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While Claire Denis seeks to avoid metaphor in her films, the French director’s sci-fi prison drama High Life, starring Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson, can’t help but raise big questions about the universe, the nature of time and even the meaning of life. “Everything in screenwriting is painful and yet it’s great. It’s great because the pain is the price you have to pay to be allowed to dream things, to make them real.” By Harry Windsor.

The high life of Claire Denis

Claire Denis
Credit: Francois G. Durand / Getty Images

“That sounds stupid, I must say.” Holding court in front of a small group of journalists in a hotel room near Parc Monceau, Claire Denis is unafraid to give short shrift. Her perplexity is sometimes shaded, too, by pity for the earnest, sometimes prudish hacks seeking to untangle the mysteries of High Life, a sci-fi chamber piece that marks the director’s first English-language film.

Starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as death-row prisoners sent on a deep-space mission to extract energy from a black hole, the film is by turn baffling and ambitious, gnomic and yet elemental in its laboratory-like focus on bodily urges – be they violent, sexual or both at once.

The esteem in which Denis is held proved insufficient to entice audiences in her native France, where the film – her most expensive to date – flopped last November. That fate was shared by her compatriot Jacques Audiard’s own debut in English, the western The Sisters Brothers, which screens at the Alliance Française French Film Festival this month alongside High Life.

European titans taking on genre pieces and Hollywood stars is nothing new, but Denis approached science fiction indirectly, more interested in the prison system than space. Her idea was simple: With the cost of incarceration and overcrowding on the rise, what if we used prisoners as guinea pigs, sending them to the stars with empty promises of dispensation upon their return? “It’s a different way to use them,” she says. “The film is all about recycling, you know?”

The poor journalist who is the current object of the director’s scorn has made the flip suggestion that we all end up in a black hole eventually – figuratively, if not literally. Denis is not having it. “I don’t think so,” she shoots back. “No, the characters go in a black hole but I’m not sure I will end up in a black hole. It depends what you mean by a black hole. If it’s a philosophical or metaphorical object, maybe. But a black hole exists, physically. Ending up in a black hole? I think it’s a joke.”

The filmmaker’s preference for the concrete over the abstracted marks her out as the practical, no-nonsense former assistant director (for Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and others) that she is. A question about the metaphorical tools opened up by science fiction is met with a rundown of the research trips she undertook before shooting began: to an astrophysicist in Grenoble and to the “City of Stars” outside Moscow, the long-time home of Russia’s cosmonaut training program.

The visit to Russia seemingly influenced the colour scheme adopted by Denis and her design team, which included the acclaimed Danish installation artist Ólafur Elíasson. Modelled after a jail, the spartan ship is all corn-gold yellows and browns, and the spectre of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky looms large. “Solaris and Stalker are two great films that inspire lots of filmmakers,” Denis says. “Tarkovsky understood the metaphysical dimension of human beings on Earth, thinking about space and the universe. And time – that’s the craziest thing. What is time? Time does not exist.”

High Life flashes backwards and forwards in time with an admirable lack of signifiers, beginning with Pattinson alone on the ship attending to a newborn baby before skirting back to fill in what happened to the rest of the crew. Abrupt discursions to Earth show us a family walking a dog in the woods, a group of urchins hopping trains, and a journalist interviewing an academic about the morality of sending convicts into orbit.

The film’s concertina-like compression of decades – the way it makes linear time almost impossible to track – echoes its interest in the reproductive cycle. Although the crew’s mission is ostensibly to reach a black hole, the character played by Binoche seems to have another, more sinister objective that involves the collection of semen from each of the ship’s male passengers. Only Pattinson’s Monte refuses to comply, though Denis rejects the idea there’s a correlation between the suppression of his libido and his survival.

“It’s not a philosophical point of view,” she says. “He’s like a knight in the Middle Ages who wants to stay, in a way, pure. Which means nothing. It’s a little bit childish actually.”

Binoche’s master plan culminates in a sequence that gives new meaning to the idea of artificial insemination but it doesn’t make the world she inhabits feel any less sterile. There’s no director alive who can capture the heat shimmer of sexual attraction more tangibly than Denis, but sexual pleasure in High Life is a solitary pursuit. A centrepiece scene has Binoche making use of a piston-powered dildo in the ship’s “Fuckbox”, used by the crew in lieu of intercourse.

An English journalist informs Denis the scene left her shocked and saddened. “You were shocked?” The filmmaker lets out a long, sympathetic “Oh” sound, of the kind you’d make to a cute puppy. “It’s not shocking. You see nothing you should not see, actually. It is sad, yes. Any masturbation in a way is sad. It’s the loneliness.”

 

Ever since her feature debut, 1988’s Chocolat, Claire Denis has been the queen of longing. Chocolat is the autobiographical story of a little girl growing up in Cameroon, as Denis did until she was 13. The girl’s boon companion and plaything is a handsome black manservant whom she orders about magisterially. Her mother does the same, casting lingering glances at the help that she attempts to remedy via curt condescension.

The way in which obstructed desire can curdle and find an outlet in resentment and even harm is the basis, too, of the filmmaker’s most acclaimed film, 1999’s Beau Travail. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, it stars Denis Lavant as a soldier who tries to banish his feelings for a subordinate by leaving the man to die in the middle of the desert.

Beau Travail ends with one of modern cinema’s great dance scenes, but it’s topped, for my money, by the one in the director’s 2008 feature 35 Shots of Rum, in which a single-parent father watches his daughter embrace the man she loves, and is chastened by his own jealousy.

The cocooning bond between father and daughter reappears in a more extreme form in High Life. One of the first words the baby learns is “taboo”, and she grows up to become a teenage girl who clambers into her father’s bed in the middle of the night and asks him if she resembles her mother. “The film shows many taboos,” Denis says. “Taboos about our own bodies, the taboos of intimacy, and the taboo around, of course, incest. It’s supposedly a taboo, but it exists.”

The germ of the entire project, in fact, was the image of “a man and a newborn baby alone in an empty ship, lost in space”, conceived after a conversation with an American actor with whom Denis still wants to work. “I told him: ‘You’re so selfish – the only script I could write for you is alone in space, so the film will be only about you.’ ” The actor suggested the addition of a little girl and Denis wrote the script but found she was visualising the lead role with another actor in mind.

“After I finished the script, I wanted a guy tired with life, and I felt maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman would be great. I wanted a guy who had no hope, no energy to pretend. But then Philip Seymour Hoffman died and I met Robert [Pattinson], and Robert wanted to be in the film and he convinced me immediately.”

That enthusiasm did not extend to the filmmaker’s short-lived writing partner, the English novelist Zadie Smith. Denis met with Smith and her husband, Nick Laird, at the behest of her producer, who felt that working with native English speakers might be more beneficial than a word-for-word translation of the script – written in French by the director and her long-time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau – into English.

“I met her in London, she came to Paris, then I met her again in New York, but there was absolutely no common language between us,” Denis says now. “Zadie had a very straight idea about changing the story and what she wanted to do. And I was keen on my own story. Therefore it was not a disaster but it was a sad thing, not being able to... appreciate her more.”

High Life does contain some lines, it must be said, that sound clunkily expository to this native speaker’s ears. Smith reportedly wanted a more conventional narrative in which the characters ended up back on Earth. Denis has said, too, that the novelist “disliked the casting”. Pattinson is certainly a far cry from the original conception of the character as a middle-aged husk. But the actor’s sincere passion for the filmmaker’s work, and his humility on meeting her – offering to play any part, no matter how small – quickly won him the role.

At this point a male journalist asks Denis a question straight out of the junketeer’s handbook. Working with Hollywood types for the first time, was it important to work only with fearless actors who didn’t care about their images? “The actors care about their image,” Denis deadpans. “They are good-looking in the film. They are not brave, they are beautiful. You don’t think they are beautiful?”

Stammer, gulp. “They are, but there are some scenes that are shocking…”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. They are not brave to work with me. Some of them want to work with me. Robert wanted to be in the film. I was brave to accept him!”

 

Production of High Life began immediately after the filmmaker wrapped her previous feature, 2017’s Let the Sunshine In, a Paris-set tragicomedy about the dating misadventures of a divorcee played by Binoche. “It was a bit difficult because I had to jump from one to the other for production reasons. But on the other hand it’s not possible to complain, making [a] film. They’re galaxies [apart], yes, but the common denominator is me and Juliette, too. I was not lost.”

Denis prefers shooting to writing, she says, in part because budgetary limitations mean scripts are forever being elided. “Everything is painful and yet it’s great. It’s great because the pain is the price you have to pay to be allowed to dream things, to make them real.” But High Life, however lo-fi it may be compared with some of its brethren in the genre, betrays no signs of compromise.

As the director tells it, it’s a story of self-determination, “a prison movie about convicts who choose a better way of finishing their life than death row”. But setting it in space, a void so blank it becomes a mirror, was essential.

“I think it’s because since childhood, when we look at the sky at night or the clouds, there is already this attraction, you know? What is the universe? How is the universe? Is it possible to travel there? Is it possible to find other beings? All these questions which are so ancient. But I hope this is not a good projection of the future. I don’t think it’s a prophecy about humanity. I’m not that grand.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Brigs in space". Subscribe here.

Harry Windsor
is a film and theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.