High Life Director Claire Denis Talks Kubrick, Gravity, And Her Daring New Film
Since the release of her directorial debut (Chocolat) 31 years ago, French filmmaker Claire Denis has become one of the world’s most celebrated auteurs. With High Life, she makes a few crucial deviations from her earlier work—exploring science fiction subject matter in English with certified movie star Robert Pattinson—while retaining her poetic, elliptical, occasionally shocking sensibility. When the film screened at TIFF in September, we described it as “a willfully bizarre experiment in arthouse sci-fi” that “gleefully ignores the conventions of space cinema.” However, in my recent conversation with the filmmaker, she made it clear that she doesn’t necessarily embrace those categories or distinctions. In the interview below, Denis sheds intriguing light on her daring new film—and the sci-fi classics it occasionally resembles.
Space: The film doesn’t seem like a massive departure from your earlier films, but you’re working in science fiction and space for the first time. Did that aspect of the film present new opportunities or a new experience for you as a filmmaker?
Claire Denis: No, I think the film looks a little bit like all my films. I didn’t do anything differently, and I did what I always do. I am always dealing, more or less, with a lot of similar topics. Or maybe I’m wrong, but the adventure was to shoot on a set in a studio, to need a little more money, and to shoot in English. That was adventurous for me. The science fiction thing was not a problem because it’s not science fiction in fact.
As a viewer, what’s your relationship to mainstream American movies—the giant, crowd-pleasing, escapist ones?
I don’t see Americans like that. Americans are like everyone. They like this and that, you know. Me, I also like to watch giant movies. I don’t think I’m so different because I’m French. No, not at all. Certain blockbusters are great to me, you know. The first film I saw Robert Pattinson in was Harry Potter [and the Goblet of Fire]. But for me, I go to see films that I am curious about. It’s not a fight for a religion. “If you like that then you don’t like this,” you know? No, I think filmmakers are always interested in films. They are very tolerant and open I think. Me, I like so many different movies.
You’ve said you also knew Robert Pattinson from the Twilight films.
Twilight I like a lot, and I like a lot the Cronenberg films he made, two of them [Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars].
His character in your film was originally written for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Can you explain how the role evolved?
When I was writing the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau, we had in mind someone in his late thirties—with a sort of fatigue. When the film was written, I remember I saw [The] Master by [Paul Thomas] Anderson and I told my producers, “Wow, Philip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic and moving and great.” Of course, I was not even hoping for a minute he would consider my proposition, but I wanted to try. Then he died and I was offered different actors by the casting director and the producers. One day the casting director told me, “Claire, you have to know that Robert Pattinson wants to meet with you. He wants dearly to meet with you.” And I was surprised and afraid in a way, you know, although I knew his taste for different types of film—I had seen that before—and then I met him and I was absolutely convinced. The Monte he created was more like a Knight of the Round Table. Like a sort of Percival, believing in chastity because of his age.
High Life has a pretty disturbing vision of family. What are you trying to express about family in the film?
It contains all. It contains everything: the dream, the most beautiful, and the worst. For me, in my own experience—and I believe in the experience of most writers and filmmakers—family is a nest for many feelings. When you go to see a psychoanalyst and you go back into your youth, you need to go back to those things that you can see with a distance.
Do you see High Life as social commentary about the time we live in, or are you looking at the human condition in a broader sense?
Maybe both in a sense, yes, but very humble. I’m not Homer, I’m not Chekhov, I’m not Shakespeare, so it’s a very humble human condition I present. But it’s part of what I have in mind and maybe also a jail story, something that shows the human condition at its worst.
Were there any films you turned to for inspiration?
I forbid myself from thinking about Kubrick because it’s impossible, but I thought many times about Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky—because he made Stalker and Solaris—from the novel written by [Stanislaw] Lem. It’s not about aliens. It’s about our memory, our own mind.
Science fiction films like High Life and the ones you mention are somewhat challenging, in terms of the way they present narrative—
But so many films are challenging. So many films. I don’t know. I would not think science fiction is more challenging. Not at all. What is challenging in film is to touch the audience.
But there are science fiction films that appeal to many people and there are science fiction films that are maybe a little more… intellectual. Is this something you considered while making High Life?
I have a sort of doubt about this thing of intellectual because I think, in fact, many, many big, big films with a big audience are very often inspired by Greek legend or Homer. It’s highly sophisticated to transform a famous traditional human story into a blockbuster film. It’s the way we do the films that’s actually different, but it’s not more intellectual. I would not think so. I remember seeing Gravity when it was released and it was a massive success and a blockbuster, but the ending was so intellectual. The last scene, you know? She says something about her daughter. For me, this is terribly intellectual. The body is not there. The flesh is not there. Only the idea.
Check out the official High Life trailer below.