Claire Denis is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, but don’t let her hear you say that. She’s not crazy about compliments, the publicist warns me in the lobby of the hotel, minutes before our interview is scheduled to begin. Denis has come to Chicago to talk about her new movie, the hypnotic science-fiction drama High Life, starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and a multinational supporting cast as death-row inmates sent on an interstellar suicide mission to the galaxy’s nearest black hole. It is, like most of what the French director has made over the last three decades, bewitching and befuddling, rewarding multiple viewings, even as it refuses to do the interpretative heavy lifting for its audience. This is an opinion I will keep to myself during our 15-minute conversation, as it probably qualifies as a compliment—one of many I could use to annoy the filmmaker behind Beau Travail and Friday Night and 35 Shots Of Rum, to name a few of her (and this new century’s) most vital films.
High Life marks Denis’ English-language debut. That, coupled with the movie star at its center, probably accounts for the relatively wider release it’s receiving here in the States—and, by extension, for the multi-city publicity tour distributor A24 has arranged for the director, who spent a few days this month hopping around the country, talking to critics and journalists, sometimes with Pattinson in tow. Denis, as a general rule, does not suffer fools: She has a reputation for taking lazy interviewers to task, and for calmly but firmly shutting down unproductive lines of questioning. An anecdote from this very tour has already achieved something like legendary status. After a recent screening of High Life, someone in the audience accused Denis of not writing strong female characters, to which she reportedly replied: “What the fuck? I’m not a social worker.” It’s the kind of perfect Q&A retort you live to see an artist issue, at least up until the moment it’s you tossing out the Qs.
But when seated across from her, Denis is not quite so intimidating. She will push back against the premise of a question, as she does at least once during our discussion. But she is thoughtful and personable and frank about the work. At one point, she apologizes for her English, which is unnecessary because it’s very good. I end up wishing we had more time, or perhaps that I had come prepared with a deeper line of inquiry. At the end, as I’m leaving, she asks me if I like the music in High Life, which is composed by the band Tindersticks, as most of the soundtracks to her films are. I tell her I always love their scores for her movies, happy to have smuggled in at least one compliment.
The A.V. Club: This is, in some respects, an extreme film. You’re occasionally putting the characters in compromising positions—
Claire Denis: Maybe the situation could be compromising. But the film presents it as beauty. I don’t think I’m compromising the actors, maybe just the characters.
AVC: You see beauty in High Life? There’s horror in it, too.
CD: Yes, but also beauty. The horror is not in the rape scene. It’s in having to throw the crew into the void because they’re dead. This for me is the horror. I don’t think the sex scenes are horror, honestly.
AVC: There are English actors in this film. There’s a German actor. A French movie star. An American musician…
CD: And a very famous Polish actress [Agata Buzek].
AVC: How important was it to the story you’re telling that the cast be international? Or were these just the right people for the roles?
CD: I wanted this to be an English-language film. Due to the story, it had to be. Or it could have been a Russian-language film, but I don’t speak Russian. So I chose actors that speak English. I was shooting in Germany, and I knew this actor, Lars [Eidinger], very well. I asked him if he wanted to be an English-speaking character, and the same with Agata. Mia [Goth] and Ewan [Mitchell] both speak English, and André Benjamin is an American. It was not difficult. It was the best casting I could have. [Pause.] The baby is English, too.
AVC: Why English or Russian?
CD: The language was a necessity, because in space today you either speak Russian or English. Or American, let’s say. And soon Chinese, I guess. But also I wanted them to be criminals sent to space as lab rats. So I picked a country where the death sentence still exists. In Europe, it does not exist anymore. That doesn’t mean that we’ve solved all the problems of violence. But for me, the death penalty is the last barrier of what you can do to life. I think that if killing someone is the law, that’s really a problem. Me, I know I can kill someone driving my car by accident. When it’s law and order, it’s different.
AVC: How did the interpretation of Dr. Dibs change when Juliette Binoche came aboard? Her version is kind of a mad scientist.
CD: I never thought of Juliette when I was writing the script. I thought about Patricia Arquette. But in the end, when we were ready to shoot, Patricia couldn’t do the movie anymore. She wasn’t free. And I had just finished a film with Juliette [2017’s Let The Sunshine In]. And she said, “Hey, Claire, I can do it.” So I reinvented the character with Juliette. She was not the same character Patricia would have played. She would have still been a criminal, but different.
AVC: Robert Pattinson is the first Hollywood movie star you’ve cast in one of your films.
CD: Yes. But the film before I made with Juliette, the ending is with Gérard Depardieu. He is also a big star.
AVC: When you work with these big stars, are you playing with or trying to subvert their image or public persona?
CD: Oh, no. With Robert, I was a little afraid. I thought maybe that he was too young, maybe too iconic. But we got along so well, and he understood everything so well. I forgot who he was. With Robert, it’s easy to forget. He is very graceful and easy to work with. He’s very intelligent. You don’t spend every week going, “Oh my god, I’m working with a movie star.”
AVC: He doesn’t come in with a lot of vanity.
CD: Not at all. And he’s interested in making movies. He’s always watching. He likes the work.
AVC: I have a boring question about financing.
CD: Ah, financing. We were greatly helped by an American, Andrew Lauren, who really made the film possible. It was a French-German co-production. And a little bit of England, because the first producer was English, and a little bit of Poland.
AVC: That’s not the way it’s always been for you. There’s a lot more companies involved now. Has that changed the way you make films?
CD: I mean, a French-speaking movie I can do with French money in France because I don’t make big-budget movies. I understood a long time ago that it would be better for me not to need too much money for my films.
AVC: You don’t consider High Life science fiction.
CD: Because everything in it is already known! The existence of black holes, the energy in a black hole… I’ve done the reading, and I’m not inventing aliens or creating a new space colony or anything. I love stories like that, but it was not the purpose of this film.
AVC: So you weren’t studying other sci-fi movies or novels?
CD: I was thinking about something that could happen.
AVC: Your films, during production, often leap around a number of different locations, which makes High Life something of an outlier. By its nature, as a movie set aboard a spacecraft, it was shot mainly in a single location. Was that restrictive or was it freeing in its own way?
CD: It was helping us in a way, to be always within that ship. We’d get to the studio in early morning and leave at night. We were in a different world. And even when he did the exteriors [in outer space], with black drapes, it was frightening. We were afraid of the void.
AVC: Do you think some of the cabin fever of the story seeped into the production?
CD: Yes, sure.
AVC: Your films tend to avoid exposition and telling the audience through dialogue what’s going on. But there is a scene aboard a train in High Life that does just that, with two characters essentially explaining the premise.
CD: This scene was always in the script. While we were working on it, I went to India with my co-writer, Jean-Pol Fargeau, and we met Victor Banerjee. And I love him as an actor. And we were telling him about the film we were writing, and I love the way he speaks English, so I said, “Let’s have a scene like that.” He is the one who says they will never return.
AVC: “We’ll be bone and dust while they’re still hurtling through space.”
CD: He is the one that knows that because of the speed of light, time on Earth will pass differently than it does for the characters on the ship.
AVC: High Life, like many of your other movies, plays around with chronology, sometimes unfolding out of order.
CD: It was in the script, and every version of the script. It was so important to me that the film start with the garden and the baby and [Monte] teaching her how to walk down the corridor. And the flashbacks are in his mind, thinking back on the crew and what happened before. The present is him and his daughter.
AVC: But is that always how the nonlinear structure originates, right there in the script and never in post-production? I’m thinking about The Intruder.
CD: Yes, always in the script.
AVC: High Life sometimes looks like a film about the anxiety of having children when we’re hurtling toward oblivion.
CD: Yeah, of course, [Monte] never thought he was going to be a father. But suddenly, he realizes that for maybe the first time in his life, he’s free. Free to love, free to be him, free to hold.
AVC: Are you hopeful about the future?
CD: I think so. It’s like [Monte] with the baby. When you see young people, life is strong in them. So I’m hopeful, yes. Maybe I should not be, but I am.