Monte and his baby daughter alone on the vessel, while a series of lengthy flashbacks unveil exactly how they ended up seemingly the sole survivors and what life was like with a full crew of criminals. The film also stars an eclectic supporting cast that includes Mia Goth and André Benjamin.
We spoke to Denis when she was in Chicago recently, and covered a great deal of ground about her connection to Pattinson, how criminals seem uniquely suited for long space journeys, and the appeal of black holes—both real and imagined. HIGH LIFE is currently playing at the Music Box Theatre.
Question: I read that Robert Pattinson discovered your work through a chance encounter on a hotel room television with WHITE MATERIAL. So where did you discover his work, and what was it about him that made you think he was right for this role?
Claire Denis: Maybe I saw him in another hotel room too [laughs]. I know I saw him in all four TWILIGHT films. I was amazed by his performance and Kristen [Stewart’s] too. There is something so true and mysterious in them; it’s not fake. Then I saw Robert’s two Cronenberg movies [COSMOPOLIS and MAPS TO THE STARS], and then I heard from the casting director that he wanted to meet me because he thought maybe he could be in this film, which surprised me because I had imagined a much older man in the part. But I met him, and of course, I realized I was very lucky he wanted to work with me because he instantly became the character. As I was meeting with him in L.A. and then in Paris and then in London, I remember he was very reserved and mysterious, not showing too much of himself. I liked that.
That suits this characters.
CD: Yes, and I also like it in filmmaking, because you have to work together with people so closely, it’s better to be a little mysterious to one another and not to be too open.
He has perfected the idea of being mysterious but also expressive.
CD: Of course.
There is a logic to the idea of criminals being suited for space travel. You have to be a little insane to sign up for such a job even if you aren’t a murderer.
CD: They’re not necessarily insane. Being criminals and being insane aren’t necessarily the same thing. Although the doctor who tried to kill herself, she a type of Medea—she killed her children. People on death row might become insane, it’s true.
But the idea of putting these people who would normally be in prison in the prison of space makes sense.
CD: Yes, they are offered the opportunity to use them as lab rats for free, and no one has to care about them coming back.
I believe they are never supposed to come back. It’s still a death sentence or at least a life sentence.
CD: They are not really told the truth, but they discover little by little. Years go by, and they figure out they aren’t going back.
The film is a series of reveals, layers are pulled back as the things go on. Was that the way you wrote it, or did you come up with that in the editing?
CD: The beginning was always Monte and the baby girl and then he goes to the garden and then he repairs something while she’s making noises at him or screaming. After she learns how to walk, he’s in the corridor, and the flashbacks start—the presence of the others begins. We know they had been there because we have seen him throwing the bodies off the ship, so we knew there was a crew. And then the flashbacks start. But the modern scene were always about Monte and the growing-up girl getting closer to this black hole.
That first shot of Robert with the baby, it is one of the most vulnerable, fragile-looking things I’ve ever seen. They both look fragile.
CD: Sure. But they are also tough. What makes them fragile is the love that exists between them in a place that is an inferno.
But it’s clear he did not ever think he was going to a parent.
CD: Oh no, he was not prepared. But it happens, and probably for the first time in his life, he feels happy. He’s feeling something: fear and joy.
One of the first things we see him do is shave with a sharp edge and no water or soap. It made me very tense, but it’s also such a delicate process.
CD: I like that. For me it was about how he needs his face to be soft for her. And when we were in training at this European space center near the studio where we were shooting, I read that in the International Space Station, they have ways to clip hair because it’s dangerous if they don’t clean everything. There can be not even the slightest amount of debris.
Sex in this film is treated as a violent act almost every time, whether it’s in the self-pleasuring box or between two people. What the doctor does to Monte…
CD: She rapes him too [to acquire a sperm sample for her experiments].
It’s never presented as a purely pleasant act. Is that because we’re dealing with criminals?
CD: Partly. From what I’ve been reading in so many novel and books about jail, the sex is so much a painful experience—frustration, masturbation, raping, humiliation—what else can it be? I would imagine it wouldn’t be so easy to feel the sensuality of love under those conditions. I think sometimes, Mia Goth’s character touches Monte. You sense that something could happen between them, but it doesn’t.
Monte has this self-imposed celibacy. It’s one of the many ways he finds to defy this whole experiment. He refuses to let his body be a part of this.
CD: And the doctor accepts this because she likes him. Otherwise, she might kill him.
But his attitude is very much like a character in a prison movie, looking for even the smallest ways to regain control of your life and person.
CD: And I remember the Knights of the Roundtable, where the knight Lancelot suddenly forgets the role of chastity, and he becomes weak and forgets that chastity will protect him. It’s much like that.
I want to talk about your approach to the science fiction side of things, and your ideas of how space and the ship look. It’s the boxiest spaceship I’ve ever seen.
CD: [laughs] I was told by the astrophysicist I was working with “Outside a solar system, there is no air, so anything can move if there is proper propulsion. There’s no resistance, so it doesn’t matter what shape the ship is. So I took the easiest, cheapest-looking shape for a jail, with a corridor down the center and rooms on either side for living and machinery.
I loved you black hole design, which looks beautiful and dangerous.
CD: It’s only dangerous if they stray from the horizon and get crushed. The character that has that happen to them knows it will. She fucks up the maneuver and is destroyed—it’s called the pancake effect. And because of this English mathematician [Roger] Penrose, the interest will grow very soon for the energy in black holes. And I read this morning in the New York Times two great articles about black holes, including one about an astrophysicist here in Chicago, and the other one was about that first picture of what could be a black hole.
You’ve used violence in your films before. But you always make sure that it isn’t violence for violence’s sake; it’s always connected to an emotion like anger, love, or fear. What is your philosophy when it comes to using violence in your work?
CD: I don’t know if I have a philosophy. It’s more of a gentlemen’s agreement between the script, me and the actor/actress. We convey together something that feels right. I would never go too far if an actor were against it.
As a fan of what André Benjamin does as both an actor and musician, how did the two of you find each other?
CD: He brings peace to the film, doesn’t he? I’ve been an Outkast fan for a long time, and then I saw him in JIMI [: ALL IS BY MY SIDE] and I like him as an actor very much. I tried to make contact with him, and that’s not an easy thing. But finally he said, if you come to Atlanta the maybe I’ll consider your offer. So I went to Atlanta, met with him, and he accepted. He saw the film, and I think he liked it [laughs].
What would you like people thinking about when they leave the theater after seeing HIGH LIFE?
CD: I don’t know. The film ends with the father and daughter together and the song “Willow” [by Tinderstocks, but sung by Robert Pattinson]. For me, there’s something sweet about it and having love even in the worst place. You can find something beautiful anywhere.
Claire, thank you. Best of luck with this.
CD: Thank you very much.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”