Director Claire Denis has scrutinized colonialism in films like Chocolat and White Material, male power dynamics in Beau Travail, and familial relations in 35 Shots of Rum and Nenette et Boni. In her new film High Life, she explores the tensions between a crew of convicts confined to a spaceship hovering over a black hole (the effects for which were overseen by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson), being used for fertility experiments. There’s Robert Pattinson as a stoic ascetic, Juliette Binoche as a fanatical doctor, and Mia Goth as an unstable inmate. Their cosmic prison’s only sources of solace are a beautiful garden and a self-gratification device called “the fuck box.”
The cast is whittled down by misfortune until the film eventually becomes a two-hander between Pattinson and a baby. It’s a brutal, explicit, but sometimes tender rumination on mortality. I sat down with Denis to speak about the film, how black holes are like cinema, working with Eliasson, and whether “science fiction” adequately describes what’s going on.
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Dan Schindel: I assume you saw the recent news about the first photo ever taken of a black hole?
Claire Denis: I did. And everybody was texting me. Robert [Pattinson] called me about it. It was so strange, really. The black hole, it looks like ours [in the movie].
DS: Up until now, all our images of black holes were man-made, based on what the math told us they looked like. And now we know we were right. Cinema does that too, articulates what we can usually only imagine.
CD: Yes! It broke my heart because I believed so much in it. The people who were working with me, doing the special effects, were not certain it was the right way to do it. But I believed in what Olafur Eliasson showed me, that yellow light. I didn’t want a more elaborate effect than that. I thought, “This is it for me.” Nothing else. No green screen.
DS: That light shows up in a lot of his work. It’s wild to me that it matches so well the actual color of the corona around a black hole.
CD: I immediately thought of it when I saw his first exhibition, those lamps that glow orange. And it has an effect on all the color. The green is no more green. The red disappears. I thought that this transformation also speaks about the black hole, the way it absorbs everything, all light.
DS: When you collaborated with Eliasson on your 2014 short, Contact, did you already have it in mind to work with him again for this film?
CD: Yes. I visited him many times. We were doing tests with digital cameras. When I told him I was going to use his yellow light, he proposed, “Oh make a little film with me. I was doing test already for highlights.”
DS: That picture of the black hole also reinforces Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which is also how we know about time differences experienced in space travel. Which the movie also deals with. That’s another thing cinema does, disjointing time.
CD: Yeah. It’s almost not understandable when someone says, “It’s simple, Claire. A black hole is where time and space disappear.” Oh, it’s simple? [laughs] It’s weird to make something about things so far from my own knowledge. I’m far from being a scientific person. But I’ve been so interested by it, even when I was a child.
There’s also a practical reason the movie is nonlinear. I always wanted it to start with a man and a baby, as a ritual of two living persons with no despair in that moment. And then there would be the flashbacks bringing in all the despair.
DS: And then there’s the look of the ship. You’ve called it a shoe box before.
CD: The crew visited the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. We saw the Russian Soyuz, how they get to the ISS. They are so used, old. I was told that as old and simple as it is, it’s better because it’s easier to repair. In the Centre they have this huge screen where you can see live what’s happening in the station. They do very little work. They clean. They sleep. They eat. They recycle. There was a guy whose back was always to the cameras. He was repairing the toilet. Apparently the toilet is always broken, and he is the only who can repair them. It makes things so simple.
As we were writing the script, I could foresee a box. It would have a corridor in the center, and then on a lower level the garden, and the fuck box. The locker room. The ladder at the lower level. Since there is no atmosphere, the ship can be any shape, it doesn’t have to be aerodynamic. Knowing that, a box was the most simple thing for me.
DS: In other interviews, I’ve seen you compare Pattison’s character to a monk or a knight, because of how he refrains from participating in the fertility experiments.
CD: Yes, a knight. Like the Knights of the Round Table. Robert is Percival. He acts as if chastity keeps him protected, acts like a shield.
DS: It’s one way to cope with the situation. Juliette Binoche’s character shows another way, stubbornly trying to replicate life in the face of oblivion.
CD: Dr. Dibs I really took from Greek tragedy. She’s Medea. She’s done the most horrible thing, killing her own children. She’s made herself the opposite of what a real mother is supposed to be. Medea is a queen, so Dibs is the ship’s doctor. She is the only one half-crazy enough to believe in the crew’s mission, because she needs it to succeed so badly if she’s to put her mind at ease. That’s what she’s doing. She wants to rest.
DS: I’ve heard you don’t like to call this movie science fiction.
CD: I thought it was a little bit too much. To me, science fiction means something we are not that aware of, like maybe people living in another planet in another galaxy with another atmosphere. But this movie is about things we know today about our own galaxy. It’s not an unknown future. It’s almost here.
DS: There have been authors who rejected the label on their work for similar reasons, like Harlan Ellison and Margaret Atwood. They’ve used the term “speculative fiction.”
CD: I’m not sure that’s right either.
DS: Do you think such labels are ultimately that important? Most categorizations break down if you look at them closely enough. And I think the stigma over the idea of science fiction being “unserious” is mostly over.
CD: I think “science fiction” is not completely right. But how could you avoid it if you see Robert wearing the costume of a cosmonaut? Immediately it says something. And you can’t stop that. So I don’t care, in a way.
I remember the first time I saw Solaris. I liked the writer of the novel, [Stanisław] Lem. I remember how he wrote a science fiction story as if it still belonged completely to Earth. I thought that was great. Maybe because of the competition between the USA and USSR, American science fiction had the answer of Lem. That was fun to think about.
High Life is now playing in select theaters.