2001: A Space Odyssey. Stalker. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Under the Skin. All of the best sci-fi movies have excelled by shrouding the familiar elements of a genre — space travel, alien visitors, alternate dimensions — in ambiguity that challenges the audience’s understanding of these concepts. Add to that list High Life, the first English-language film from French master Claire Denis. Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, André “3000” Benjamin, and Juliette Binoche play a collection of inmates condemned to live out the rest of their days in orbit, undertaking doomed missions to explore black holes in exchange for commuted sentences. Disabuse yourself of any expectations of galactic derring-do in the vein of Star Wars now; Denis is far more interested in the biological properties of orgasm.
One scene in which a fully nude Binoche straddles a dildo contraption referred to as “the fuckbox” has already made waves among crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere earlier this week, but it’s no mere provocation. Denis studiously explores the outer limits of the human body in an inhospitable environment, dousing her film in blood, saliva, semen, and breast milk. Bodies twist and contort, even exploding in one harrowing scene involving a process known as “spaghettification.” Thought itself starts to break down, hinted at early on when Pattinson’s captive astronaut slowly teaches his infant daughter the word “taboo” syllable by syllable. It’s the first film in a long time set in another world that legitimately feels like it may have come from one.
During a rare spare moment up in Toronto, Denis sat down with Vulture at Hendrik’s (think overstuffed leather booths, bossa nova covers of ’80s pop hits) shortly before she unveiled her film for a fresh crowd. While the premiere wasn’t quite what she had hoped for, she had plenty to say about working with the one and only RPattz, the infinite void of the cosmos, and, of course, edging.
How have you been finding the festival so far?
Because this time the film got a Gala premiere, there was a pressure I’ve never experienced in Toronto. And I hated the place where the film was screened. The seats are so far from the screen, I was lost. The sound is not warm enough. The red carpet scene is, eh, [looks away].
You’re here for the cinema, and don’t care much for the glamour?
I understand the glamour, and it’s nice, in a way. It’s so nice to see Mia, so beautiful, and Robert, all the girls screaming his name. I like that much, I’ve always enjoyed that. I am like a groupie, in a way, a groupie for the actors. The other night was a little bit rough, though, yes.
That’s a great place to start, actually. The main players in this film have radically different styles of acting — what did you see in each of them that you wanted in High Life?
I will start with Juliette, because she was never part of the plan. I wanted this film to have no French person. I knew Juliette speaks good English, I had just finished another film with her, but for three years I was expecting to have Dr. Dibs interpreted by Patricia Arquette. Then, because of the delay in production, she had to start work on a TV movie. Juliette was with me doing promotion for [Let the Sunshine In], and she said, “You know, Claire, if you want, I would love to be that doctor.” I said, “Ah-ha, but we must change it completely.” When I met Patricia, she impressed me so much with this femininity, you know? And with Juliette, I wanted to change that feminine persona into something closer to a magician, a magician of reproduction. “A shaman of sperm,” as Robert says. I thought that Juliette could be the queen of the night, like a mother in an opera. I told her, “I had an idea, if you like it. This woman, when she left jail to enter the ship for her sentence, she decided never to cut her hair again. So by the time we see her, she has grown a gorgeous, long braid.” It helps a lot to communicate time in a bodily way.
I understand Robert Pattinson’s role was originally envisioned for Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Of course, I never met Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was dreaming when I wrote the script. I thought that this is a man who has grown tired of life. He is a convict, and he doesn’t care if he stays on death row for another year or another day. He wants nothing. That’s why he has no interests that are sexual, and doesn’t want to give away his fluids. He’s a sort of monk, but not really a monk, just someone who’s ready to die. Then when the baby came, he felt he had a responsibility to stay alive. When Philip died in a — not quite a similar way, but in a self-destructive way. It came as a shock, a gigantic sadness. I watched more of his films, and came to love him. The casting director suggested Robert, who I first thought was too young. But he wanted to meet with me, and he said he would accept another part. I said, “No, he is too iconic. I am afraid of who he is.” I think he’s great, I had seen his movies with David Cronenberg. I knew what kind of actor he was, but he still worried me. In the end, when I met him, something changed. He was not trying to convince me. He sat on the couch, and said, “You can take me if you want. I have nothing to offer.” I was so touched. I forgot he was a beautiful young man, like a knight in the chivalry who can still be condemned to juvie for killing a kid. I saw in him virginity.
Robert has a lot of fans, many of them young and female, who are now taking more of an interest in your work because of this film. For someone who’s unfamiliar with your movies, how would you recommend they approach them?
I don’t even want to think of that! If I was afraid of Robert, that was the reason. If he convinced me, it’s because there was such naked youth in him. Pretty, professional, but so open. When we were shooting, staying in the hotel, going to the studio, there were no girls. No screaming. Just Robert.
This is your first film in the English language, and your first with major Hollywood actors. Was this at all motivated by a desire to reach a wider audience?
One of the producers, Oliver Dungey, came to me six years ago and asked me if I would like to do a film for him, in English. He meant England, at the time. He wanted me to think about the idea of the “femme fatale.” I came home and thought, Hmm, why femme fatale? A long time ago, I had in mind a story of an astronaut lost in space, far from the solar system. Everyone is dead, leaving him alone with a baby girl. I knew they would die in that place, never to go home. When she’s growing, turning of age, the only possible man for her will be her father. And for him, she will become a femme fatale in the realest sense: deadly, or rather, of death. I told the producer that it would have to be in space, where people can speak Russian or England’s English or American English, then I could try.
The technological designs in the space station reminded me a lot of H.R. Giger’s work on Alien. Could you talk me through the process of imagining the look of the set?
I started when we were writing the script to design the jail like a box. For me, this set is first a penitentiary. I wanted this place to look like a jail, with a corridor in the middle, and cells on the side. Then a lower part with a garden and an airlock, then even lower, capsules and an energy generator. On the bottom level, there’s the technology that hasn’t been invented yet, a harmony between matter and anti-matter, hydrogen and anti-hydrogen. But the origin was always a jail.
The first scene, where Robert drops his wrench and it vanishes in the blackness of space, I felt such terror. Are you frightened of space?
Yeah. That’s why that shot was so important, you see the tool falling forever. Silence, and then it’s gone. It’s the unknown, an endless nothingness, and that’s very frightening for me.
High Life is a very sexual film — we see all these biological process of procreation — but do you consider that to be synonymous with an erotic film? Do you find these images of sexuality arousing for you, as a filmmaker and viewer?
I thought, even before I started writing the script, about two things. In Dr. Strangelove, when the general says, “This is all a matter of fluids!” I said, “Oh, wow, this is it. Fluids!” In a place like this, where there is no hope of return and you realize you’ve been used like a guinea pig and that the reward is nothing after all, it is its own kind of death row. In this jail, you are alone and yet close, surrounded by the smell of bodies, fluids are being transformed by machine, this all creates an incredible closeness that is very erotic to me. But it is a painful eroticism, in a way, because they want something and cannot get their satisfaction.
American audiences have a tendency to fixate on sexuality, especially strange or deviant sexual activity, such as the “fuckbox.” Are you concerned that viewers may not see that as part of a bigger picture?
In the original script, it’s called the “love machine.” But everyone who saw it said, “Oh, ‘love machine’ is so French.” So, fuckbox. But there are two scenes that are most important for the audience. There’s the garden, which is the only place for them to remember life on Earth. The other is the fuckbox, a terrible place to be alone, not like masturbating in a bed. The privacy in the fuckbox is horrible, and to try to come is impossible. It looks like a sword! If they fixate on that, then they are getting the bigger picture.
I think maybe I’ve misunderstood. In the fuckbox, Dr. Dibs doesn’t achieve orgasm?
No, she’s near orgasm. This is why she says, while raping Monte, “I know that this time I will feel you, I will feel it.” In the fuckbox, you cannot feel enough. It is too mechanical.
In America, we refer to this sort of thing as “edging,” the practice of bringing yourself right up to the brink of coming without letting yourself have it. There’s supposed to be a pleasure in that self-torment.
That’s what she’s doing, yeah. “Edging!” That’s great. It is a pleasurable sensation that leaves only frustration. Perfect.
In what way is High Life a personal film for you?
When I was working on Trouble Every Day with Vincent Gallo, I would joke with him, “You behave as if you are the last man in the universe!” It became a constant joke between us, and I realized it has a meaning.
I don’t have a career in mind, I don’t think that I’ll do this or do that. These things come to me. I’m a daydreamer. I listen to music, I feel things, and I think, Okay, I can try that. I’m not even certain that my work is personal, or that I am even original. I have mostly doubt.
This interview has been edited and condensed.