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Translation by Laura, RPWW (beware of spoilers):
Blood Vessel (Bloody Spaceship – NB : In French the words vessel and spaceship are the same : VAISSEAU sot they used a word game)
For her first entirely in English movie, Claire Denis take us on board of a spaceship full of convicts – Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Claire Tran… Sentenced to find new sources of energies near a black hole, they’re also the Guinea pigs for a reproduction experiment lead by a troubling/troubled scientist (Juliette Binoche). Following from her ‘Trouble Every Day’ (2001), the filmmaker presents ‘High Life’, a sci-fi movie, beautiful and rough, maybe one of the darkest and most metaphysic movie about space. With her, we tried understanding how this atmospheric ‘thing’ (space) could be that personal.
In ‘High Life’, space, infinitely big, is linked to prison, imprisonment. What does this paradox mean?
In a book written by scientist Stephen Hawking, it was said reproduction in space was very difficult. But then, it is possibly the only solution to go further than the solar system as only one human life won’t suffice to go to the end of the travel. At the same time, this place is the only intriguing zone left of space, with the dark matter and black holes. I told myself that a country as the United States could propose to young people, sentenced to death, the choice to sacrifice their life to such a mission instead of waiting in the death row. For me, the beginning of this movie has always been this man, all alone in a spaceship because he lost all his companions and all he has left are a baby and a garden, only trace of their origins from earth. He cannot commit suicide because he would have to kill the baby first.
Would you say the spatial conquest is a need to own a place which should not be owned?
The astrophysicist and philosopher Aurélien Barrau enlightened us, my co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau and myself, about the spacio-temporal stories and what we know about black holes nowadays. I think it is worth it to go into space. The problem being the idea of conquest… We were filming in a studio in Cologne, where the European Center of astronauts is, and we could observe the team in the international station. At that time I thought it was less military, less conquering in the Russian uniform than the one from NASA. That is why I chose this one as a model. I hate these pictures of Americans in white in shiny spaceships…. We won’t conquer space anyway.
In 2014, you met with the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, known for his work mixing nature and technology, passionate about black holes, you even directed your short movie ‘Contact’, abstract movie, based on one of his future installation. How did he influence you for ‘High Life’?
Five years ago, a producer asked me if I wanted to direct an English movie, and I made him read a synopsis which was the start of ‘High Life’. He had wanted us to go see Olafur who became a companion. In ‘contact’ as in ‘High Life’, I worked with the yellow light he invented for his installation called ‘The Weather Project’ for the Tate Modern in London in 2003. After ‘contact’, I spent four years to make ‘High Life’ which was complemented by Eliasson.
Where does the rectangular form of the spaceship come from?
It came to me while writing the script with Jean-Pol. I told myself it needed to be a prison, that is to say a sort of box with a central corridor, cells, and at the lower level, the ‘fuck box’ (a room in which the passengers can make themselves come thanks to machinery).
Your first short movie, ‘Le 15 Mai’ was inspired by Philip K. Dick: what kind of importance does this author have in all your movies?
When I was a girl, and I was living in Yaoundé in Cameroun, I was already hooked on sci-fi books. After coming back to France, I studied at IDHEC and I had a partner who was interested in sci-fi too, so obviously to Philip K. Dick. For ‘High Life’, I started with all I loved about the author: depict convicts in a sort of utopia.
The editing process, at some point, links a scene where the lead character has a tool in space and then a close-up of a stone being thrown in a well after using it as a weapon while being a young boy. Is this a nod to the infamous scene with the weapon-tool from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ by Stanley Kubrick?
Maybe unconsciously. It’s unforgettable. I thought of the movie in its entirety, telling myself that my economy was different. ‘2001’ is like proof of the space existence, it gave me the possibility to make a movie which did not need to represent the same thing, as if we could do everything after that. But the well and the falling stone I got that from the movie ‘Stalker’ (1981) by Andreï Tarkovski. It’s the close-up which scares me the most, when the stalker is with the dog and and one of the two men throw the stone in the well, the well without an end. When Aurélien Barrau told me that, the place where my heroes were, four years after leaving the solar system at 90% of the light speed, the void and the body fall were without an end., I immediately thought of the well from ‘Stalker’. It’s the scene making my fear of infinity real. There’s a dog too in ‘Nostalgia’ (1985 by Tarkovski too). These humans’ companions makes us realize how small/little we are. That’s why I wanted dogs in my movie.
In the contrast between organic and technology, we feel a sort of apprehension linked to the idea of the humans being above, of transhumanism…
I am not really anxious about that, really. I really wanted everything to be about fluids. I borrowed that one from Stanley Kubrick: at the beginning of ‘Doctor Stangelove’, one of the characters talks about the importance of body fluids. In this box that is the spaceship, there is not to reprogram life and we need to recycle the substances… Because they leave forever.
The idea of taboo settles rapidly in the movie: since the start, the lead explains to the baby that human beings are not supposed to eat their shit but at the same time they have to feed from recycled substances to be able to survive on the ship.
When he explains that, it is like he already knows what is going to happen. He tells the baby ‘it’s a taboo’, knowing that, a few years later, another taboo is going to be broken, because his daughter won’t have any other man than himself.
While the movie was introduced in Toronto last September, we heard about nauseas, fainting. Do you think it’s because of the fluids (sperm, breast milk, blood…)?
Robert Pattinson showed me these reactions on Twitter. Seriously, people are borderline… I am really worried about this regression. In the scene which shocked some people, Juliette Binoche’s character is like a high priestess holding in her hands the sperm of her adored monk (she just stole it from him to inseminate another passenger). I thought it was enough of a secondary level so that people don’t faint or vomit.
Sexuality and reproduction are separate things in the movie. For the sexuality there’s the fuck room and for the reproduction there are pipettes. Why?
After reading books after books about prisons and jail systems, I told myself that, if reproduction was linked to sexuality the travel would be very short, that revolution would strike. I read the journal of a sailor from Bounty, who told who everything got messed up when women came on board. From the time we experience sexuality – man woman, man man or woman woman, whatever, dictated by desire, it does not work, it’s impossible to have rules, would it be in the prison system or maritime system. That’s why I went with the idea of a machine to make yourself come and that reproduction would be completely separated from sexual pleasure.
The crew treats the scientist responsible for the reproduction experiment like a witch. What does this mean to you?
In the movie, she is the more alive one. She is the master of life, she is not scared anymore. In the end, she already paid her debt, so she want to enjoy herself again and again and to succeed in her experiments, nothing else. She has that kind of freedom, that’s why she is the only one not wearing red and that her hair can grow during the whole travel while the hero cannot stop shaving his beard.
‘Let the sunshine in’ (2017) was based on memories, that you mixed with Christine Angot’s. Does ‘High Life’ have a bit of autobiography in it too?
The character played by Mia Goth, a young lady who does not want children, who wants to escape the ship and disappear, is a bit like me when I was a teenager. I did hate children at all but I did not want to be trapped. The hero is a sort of Knight of the Round Table who thinks chastity will hep him survive, it is not me at all. And for the scientist, I thought of Patricia Arquette when I wrote it but she was not available at the same time as Robert Pattinson to film. Juliette Binoche, who I was working with for ‘Let the sunshine in’ told me ‘but me?’ and I answered ‘Okay, let’s continue then’. I did not really think of Robert Pattinson, the hero was for me an older man, tired by life and who did not want anything anymore, and who did not want to be dictated by his sexual desires or his relationships with others. Robert heard about the project from the casting director and his agent, and he contacted me. Really, I thought it was not possible, I could not make the character younger, and by seeing Robert so much, I became addicted, like his groupies. I have watched the ‘Twilight’ movies. The character he played had a past, and he was scared to contaminate the girl he loved, it touched me a lot.
You are passionate about plants. In ‘Trouble Every day’ as in this movie, you combine vegetal to technology, which creates a sort of tension…
I bother the whole neighborhood of my building with my plants in the courtyard. I brought one from Cameroun and I don’t even know what to do with it, it grows in my bathtub. We don’t see ourselves growing old when we are children, we don’t see ourselves becoming older as adults, but plants, it’s an extraordinary time scale. They have earth memory, yard memory and what falls from the sky on them. I think I inherited this from my mother: we happened to live in a small flat and to still have a plant: it changes everything. In the movie, the greenhouse is the only place the characters feel good.
Robert Pattinson said that until the last minute you did not have the baby and that you missed an actress but you never panicked.
He is so nice! For the baby, we were a bit sentenced to work with twins (schedules for children are legally supervised). But I did not like them. It’s not that they were not good enough but I have a twin and I hate the idea of people being identical and interchangeable. And it happened that my mother, at the beginning of filming in Cologne, was dying in a Parisian hospital. A Saturday morning, I took the train and spent the whole weekend with her. When I came back to Cologne, Robert was waiting for me in the hotel lobby and told me ‘You know Claire I think you’re right about the twins, I don’t really feel them’. I was still carried by my dying mother’s strength, everything seemed little compared to it. So I told Robert ‘Tomorrow, I won’t film with the twins’. He answered me: ‘My best friend from childhood has a daughter she is 12 months and I adore her, do you allow me to call him?’ Of course I told him yes! And then, right there, everyone was happy.