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Master French filmmaker Claire Denis had never before produced a science fiction movie, or a project in English, for that matter, so her first foray into the genre is as cautious as fans of her work might expect.
Over its nearly two-hour runtime, High Life offers all the classic trappings of science fiction and genre projects: nonlinear storytelling; a nearly wordless opening act focused on the intimate interactions between a softened criminal (played by Robert Pattinson) and a small baby; a masturbation room, colloquially known as the “f**kbox,” equipped with a giant silver dildo that a sexy space Mengele (Juliette Binoche) rides to volcanic psychotropic orgasm; a mini Garden of Eden; frequent eye gouging; and the inevitability of death, as convicted criminals hurtle toward a black hole under false pretenses.
Somehow, Denis’ movie is not so much bleak as it is (very) darkly comedic, especially if you’re ready for it. It's also intensely human, as the uniformly rave reviews it has racked up since debuting at Cannes last year have noted. Denis does not historically love to explain her films, but her giggly interplay with Pattinson during a conversation with SYFY WIRE at the New York offices of the film’s distributor, A24, makes clear that the movie was made with a levity on set, if not in camera.
In brief, High Life tells the doomed saga of a space shuttle filled with criminals who were tricked into manning an experimental flight that was said to be trying to harvest energy from black holes. In truth, they were the harvesting experiments, as a Dr. Dibs (Binoche), a fellow criminal and mad fertility doctor, uses their fluids and wombs in flailing attempts to produce children in space. For the most part, she receives cooperation by bribing doomed inmates with drugs, trading pills (we’re guessing they’re space-age opioids) for tidy cups of semen and harvested eggs.
Pattinson’s character, Monte, is a more soulful sort — he murdered someone, sure, but he was young and it was over a dog, something people give John Wick a pass on — and has taken a vow of chastity. Frustrated at her ongoing failure and unable to keep a desire for her smoldering monkish holdout under control in the maddening vacuum of their lonely prison ship, Dibs mounts Monte in his sleep, extracting his long-guarded sperm in what Denis very frankly labels a rape scene.
If there’s one way to understand High Life, it’s that Denis and Pattinson share more laughs over the production of that scene than anything else — and it's not hard to laugh along with them.
Rob, you actively pursued Claire, showing up at her door and asking to work with her. Why did you want to work with her so much?
Denis: You don’t have to answer that. [laughs]
Pattinson: All her movies feel like they're not just made ... it doesn't feel like a director said, "Oh, I'm a professional film director, I'm making this because I have to make a movie." They all feel like a little part of her. I always find it interesting to find out what it is about a director that makes them feel that. But also, I always just thought the performances she always gets, it's across the board, there aren't really any bad performances in any of her movies. So I was just wanting to work with her as an insurance policy.
So Claire, why’d you say yes?
Pattinson: I paid her.
Denis: It didn’t take long. Meeting him, speaking with him, I understood that the choice was made, you know? There was nothing to think about.
This project had been in development for some time, but was there any hesitancy or new visual language you had to learn to make a science fiction movie?
Denis: For me, really, no. It was like any film I've made, except the location was in a spaceship, you know? But I never thought, wow, this is a new angle in my life and blah, blah, blah. The only reason I was a little bit afraid was because it's in English, but that's all.
At least there’s not a ton of dialogue, that must have helped.
Denis: No, I never use too much dialogue, but it's not a question of dialogue or not dialogue, you know? Even if there is no dialogue, to make a film in English means you have to think in English. Also, the crew was German. People keep telling me, "Oh, there is not much dialogue in your films." But what's the difference if the film says a lot? Sometimes, dialogue is just noise — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it says nothing, you know?
The dialogue seems to be now, the quantity is like a recipe. If you want to bake a cake, you have to put in 200 grams of this and that, sugar, etc. It's like voiceover. Do we need a voiceover or no? That is a big question in a film, much more important than dialogue. For me was really important.
There’s a fair amount of voiceover here — was that ever a debate?
Denis: No, even before I met Rob I knew that there must be a voiceover because I wanted to start with the character alone with the baby.
Not that I was checking my watch at all, but the opening with just Rob and the baby, that’s a significant chunk of time. Is it hard to get a baby to act? Did you just let the camera roll?
Denis: Do we direct? No, you have to create a mood.
Pattinson: It’s so difficult to get a film crew to be quiet. It was the most gentle set. It was a lot of having to keep the baby asleep and everyone, no matter who they were, there was never anyone making a peep, ever. That was really unusual, especially because we had little tiny rooms, when it would have been really loud.
Denis: When you say small rooms, these were of course rooms made for cinema. So it was made out of wood and stuff and when we started shooting with little Scarlet, as soon as she slept in your bed, in the bed, I felt that suddenly the set was real. Immediately it became real. She was really sleeping.
It takes some time to earn a baby’s trust.
Pattinson: The first couple of days, when I'd take her, she would get really upset with me for taking her away from her parents, but I know her parents really well, so that wasn’t so hard. I would give her back after finishing shooting, but then I realized every single time she got wrenched away, she'd be really upset. So I was like, "OK, I'm just going to stay with her the whole day." Because if she didn't see her parents, it was fine.
But it was also a question of keeping her constantly distracted the whole time. Normally, you know, you shoot a scene and then you leave set. But it was really cold in Cologne, where we were shooting, so I would just stay on set, trying to think of things to entertain a baby for hours. I was constantly running through the trees at the end. You had to think of new stuff. It was only about two weeks, and originally you could go just look at some leaves, "Ooh Scarlett, look at this leaf!" After five days she'd be like, "I'm sick of looking at leaves." And I'd be like, “OK, are we shooting yet?” I'd spend like three hours babysitting.
One of the most satisfying things you've ever done, when you're trying to shoot a scene but also trying to combine it with getting her to go to sleep, and if she goes to sleep in the shot, it would be glorious. It’s like scoring a perfect goal.
Bonding with the baby is good prep work, then.
Pattinson: There’s something deeply traumatic, especially when it's not your baby and she's crying in your arms, you will do literally everything to stop her crying. And her parents are watching the monitor as well.
Denis: Stop it, you’re killing me, you’re killing me. There was one moment where he said, “I don’t want to yell too loud.”
There was that moment where you have to be very frustrated with the baby.
Pattinson: That was definitely a moment where I did the take and then said, “OK, take her!”
Claire, a lot of your movies deal with fatherhood. What is interesting about that to you?
Denis: Because I don't remember my father as the mast of my life. Of course I loved my father, but I mean there is something in filmmaking, it makes you realize other things that you never did realize in your own life. If a guy like Robert Mitchum is suddenly very gentle with an animal or with a child, somehow you feel the world is moving, because in film, every character is iconic, you know? And if this character is doing things as natural as feeding a baby, suddenly it changes completely the balance of the feelings. It's beautiful.
I think many films could be made of that type. You know, there is always something to discover with the relation between a grownup and a child. It's not me. I'm not obsessed by fathers. I'm obsessed by film.
Robert, the scene you shoot with Juliette, when she mounts you, and you’re mostly unconscious. How was that to film?
Denis: She’s raping him.
Right, yeah. Your eyes are closed the whole time. How hard was that to film?
Pattinson: Well, for me it was quite easy. It was very strange because I have my eyes closed the whole time, so I had absolutely no idea until I saw the movie. I think it was pretty spectacular.
Denis: She took your hand and then your fingers and then the last thing I said to you, "Maybe you feel something, a little bit."
He gave a little bit of a smile at one point.
Denis: We did one take completely unconscious, and then one slightly conscious.
Pattinson: Because they are, they're attracted to each other—
Denis: Yeah, she’s a foxy lady.
Pattinson: He's enforcing that discipline on himself. But really it's kind of like, what are you doing all that for? You could be in a spaceship, having sex with Juliette Binoche all the time. What's the problem with that?
So what was it like watching that the first time?
Pattinson: I remember seeing the script, the dialogue for that, I was like, "Wow, okay."
Denis: Fill me, fill me Monte! [laughing]
Pattinson: I spoke to the translator, and I was like, "Andy, I don't really think that girls say like, 'I want you to fill me up,' I think that's a porno thing." And he's like, "Rob, you obviously haven't had sex with a guy before." I did think it was quite funny when she was walking through. I did see it kind of in the corner of my eyes, when she's drifting through a spaceship with my cum in her hands. I think a lot of it is very funny.
High Life is in theaters now.