Claire Denis's 'High Life,' starring Robert Pattinson, was inspired by sci-fi greats such as 'Solaris' and '2001.'
If you know anything about Claire Denis, you know that she does it her way. The French auteur, whose oeuvre includes Chocolat (1988), The Intruder (2005), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2010), and Let the Sunshine In (2019), deals in cinematic risk-taking. Her films find their tension not from their narratives—which are often elliptical and vague—but from their rich characters, who navigate troubling social contexts that are ultimately revealing of human nature.
High Life is Denis's first foray into science fiction. Here, she heats the social context to a boil. On the course of a deep-space mission, a crew of inmates on death row navigates a hermetically sealed environment—a prison, in the form of a spacecraft. At the helm is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who performs fetishistic experiments on the prisoners' reproductive systems with the ostensible goal of incubating a baby in space. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is the only prisoner who refuses to participate; nonetheless, he ends up a father. This is how we first encounter him. In the film's early scenes, Monte tends to Willow, his newborn. He is utterly alone on the ship. Through flashbacks, we learn what happened to everyone else.
True to form, Denis eschews the conventions of the genre, opting instead for an intense vivisection of social breakdown, told with mesmerizing imagery and more than a few mind-bending cosmic scenes.
"There was a tendency to try to convince me that this should be more elaborate—that my vision was too simple. I had to fight for it."
No Film School sat down with Denis and Pattinson to discuss navigating the minimalist design of the spaceship, how Pattinson served as the DP for a single scene, and why the set was lit entirely with pre-fixed, and more.
No Film School: Claire, this is your first foray into science fiction. And Robert, you're not known for taking on sci-fi roles. What does sci-fi mean to you?
Robert Pattinson: It's funny. I think [Claire and I] have the opposite taste in sci-fi. I sort of like the operatic sci-fi. I like movies with enormous scale. You can't really get a bigger stage than in sci-fi movies.
Claire Denis: For me, it was a childhood thing. I would love to read sci-fi books, then later watch sci-fi films. But then I saw 2001, the Kubrick movie, and I thought, "Now this is it." I remember when I saw Tarkovsky's Solaris, I thought it was great that it was not scientific or technical; it's sort of a mental trip. In Solaris, the physicist is a widow. He lost his wife. And he accepts the trip because he's hoping maybe he will be together again with his beloved wife. I thought that was better than just a sci-fi movie about a war between one ship and another. Things like that, I'm not very interested in. With 2001, it's as if Kubrick had been dreaming of the complete universe, you know?
NFS: And how did you conceive of High Life's universe, which exists almost entirely on a very lo-fi spaceship, and is very much rooted in the human experience?
Denis: It was clear to me that the ship was going to be simple, like a jail. So I started with the minimum.
I was not terribly interested in special effects. I thought if we have in a studio—a good place to work—that would be great enough for me. And then, if we need special effects, we'll see about that after we build something [practical].
Pattinson: The world of High Life was interesting in terms of performance. It's like, if you're in any kind of high-security prison, the people controlling everything have no obligation to tell you the rules or anything, so you're living in this environment where everything can change on the dime. People can just experiment on you. You try and rebel against things, but you don't really know what's coming at any point and you have no autonomy. It's quite interesting acting in an environment where there's no point having hopes or dreams or anything. It just is what it is. How do people act when there's no future?
NFS: To that effect, what kind of conversations did you two have initially about Robert's character?
Denis: Very little.
Pattinson: It was much more about intuition.
Denis: And the wardrobe.
Pattinson: And the lighting! I remember specifically standing in the corridor and realizing that all the lighting was going to be block lighting. I've never done anything where the lighting is not specific to each moment. When the lights changed, the whole ship changed.
Denis: We programmed all the light: daylight, pristine daylight, non-pristine daylight, night, dusk, red alert, etc.
Pattinson: I like when you have a mood where they light the whole room. It has a completely different effect on you. But I've never worked [on a project] where the entire set suddenly changes. During red alert, there is just red light everywhere. It has an interesting effect on you.
NFS: Claire, tell me about your vision for the ship.
Denis: There was a tendency to try to convince me that it should be more elaborate—that my vision was too simple. I had to fight for it. When we were writing the script, I had this ship in mind, always. While writing, the strange thing is it's like a drawing in your mind. There is a sort of geography in a script. I think it's interesting to realize that in the writing process, so many details are engraved in your mind already.
NFS: How did you shoot the black hole scenes? You worked with Olafur Eliasson, an installation artist whom I greatly admire.
Pattinson: Olafur did the light for the black holes. I remember when they first set that up—
Denis: —on the second black hole—
Pattinson: I remember when he showed me the test...I just thought it was so beautiful and so simple. It's impossible to think about what a black hole looks like. In reality, it's just like a line of light. But it had such a power to it. To stand in front of it you were like, "Whoa!" That's the goal of Olafur's stuff. It vibrates.
Denis: That's why we shot on film, and not on digital, in the end. Because I wanted this vibration of the gold lights to be also in the film. Digital corrects those vibrations.
NFS: Besides the decision to shoot on film, I really appreciated that the cinematography was intimate. There's a tendency to go for something more widescreen and sterile in the genre—a sort of alien detachment.
Denis: It's an intimate story. I didn't think twice about shooting it like one.
Pattinson: People do seem just a bit dirtier than you normally see in sci-fi. But I think that's what [Claire] manages to get in all of her movies.
Denis: The nails were dirty and everything. It was important, you know? Water is scarce.
Pattinson: Even just seeing little things like the detail on vegetable shavings and stuff. It's like the ship was a shitty plastic box, and everything's broken. You're basically on an old bus.
NFS: Not to mention when you capture the other ship and things are significantly worse there. Can you tell me about that scene? It was shot so differently from the rest of the film.
Pattinson: That was terrifying, doing that scene. We had the camera on my head. Couldn't really see anything.
Denis: Robert was filming the scene.
Pattinson: And the dogs! It was fake growling and I'm like, "This is a wolf!" It was growling at me and it's three feet away. Especially when you have a helmet on, and you can't really tell what's around you and you just hear a dog that comes right by your legs and it's absolutely terrifying.
NFS: You were method acting.
Pattinson: I know, I was literally like, "I gotta get out of here!"
Denis: This is an anecdote, but the scene with the dog was filmed in Germany. I was told that for a scene like that you need a trainer for each dog. And the cost of it! I said, "Come on, this is ridiculous. Anyone in France will know how to do it." So we called a French guy who drove overnight with a disgusting truck full of shit and old dogs and dead dogs in a fridge. He displayed everything, and then we shot, fast. He cleaned everything and drove back to France on the same day.
After, the [producers] were looking at me, like, "That's the way you dirty French people work?"
NFS: I wanted to talk about the sort of anti-establishment narrative in High Life. A lot of people these days are worried about big business getting into space exploration.
Denis: It's true. With black holes, people think there is massive energy there. People are now working on trying to [harness] it. But I did not invent big business in space.
NFS: No, but you do speak to it in a certain way. This distrust of society when put in this wild frontier context of space.
Denis: It's like the atomic bomb, you know? With Germany and the second World War, the bombs and stuff became a business. The alliance of the greatest scientists with big companies is always a concern.
Pattinson: I saw the thing about mining asteroids the other day. It's crazy. But, I mean, people are always gonna do that. As soon as there's something which is unregulated, it's the most appealing thing in the world. "Let's eat the moon!"