It is no surprise that she’s surprising. No two of Claire Denis’s sensuous films are the same. In her first English-language film, High Life, Robert Pattinson plays a lonely space traveller. Cinematek is screening a retrospective to run parallel with the cinematic release.
Her awards shelf is empty. She has no blockbusters to her name. There are many people who do not love her films, but those who do, do so with a passion. She is not afraid of tackling themes like colonialism, post-colonialism, cannibalism, sex, turbid desires, extreme violence, intimate relationships, and human fragility, but she is by no means moralistic and she steers clear of intellectual analyses. Claire Denis’s films are not to be understood but to be felt or experienced. She is a virtuoso of the ellipsis and of creating an addictive atmosphere. Often, this atmosphere is dejected or melancholy. She dares to search out darkness. She consistently relies on Agnès Godard for the subdued cinematography. Her regular supplier of atmospheric film music is the weeping willow Stuart Staples from Tindersticks.
Now over seventy years old, the frail Frenchwoman who grew up in Africa is presenting her first English-language film: the sci-fi movie High Life. Film star Robert Pattinson and André Benjamin from OutKast play convicts who escape the death penalty by agreeing to go on a space mission. The crew also includes a doctor, Juliette Binoche, who is obsessed with reproduction experiments. It is no coincidence that the deliciously twisted High Life opened this year’s edition of Offscreen, the festival for cult connoisseurs.
High Life opens with a scene with Robert Pattinson and a baby in an otherwise unmanned spaceship. Is High Life not something like 35 rhums in space? In that melancholy 2009 film, you sketched the relationship between a father and a daughter.
ClAIRE DENIS: Well spotted! (Laughs) The relationship between fathers and daughters is indeed a theme that I treated in 35 rhums. But to me there is an important difference. In 35 rhums, the father does everything he can to ensure that his daughter can live without him and lead a completely flourishing life. This time there was a very different perspective: the taboo. A man alone in space takes care of a female baby. The baby becomes a girl, and the girl a woman. The daughter has learned about life on earth. She knows that love exists. She knows what sexuality is but she only has her father. She cannot love anybody else. On earth, incest is a taboo, that is one of the most important human laws. But is that true in space?
Was Robert Pattinson an obvious choice?
DENIS: Of course not. I thought of the lead character as a mature, world-weary man with a heavy past who has forsaken his sexuality and doesn’t feel like doing anything anymore. I dreamt of casting an extraordinary actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unfortunately, he died before I could offer him the role. But it is very much possible that he would have been a good fit.
I was asked to consider Daniel Craig. I had a meeting with him but I’m not sure if he was really interested. Perhaps he thought of this small film by a French director as a break in a busy career. He has undoubtedly forgotten about me.
I want to be modest, but nobody asked me to work with Pattinson. He approached us. At first I thought he was too young and too iconic. But he insisted and he eventually won me over. The project was postponed several times, but he stayed on board. His trust was my best companion throughout this adventure.
What about André Benjamin from OutKast?
DENIS: I was very impressed by his lead role in Jimi: All Is by My Side, the biopic about Jimi Hendrix. He is not only a fantastic musician, but also a fantastic actor, and a fantastic human being. He is a very soothing presence.
Did the former vampire and teen idol Pattinson know how to handle the baby in High Life?
DENIS: Robert knew that the baby scenes were important and he helped us to look for a baby. Ultimately, the baby in the film is one that he knows well, the daughter of an old school friend. That scene is not chronological at the beginning, but I wanted to open the film with it because that image had impressed itself upon me. A spaceship scouts the furthest reaches of the universe and a baby looks around while a man repairs the spaceship. The man is fundamentally happy with the baby. She provides him with a raison d’être and balance.
Robert made a deep impression on me. He is extremely humble but at the same time, he has a tremendous capacity to express feelings and sentiments. In Twilight, an intriguing film, you could tell that he and Kristen Stewart both exude exceptional charisma. They might have wasted their gift and talent, but neither of them did. They each made very brave, admirable choices.
In a much-discussed, strange scene, Juliette Binoche desperately tries to climax in the fuckbox with the help of a machine. How did you come up with that?
DENIS: High Life is really more of a prison film than a sci-fi film. In a prison or a spaceship on a military mission, sexual needs are your greatest enemy. So I came up with the fuckbox – initially it was called the love machine. It is a place where you can relieve yourself of the enormous weight of your phantasms and the physical pain of a life without love. That’s the idea anyway; in practice a machine like that is unhappy ersatz.
Sexuality and reproduction are key elements in your film, and yet there is almost no nudity. Why is that?
DENIS: Nudity is impossible in such a situation. I made a film (the brilliant Beau travail, nr) about the foreign legion. I know how submarine crews live. You don’t run around naked in settings like that. That has nothing to do with prudishness. It is the law. In prison, whoever walks around naked or masturbates is a goner. He’ll get killed within ten minutes.
Anything and everything that stimulates sexual desire is banned from environments like that. There is no other option. A naked man between sexually famished men: do you really think he would survive for very long? Sexual abstinence has a profound effect, you know.
Cinematek is organizing a retrospective of your work. What do you think about your career thus far?
DENIS: I can’t say anything about my career because I never look back. I can see in the mirror that I have aged. I can see that the actors I worked with thirty years ago have aged. And yet I feel as though everything is still ahead of me. It is not that I am afraid of looking back. I just don’t like it and I can’t see anything there.
I have had the good fortune to be able to make several films. I have had the good fortune that my health has not let me down and that I have been able to collaborate with great talents like Agnès Godard and Stuart Staples. But I don’t see any great success, any achievements that I can brag about. To me, there is no fulfilment in cinema. It is never perfect.
When I get home after a long day and collapse on the couch, I am sometimes overcome by the desire to rest on my laurels. But I am not made to do that, and perhaps there aren’t any laurels to rest on anyway.
You do yourself injustice. Your films have touched many people very deeply. You can’t diminish that.
DENIS: Your words touch me. Thank you. A life is a life. You always hope that it has served some purpose. I do believe that my films have meant something. A film is a meaning and a demand. But when I look around, I don’t see many filmmakers who are fulfilled or happy. Cinema always leaves you wanting more. There is a great urge, but very little satisfaction.
Release High Life 20/3
Retrospective Cinematek: 23/3 > 11/5
Artist talk Claire Denis: 23/3, 21.00