Deep space. Monte and his daughter Willow live together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A man whose strict self-discipline is a shield against desire, Monte fathered her against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate the young woman who gave birth to her. They were members of a crew of prisoners – death row inmates. Guinea pigs sent on a mission. Now only Monte and Willow remain. Through his daughter, he experiences the birth of an all-powerful love. Together, father and daughter approach their destination – the black hole in which time and space cease to exist.
Claire Denis is a French director and screenwriter, renowned for films including Chocolat, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum, and Bastards. Born in Paris, Claire Denis lived in a number of African countries until the age of 12. Her latest film, High Life, stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.
How did High Life come about?
A while back, an English producer asked me if I wanted to participate in a collection of films called Femmes Fatales. At first, I wasn’t that interested, but after thinking it over, I agreed. The project took ages to get off the ground. There was no money. It took 6 or 7 years to hammer out a coproduction: France, Germany, Poland and eventually America.
During that time, I went to England and the States to meet with actors. The actor I dreamed of for the lead role of Monte was Philip Seymour Hoffman, because of his age, his weariness – but he died mid- route. I was overcome with sadness. The Scottish casting director then told me: “There’s another actor you absolutely must meet: Robert Pattinson.” At first, I thought Robert was too young and, I must say, I found his beauty intimidating. In the meantime, I met Patricia Arquette in Los Angeles for the female lead, Dr. Dibs.
Robert Pattinson showed up at more or less every meeting, discreet and charming, mysterious. As I’d observe him from the corner of my eye, I started feeling more and more unsettled. Of course, I’d known of him. Like millions of moviegoers, I had seen the 5 episodes of Twilight, where he plays a vampire. But in that series, what fascinated me most was the couple he formed with Kirsten Stewart. I remember one scene in particular, when Kirsten Stewart tells him that she accepts that he’s a vampire. He answers: “No, I can’t… I don’t want to hurt you.”
I had also seen him in the two films he shot with David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis in 2012 and Maps to the Stars in 2014, so I knew he could play different types. One night at the hotel it dawned on me that I was stupid to persist in searching for a double of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robert as Monte suddenly seemed self-evident. With my co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, we wrote a first draft of the film and had it translated for Robert.
After that, things became much easier. Robert would come to Paris, we’d have dinner, talk… It was all very merry. Sometimes he said he didn’t understand the script that well, that he wasn’t sure what I wanted. I felt he was afraid about his character’s chastity. But Robert was always present. More than “present”: he was an active partner, always available. His “yes” to do the film was a “yes” to the 1,000th degree. And he kept proving it during the shoot, in Cologne, Germany. Some people might expect a star like him to demand a private jet to spend weekends in London. Not at all! He stayed in Cologne for the entire shoot. He’d have dinner with the crew, not because he was bored but because he wanted to be 100% involved. At the European Space Agency in Cologne, he did astronaut training like all the other actors. He even ran on a machine that created weightlessness for a short while. What a wonderful person to work with!
And Juliette Binoche?
She joined the project later. We had worked together on my previous film, Bright Sunshine In. In May 2017, we were debuting it in Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, when Juliette said to me: “Is it true you lost your lead actress?” It was true. High Life was supposed to start shooting in September and Patricia Arquette was committed to the series Medium, in which she plays the lead. So Juliette simply said: “Well, if you’d like me to do it, I think I can.” I want to insist that I don’t at all see Juliette as a replacement. We got along incredibly well on Bright Sunshine In. She’s a true force of nature, grounded, solid. But I was still attached to the memory of Patricia Arquette. I needed to reinvent the character in my head. So for Dr. Dibs – a sort of Strangelove in space, slightly crazed and dangerous – I suggested that Juliette have very long, jet black hair. It would have kept growing throughout their interstellar journey. Juliette liked the idea. This allowed me to imagine another Juliette from the one we’d created for Bright Sunshine In. But just as creative and inventive. Almost a new Eve.
How did you think out the presence of the other actors?
What unites them is that they’re a group of delinquents, from the community of men and women on death row. In exchange for so-called freedom, they agree to be sent into space to be used as guinea pigs for more-or-less scientific experiments on reproduction, pregnancy, birth – under the strict supervision of a doctor who also has a serious criminal record. It’s a prison in space, a penal colony where the inmates are more or less equals. A sort of phalanstery where no one is really giving orders, even the woman doctor, whose task is to collect sperm like a queen bee. The queen bee is in charge, but the real leader, the only absolute and imperceptible commander, is the spaceship itself, programmed to lead them all to a black hole, to infinity, to death. All these men and women have in common is the English they speak. It is the only international language, along with Russian, that is spoken on modern-day space missions. Although soon people will be speaking Chinese in space.
English – or more precisely the American English spoken in the film – serves another purpose. I wanted the spectator to recall a country where the death penalty still exists, i.e. certain states in the US.
So only real characters, not extras or bit parts?
Exactly! I had seen André Benjamin (Tcherny) in a biopic about Jimi Hendrix, which I didn’t expect to really work. I figured that no actor could live up to the legend. But when I saw it, I thought André Benjamin was wonderful. His performance is a great riff on Jimi Hendrix. I went to meet him in Atlanta and he agreed to do it. I’d seen Agatha Buzek (Nansen) in several plays directed by her Polish compatriot Krzysztof Warlikowski. Her mastery blew me away. I also saw Lars Eidinger (Chandra) in the theater. He had worked a lot with Thomas Ostermeier. He is a star of German theater. I needed someone like him: raw, brutal, massive, yet still intensely frail. Mia Goth (Boyse) was the young girl in Nymphomaniac: Vol.II by Lars von Trier. I liked her youth, her beauty, and I wanted her to try something different: a kind of stubborn determination. Then there’s Claire Tran (Mink), Ewan Mitchell, (Ettore), Gloria Obianyo (Elektra) and Jessie Ross (Willow). All of them are wonderful individually and collectively. In fact I could say the same thing about them all: rebellious, broken youth.
And the baby?The baby is very important! Her name is Scarlett. She is English. She’s the daughter of Robert Pattinson’s best friend, Sam. They grew up and went to school together. Shooting was about to start and we couldn’t find the right baby. One day Robert said: “Why are you auditioning babies right and left when I know one who would be perfect?” We all became weak-kneed when we saw Miss Scarlett, so chubby, so charming. It’s not that hard to make a movie with a baby. We respected her nap times, feeding times
and crying fits. We went along with her rhythms and shot, more or less silently, almost invisibly, thanks to the finesse and grace of the cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux. And it is wild to see Willow learning to walk in the corridor of the spaceship, because those truly were Scarlett’s first steps, taken in front of a camera. At the end of the day she was happily cooing and walking. It’s one of my favorite scenes. That is where we see on Robert Pattinson’s face that his beauty doesn’t get in the way of his goodness. Or rather, that his goodness is beautiful to see. Robert had never changed diapers or spoon-fed a baby before, but he sure got a taste of all that with Miss Scarlett!
The characters are presented as men and women without a past.There was an earlier version of the script that referenced their former lives. But I found that knowing too much became very boring. So we made a point of not “over-fictionalizing” the characters: they have all probably committed terrible crimes, but we don’t pursue it. Their history, collective or individual, takes place in the present and – who knows? – in the future, even if for most of them the future will take the form of a cemetery under the stars. I see them all as a contemporary community, utopians, hippies of a special sort, who have gone from juvenile detention centers to prisons and who do not want to live in any society other than their own.
Yet there’s a flashback in the film that could be considered explanatory.
The scene was shot on the roof of train on the frontier between Poland and Belarus. On this train are stowaways, hobos, some of whom we may recognize from the space station. Is it their past? I’m not so sure. For me, it’s more like a melancholic allusion that can evoke not only Kerouac’s On the Road but also those convoys of outsiders and misfits that cross America from east to west. Train, bridge, forests. Other colors which contrast with film’s main palette. In point of fact, that scene was shot in 16mm, not in digital, which tends to rub out nuances.
On the computer screens in the spaceship, we see images from Earth.
Three images. A random rugby match, an old documentary and a home movie. The documentary is a piece of In the Land of the Head Hunters, directed by Edward S. Curtis in 1914, made with the participation of the Kwakiutl Indians on Vancouver Island in Canada. Curtis devoted his life to preserving the memory of Indian traditions that were on the verge of dying out. We owe him the famous photographic encyclopedia, The North American Indian. I chose a scene where we see Indians gathered around a fire for a funeral. For me, it’s not an image of piety, compassion or nostalgia, but one of extreme sadness. What has become of them? Down what fatal rabbit hole did they disappear? I never asked Jim Jarmusch, but I’m sure Dead Man paid tribute to Curtis’ work. There is also a home movie of my nephew on a beach, jumping in the waves. And then a TV broadcast of a rugby match. These three groups of images, pixelated by the spaceship’s computers, are like archives of times past that can never be regained.
Did you have any models, anything that inspired you?
I didn’t have any recent science fiction films in my head. I find they all have the same NASA sheen: too pretty, civilized, hygienic, Kens and Barbies floating in spaceships that look like children’s toys.
The big problem in terms of references is obviously Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If we decide to tell the story of a spaceship that leaves the solar system, 2001 pops into our heads like a devilish Jack-in-the-box. So you have to forget 2001 even if it is forever etched in our brain cells, in our bodies. And you also have to forget Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Near the studio where we shot in Germany, there was a pond with weeping willows. There, I would think of Stalker, also by Tarkovsky. But unlike
Kubrick, Tarkovsky doesn’t block your imagination. He opens it; he fans the flames. Solaris and Stalker are my good-luck-charm films, benevolent genies that protect me, encourage me, inspire me.
Every passenger on the spaceship dresses similarly, in a sort of work uniform with the number 7 on it. Why 7?
7 is the number of the spaceship. It’s like it is tattooed on their bodies. It implies that this spaceship is one in a series. At an important moment in the film, spaceship 7 docks with another spaceship, number 9, in which the only survivors are dogs – unless it is part of different experiment for dogs only. I really wanted to show this encounter with animality, a mirror of our own, a challenge to our pseudo humanity and the ghoulish fate we have set aside for our so-called pets. The first living creature sent into space was a Russian dog Laïka, who didn’t survive her return to Earth.
What were your instructions for the set design?
My instructions were very simple. It is a prison, a sort of squat house, drab, dirty, poorly lit. There is a main corridor and cells on both sides. On the floor below are a medical lab, a morgue and a greenhouse garden. I was dead set on having that garden. How can you keep up the hope of return if earth isn’t part of the voyage? That earth is their Earth, the only thing that reminds them that they are earthlings, men and women of the earth. For the doctor’s lab, I wanted the same simplicity, the strict minimum: test tubes, a few instruments, a chair for gynecologic exams. None of the typical science fiction props, laser guns, disintegrators, teleportation devices, etc. In fact I wanted to avoid the hell of special effects. The same goes for weightlessness. There is no need for weightlessness because the spaceship is accelerating close to the speed of light. Terrestrial gravity – gravity in every sense of the word – reestablishes itself, because gravity is the effect of acceleration. If I had to film actors hanging from cables against a green screen, I’d never have made the movie. And with its near absence of special effects, I hope the film will still have a special effect on viewers.
The shape of spaceship 7 doesn’t correspond to typical science fiction criteria.
I was told the spaceship would look like a box of matches. That really made me laugh. But it’s not a whim or a fancy. Not to play the astrophysicist card, but I learned that when you leave the solar system, there is zero resistance, so the spaceship can be any shape as long as it is equipped with an energy source to keep it moving. The missile-like aerodynamic shape becomes useless or absurd. So I said a parallelepiped rectangle is fine.
The music in the film isn’t your typical intergalactic fare…
Not really. Stuart A. Staples from the group Tindersticks composed it. He was also the sound designer. I’ve done several films with him, so I knew I wasn’t going to be getting cavalry charges or wannabe Wagnerian pyrotechnics. The music Stuart created is gentle, full of low-frequency subtleties. And at the end of the story, a special bonus: the song Willow, sung by Robert Pattinson himself!
You shot in Germany, in Cologne. Did that influence you?
Yes, it had an effect on me. For several reasons. First of all, it brought back memories. For me there will always be Berlin and Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders in 1986. I was his first assistant on that. Then a dozen years later I shot 35 Shots of Rum in Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein, the city of Thomas Mann, where his grandfather had his house, in which Buddenbrooks takes place. Lübeck is also Günter Grass’ city. So it’s laden. And not far from Lübeck, the towns along the Baltic Sea, both calm and violent… You understand why it puts people on edge, and not just writers.
Cologne is different from Berlin or Lübeck. It’s Rhineland, so there’s the Rhine. Our hotel was on the square, near the station and the cathedral. We felt at home in there. The steady coming and going of the trains was reassuring. In Cologne, there are two kinds of studios: an enormous one where Jarmusch shot, and smaller ones where Lars von Trier made several films. It’s better to be in a small studio for a film that I wanted to be intimate. And the studio was in a semi-industrial suburb. Within the compound was an old house and trees. It was a curious mix with a weird charm. And Fassbinder set his amazing miniseries Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day in Cologne. I must have had all that in my head. Also, in Cologne I found co-producers, Pandora Films, who trusted me.
Sexuality is very present in High Life but is treated funereally…Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda. But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes even more abstract, if it is just to reproduce. If the men have to set aside their sperm for the doctor… yes, they get to cum, but for science. During the shoot I started reading book four of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Confessions of the Flesh, which takes on, among other things, marriage and virginity.
Before Christianity, marriage served one purpose: procreation. Sexuality is about fluids. As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it’s all about fluids: blood, sperm, etc. I thought that if I wanted this fluid subtext to work, we had to reduce the sex act to masturbation, more or less technically assisted by the Fuckbox fitted with a dildo for Dr. Dibs, who gives it her all, but in total solitude. This scene is, in part, dark and useless. But what is useful, in the end? Trying to cum isn’t useless, is it? The doctor’s attempt to climax alone with her maimed body is miraculously rendered in Juliette Binoche’s performance.
All of her strength is in her back, which I filmed like an odalisque, with the beautiful lines of the hips and rear. Later, Juliette goes at night to steal the sperm of Robert Pattinson, who is knocked out by sleeping pills. It’s a robbery. And definitely a rape. But we see Robert moaning, comatose but not in pain.
I forbade myself any naked scenes. No erect cocks, no gaping pussies. We did it another way. For me the most erotic scene in the film is when a young inmate masturbates while staring at Juliette drying her hair in front of a ventilation shaft. High Life speaks only of desire and of fluids.
Desire and solitude, that’s the main theme?
More or less. But above all, and I must insist, High Life is not a science fiction film even if there are healthy doses of fiction – and science thanks to the precious participation of the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, specialist in astroparticle physics and black holes. The film takes place in space but it’s very grounded.
How would you sum up the film?
Sum up? That’s not easy. It’s the story of a man alone in space for the rest of his life, with a baby, most likely his, who will become a young woman and eventually his femme fatale, if ever he makes up his mind – this sort of knight, this Perceval, this scout of another story – to break his vow of chastity. This is what happens at the end of the film when the young woman – who has no other man on hand, who doesn’t even know that this man his handsome because she has never had anyone to compare him to – makes the first move. I wanted both of them at the end standing as if before the marriage altar. The young woman’s “Yes” is like the bride’s “I do.” We are approaching the forbidden planet, the absolute taboo. A girl is also a woman. Incest is the quest for the ultimate in sex, because it is forbidden. “We don’t need anyone else,” the young girl says. It is a film about despair and human tenderness. About love, despite everything.
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