May 21st, 2018 / 0 comments


Claire Denis confirms to Robert Pattinson re High Life when he asks “‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘It’s already too late. It’s you or nobody else.’”

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Claire Denis talks High Life with Alice Gregory from The New Yorker.  Please note that the extract below contains ****CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS****

“Time is very slow and yet very fast,” she said, without making eye contact. “Astrophysicists say it does not even really exist.” (We conducted all our conversations in English, which Denis speaks fluently, with some odd turns of phrase.) She was in the final weeks of editing “High Life,” her English-language début, about a band of convicts sent into space to harvest energy from a black hole, and had rescheduled our plans several times. I was left with the impression of trying to coax, cajole, and ultimately capture a particularly dexterous pet—and with the sense that she felt my presence was a waste of time, at a moment when she needed all that she could get.

“High Life,” which cost millions more to make than any of Denis’s previous films, seems, on its surface, dramatically divergent from the rest of her body of work, yet versions of its premise swirled inside Denis’s mind for more than a decade. For years, she had wanted to tell the story of the last person in the world. In the film, the galactic convicts perish one by one. Only a single felon survives, along with his daughter, who was born on the spaceship. (Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist who a decade ago erected waterfalls in the East River, designed the spaceship for the movie.) Their relationship—literally forged in a vacuum, with a whiff of the taboo—was her primary interest in the story. “It’s feminine and masculine,” Denis said. “It’s family blood but it’s not the same sex.”

The script, which Denis wrote with her longtime screenwriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau, took years to complete. (Zadie Smith and Nick Laird worked on a draft that Denis ultimately rejected.) Though Denis treats scripts as provisional and merely suggestive documents, hers are full of vivid sensory detail. When “High Life” ’s main character, played by Robert Pattinson, is introduced, he is “pressed against the exterior of the spaceship, like a mountain climber against a sheer cliff face.” Later, when he changes out of his spacesuit, he does so “like a knight removing armor.”

Denis saw Pattinson in “Twilight,” she said, and was struck by his “heartrending charisma.” She had wanted someone older for “High Life”—she thought at one point of Philip Seymour Hoffman—but after meeting with Pattinson in Los Angeles and Paris she realized that “he was already in the film.” She went on, “When he said to me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘It’s already too late. It’s you or nobody else.’ ” She chose “High Life” ’s other stars, including Juliette Binoche and the English model and actress Mia Goth, with similarly instinctual possessiveness. In the summer of 2015, Denis and her producer, Oliver Dungey, flew to Atlanta to meet André Benjamin, the rapper, actor, producer, adroit hat-wearer, and all-around cultural icon, better known by his stage name, André 3000, and for his flamboyant role in the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast. Denis had enjoyed Benjamin’s lead performance in “All Is by My Side,” a 2014 biopic of Jimi Hendrix, and she had got it in her mind that he should play a part in “High Life.”

Similarly, in “High Life,” some of the convicts are black, but they are not a message-telegraphing majority. When the film’s American producers read the script, they urged Denis to change the fact that the first character to die was a black man. In the U.S. today, they told her, this was just not done. For Americans, Denis said, the problem of racism “is buried so deep. For me, it was not deep.” She refused to change the plot, writing in more dialogue instead. In the final version, André Benjamin’s character says, “See? Even in outer space, the black ones are the first to die.”

With “High Life,” Denis will inevitably receive more international attention than she ever has, but for years many filmmakers have spoken of her as a sort of secret saint. Along with Barry Jenkins, the director Josh Safdie is an admirer, and Greta Gerwig has said that seeing Denis’s “Beau Travail” (1999) made her want to make movies of her own.

Unlike Denis’s past movies, which were shot on location, mostly in France and Africa, “High Life” was largely filmed at a studio in Cologne, during two months last fall. The cast and Denis stayed at a hotel thirty minutes away. The drive, made each morning and night—often with a P.A. behind the wheel who was described to me as “the worst driver in the history of mankind”—took them past oil refineries, sausage factories, and tractor-trailer bordellos that were parked, with German efficiency, along the highway exits.

By all reports, it was a trying experience. Denis was unused to filming in a studio. She made scene changes constantly and with little warning, sometimes by text message. Benjamin described an atmosphere of inadvertent method acting. “These convicts are all supposed to be from different places—they don’t know one another at first, and they’re just trying to make it,” he said. “And, on set, it was the same! I’m this guy from Atlanta, Claire’s French, obviously, most of the guys on set are German, the actors didn’t know each other. It was a trip.” Robert Pattinson, who, several people said, spent much of his time on set asking existential questions—Wait, who am I in this movieWhat are we making here?—told me, “It’s a very abstract way of working. It feels like experimental theatre, frankly.”

Lauren said, “A lot of people were thinking, This is good for my résumé, but I wish I weren’t here.” He continued, “I think, if you make a movie with Claire, you can make any movie.” He compared the process to over-preparing for the SATs, or training at high altitudes, so that your performance at sea level feels easier on game day. At an early color-test screening, held at an ornate theatre in Cologne, Denis’s voice was the only one in the room, saying, “Merde! Crap! What are we doing? Why am I here?” Lauren said he thought “everyone sort of took it personally.”

At the end of each day, the cast and crew convened at the hotel bar. “Everyone would sort of be sitting at different parts of the bar, and she’d walk in and it was, like, Shit! Claire’s here!” Lauren recalled. “I saw a lot of people wanting to leave many, many times, but they stayed. They stay because they love her—even though they can’t stand her.”

Denis does not deny such behavior. “I can be the worst person, the meanest person on a set,” she said. “Shouting, screaming, complaining. I don’t have a lot of respect for myself as a director. People accept me the way I am, because they know I’m not faking. Probably.”

Hamilton recalled witnessing the initial meeting between Denis and Pattinson, in Los Angeles, and feeling like “these are two people on a date, and I really shouldn’t be here, maybe I should actually remove myself?” With obvious pride, Denis recounted how Pattinson took the train from London to visit her in Paris. “He came to me like a friend,” she told me. “You know, in London, Robert has to hide because of girls?” (A representative for Pattinson said, “He doesn’t hide from anyone.”) Lauren told me, “Claire likes to be wooed. She wants her actors and actresses to want her as much as she wants them.” He said that on set “they become, metaphorically, either her babies or her lovers—it’s a bit hard to tell which.”

The adoration is reciprocal, in large part because of the sustained and obsessive attention Denis pays her actors, an absorption that resembles love.”

You can read the full interview by clicking on the hyperlink above.

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