Serving a life sentence in the final frontier: An interview with ‘High Life’ director Claire Denis

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“High Life” has been ricocheting around Claire Denis’ brain for some 15 years. The French filmmaker takes her first steps into science fiction with her latest release, a story revealing the fragility and resilience of the human spirit when sent on a one-way trip to a black hole. Brutally rendered yet always compassionately felt, “High Life” is an essential work for Denis, who navigates the suffocating tunnels of her interstellar vessel with the type of determined intelligence that can only be found in a passion project.

“It was just a hint of a film,” Denis said in an interview with The Daily Californian. She disclosed that only the film’s premise was initially in her mind — a man isolated with a baby in outer space, all his companions deceased, with Earth being nothing but a distant memory.

This man, Monte, is played by Robert Pattinson, a veritable supernova of talent whose every project only seems to be more enthralling than the last. After beginning with Monte’s tender interactions with his daughter, “High Life” looks backward to when most of the crew was alive, a collection of inmates who elected to come aboard the ship instead of serve their sentences on their home planet. All except for Monte regularly enter the “fuck box” — a masturbatory device on the ship contained within a pitch-black private room — to relieve themselves.

Denis stated that Pattinson’s collaboration was key to shifting her perception of Monte. “I had in mind someone in his late 30s who was distressed by his past life and had decided not to mix with the others, to keep a sort of chastity like a monk … because of despair,” Denis said. “And, with Robert, it became a sort of belief that chastity would bring him a better resistance. Like a knight in the Middle Ages.”

Monte’s silent resistance is one of the few crutches offered to viewers to orient themselves in the depressive, elliptical rhythms of the film. The inmates are essentially lab rats for the destructive obsessions of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who harvests semen from the “fuck box” and inseminates female passengers in a deranged mission to create life in the highly irradiated circumstances of space travel.

Denis identified similarities between this bodily exploitation and the culture of mass incarceration perpetuated in the United States (almost every scene is written in English; a first for Denis). Further, she connected this current practice with the country’s technological advancements and violent lust for resources. Notably, the floating prison the film takes place on is revealed to have been sent to a black hole as to investigate the possibility of harvesting the energy inside it in order to save an Earth approaching apocalypse.

“A country where the power of being a bad seed means you cannot exist anymore; there is no chance to be saved,” Denis said. “And, me, I always have a little problem with that. I think there should be a second chance.”

The cruelty of the present informs much of “High Life.” Once members of the crew begin to die off, a Black inmate named Tchemy, played by rapper André Benjamin (better known as André 3000), blankly states that “even up here, the Black ones are the first to go.” It’s an arresting acknowledgement in its directness, especially in such an elusive film. When asked about the line, Denis stressed the importance of collaborating with Benjamin before its inclusion.

“For that sentence, I ask him the permission,” she said. “I ask him, would you accept to say a phrase like that? I didn’t want to (make him) say this line because he’s a Black man. I ask him. And he said yes.”

Denis expressed her approach to the ship “High Life” is set on, which she stated she was set on shooting like a jail. Contained within an inexplicable, cube exterior is a collection of tight corridors that resemble a hospital’s hallways or hamster tunnels.

“When the time came to discuss the shape and blah-blah-blah, I said no. So many shapes have been investigated in science fiction movies,” Denis said. “Like, in ‘2001’ by Kubrick, the wheel. But … the fact that being out of the solar system in the void (means that they) could fly anything, a shoe.”

The deadening architecture of “High Life” reflects Denis’ fearful vision of humans extending their current infrastructural and bodily abuses into the future. Ultimately though, the film ends with an aspiration for compassion, returning to Monte and his daughter after the crucible has only left those two alive.

The stagnance of these antiseptic, sparse spaces is what lingers as the film’s defining nightmare. “So I thought, well, let’s make it like a jail with a corridor in the middle,” Denis said. “Nothing else. And the garden. And the fuck box.”

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].