Claire Denis On Buzz Sci-Fi ‘High Life’, Her “Knight” Robert Pattinson, & Coping With Personal Loss — Toronto Q&A


Claire Denis’ sci-fi High Life is one of the most anticipated world premieres at Toronto.

The French auteur makes her English-language debut on the story about a group of criminals sent into deep space. Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin and Lars Eidinger lead cast.

The ambitious European-U.S. co-production is the Beau Travail and White Materials director’s biggest budget film to date and includes a spacecraft designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. CAA and Wild Bunch rep sales.

We spoke to Denis about her new project, her appreciation for the Twilight series and how the loss of her mother during production of High Life took a heavy toll.

High Life represents a radical departure of sorts. Why did you want to go in this direction?

I don’t think it is. In a way this story is very close to many of my other stories. On paper it looks like a radical departure but it’s really very intimate.

But why did you want to tell an English-language story set in space?

My producer Oliver Dungey proposed an English-language film set in space about a femme fatale or a love that could be fatal. This is how I answered his question. In space, I suppose Russian, English or Chinese language would make most sense.

How did you find working in English?

I know my English isn’t great. Sometimes perhaps I sound childish. But I wanted these actors so much that it wasn’t an effort. I forgot about it. I was afraid to say the wrong word but they could correct me at times.

Who were your inspirations for the film? Did you find yourself re-watching Tarkovsky or Kubrick, for example?

My aesthetic was simple: it’s a jail. I wanted the interior of the space-ship to look like a prison. That was my only radical beginning in terms of aesthetics. The exterior was a sort of fortress. Because it is outside the solar system the ship didn’t need to be shaped like a tube. Tarkovsy, Kubrick, they were in my mind, I have seen all those films, but I thought more about jails. Of course, how can you forget 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Tarkovsky movie? But those were more elegiac. My film is more like a prison film, and the colors of prison films, and my main inspirations, to be honest, were my actors and actresses.

Tell me about the casting of Robert Pattinson and André Benjamin…

I was initially afraid Robert would be too young for the part but he wasn’t. I think he is a great young man and a wonderful young actor. He is intelligent, poetic, he is like a knight to me. I saw the four parts of the Twilight series when it was released. I was amazed by the two heroic young leads.

I was dreaming of working with André Benjamin. When we flew to Atlanta to meet him I think he was very surprised, that he thought it was a joke. Patricia Arquette was originally going to play the Juliette Binoche role but she had some schedule conflicts, but Juliette called me to ask if she could do it, which was perfect.

The filming process was said to be somewhat deconstructed. Why was that?

Absolutely not. We followed the script. We were very constructive. My films are not deconstructed. They are constructed in the way I like. I think some Americans think Europeans make ‘deconstructed’ movies but we don’t.

The industry is going through a period of intense self-examination at the moment. You once said in an interview you “couldn’t care less about the Weinstein affair.” Do you still feel that way and why?

I don’t think I was reported accurately. I have had my experiences, as Jimi Hendrix said. When you are a woman in a very weak position economically or psychologically, I understand [how such things happen]. But if you’re not, if you believe you can fight back, I was like that as a young woman. I think I was raised differently, in something of a boyish way. Women who were aggressed by Weinstein were often in-demand or in a weak position. That’s terrible. I can understand young actresses being afraid.

There has been much recent discussion about the lack of women directors at major film festivals. Do you think festivals which receive public funding should be made to have gender parity in their lineups?

I think it’s so much better to be chosen because the selectors like your film and not because you are a woman. I would be a little ashamed. I never felt like my films were at Cannes because I was a woman. I would have been terrified to be chosen because of my gender.

You have made films in the desert, in rural Africa, in the French suburbs, and now [set] in space…Where might you go next?

I have a project around the Mediterranean Sea. It’s like a dark spot in my mind these days. I’d also like to work again with Robert. Once wasn’t enough. I have a couple of movies I’m thinking about but I’m not sure. The truth is I’m afraid [of] the future…

It’s a crazy world our there…

It’s not the crazy world. It’s because when I was shooting this movie my mother died in my arms. I had to run to be with her. To see her pass away in my arms, I realized the extent to which life is just a thin little thread, so thin. It was a terrible moment. Once you lose your mother you become very fragile. There is no more protection; it’s only naked life.

I’m sorry to hear that. That’s very difficult…

I was very lucky to have her for so long. The death of a father is one thing but to lose my mother left me entirely uncovered and without protection. I was very close to my father but my mother was like a last link to childhood. Her death left me terrified and sad. I’m still sad.

Do you think that difficult process impacted how you made High Life?

I don’t know. Maybe in a year or two I will realize…Probably it did. Of course, it must have, I’m sure…She wanted the film to exist. She read the script. She liked it. She loved Robert, she loved Juliette [Binoche]. Even when she was in hospital she told me I must ‘work, work, don’t stop.’

High Life debuts on Sunday. At TIFF, Denis will receive the fifth annual Roger Ebert Golden Thumb Award and will be celebrated at an intimate reception on Monday, September 10.

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