“This is bullshit to me,” Claire Denis says when I call her an artist. She hates the word, and hates it being used to describe her. “I never think what I’m doing is something artistic,” she grimaces. “Cinema is something very carnal, very concrete. It’s not difficult and it only requires very little technique.”
This isn’t false modesty. Denis is certainly one of the great (I’m going to say it) artists of our time, but you can understand why she might be allergic to labels that reek of high-mindedness, or calculated self-importance. Denis’s pictures are awash in artistry, but she’s a ground-level director. She doesn’t make grandiose statements, and she doesn’t stage grandiose scenes. Everything feels lived-in, immediate, specific; her camera often remains unnaturally close to the faces and hands of her characters. When you’re that close to people, so close you might think you could touch them, you don’t necessarily think too hard about what their actions mean. At the same time, a more abstract and elliptical strain runs through Denis’s work. Her films are filled with mood-setting, nonnarrative passages. The storytelling is both fragmented and languorous; she’d rather show you someone dancing rather than clarify a plot point.
On the surface, High Life doesn’t quite seem like any other Claire Denis film. You could mistake it for an attempt at something conventional, something with a higher profile than her previous work: It’s in English, it’s set in space, and it stars Robert Pattinson. To some, that may seem like the natural next step in Denis’s evolution from the art house to the mainstream. She’s been making uncompromising movies for more than three decades, but in recent years, her profile seems to have risen, partly thanks to the increased availability of her work online, and partly because she is the rare female filmmaker regularly included in the virtual boys’ club of international auteurs. And now she’s made a science-fiction movie, but doesn’t want to call it science-fiction either.
Aside from the fact that she had to shoot High Life on a set (a first for the director), Denis doesn’t see the new film as much of a departure from her usual work. She’s not interested in a vision of humanity’s future, or the technical details of how humans could survive in space, so much as she’s interested in exploring isolation, entrapment, and the weird corners of human behavior. Pattinson plays Monte, a man who has raised his daughter, Willow (Jessie Ross), by himself in the loneliness of the cosmos, as their ship drifts in the vast emptiness of space. Through flashbacks, we see how they’ve wound up in this situation: Monte was a member of a group of convicts — male and female — who were sent from Earth, under the guidance of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), ostensibly to conduct experiments on a black hole. But instead, they were the ones who were experimented upon, as Dibs attempted to incubate human life in outer space.
“I wanted it to look like a prison film,” Denis tells me. It’s also, like many of her movies, about the powerful, twisted bonds of family. “A man alone in space, with a certain type of morality,” she reflects. “If he has his baby girl with him, does it mean they will start a new humanity, breaking a taboo and eventually being man and wife?” These ideas are hinted at in the film, but never shown — rather, they’re like thoughts left to linger in our minds. As High Life opens, we see Monte teaching his baby daughter the word taboo. Years later, when Willow is a teenager, he pushes her out of his bed after she tries to lie next to him. She doesn’t quite understand his concerns; she has never seen Earth, has never really known anybody else, and has not had to deal with anything resembling morality, or guilt, or shame. “She doesn’t know who else to love,” Denis observes.
To convey all this without veering into sensationalism requires a delicate balance, to say the least. And that requires actors who can express unspoken anxieties with merely a glance, or gesture. At one point, Monte and Willow encounter another spaceship, one much like their own, lost in space. “There might be … other people onboard,” Monte says, haltingly — he is both wary of the possibility and anticipating it. “So?” Willow asks him. He doesn’t quite know how to answer her, and the emotions that travel across Pattinson’s face as he struggles to respond could each be a movie on its own.
Sometimes in Denis’s work, these vaguely uncomfortable family relationships are downright scarring: 2013’s intensely disturbing Bastards is filled with twisted sex acts and cruelty, including one truly shocking revelation of incest. Sometimes, it’s an undercurrent, a faint whisper of unease. In 35 Shots of Rum (2008), a middle-aged widower wrestles with the fact that his grown daughter, with whom he has an unusually strong bond, will soon be leaving home; the film is steeped in a gentle, wandering melancholy without ever quite tipping over into something troubling, suggesting that such blurred lines are merely part of the mystery of human relationships.
Then there are the estranged teenage siblings of Nénette et Boni (1996). Living by himself, Boni (Grégoire Colin) is so constantly aroused that he finds something sexual in everything around him — from the dough he kneads in his pizza truck to the coffee machine beside his bed that he caresses with the ferocity of a lover. But he finds himself in an awkward position when his pregnant, agitating younger sister comes to stay with him. Much of the film unfolds through tight close-ups of faces and hands. But when Boni later assumes responsibility for his sister’s baby, those hands that not long ago were lustfully groping everything within reach are all of a sudden gently taking care of a fragile newborn. Watching it all, it’s hard not to feel like we’re seeing a truth about the world distilled to its essence — about how desire gives way to responsibility, and how indiscriminate lust can transform into boundless affection. It is both lovely and unsettling.
Denis loves characters who struggle with questions of morality, but she has no use for morality as a standard by which movies are judged. She’s bothered by the current trend toward making films that relay positive messages about the world and how to live in it. She doesn’t do heroes, and she tackles issues like race and sex and incest and colonialism in unexpected, often controversial ways. (This is another thing that makes her recent rise somewhat surprising, though certainly welcome.) She seems to love the idea of beauty emerging in the most unlikely places. In that sense, maybe the terrifying vacuum of space of High Life is not so different than the cockfighting ring of her second feature, 1990’s No Fear, No Die, in which two immigrant men — one from Benin, the other from the West Indies — make a living in Paris training and handling roosters for gruesome combat. (The men are played by Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé, two Denis regulars.) In that film, we see lots of harrowing footage of cockfights, but we also see the grace and care that these men show toward these doomed birds. “I went to see a guy who was raising roosters,” Denis recalls, “and I saw that if you own one, and it becomes a good fighter, it becomes your dearest possession ever. The people become crazy about the way they take care of it.”
By guiding us physically into these worlds, Denis allows us to exist within them, which perhaps allows us to see these characters and their actions differently. What makes her films so captivating is precisely this ability to exist on two seemingly contradictory planes of being: We gain a cosmic perspective through the sensuous reality presented to us onscreen. This tension has persisted throughout her work, but it was particularly pronounced in her masterpiece, Beau Travail (1999), a reimagining of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd among young French Foreign Legion soldiers in Africa. Instead of telling a straightforward story, Denis focuses on the soldiers’ training exercises, and the movie feels at times like it’s composed entirely of bodies running, fighting, scrambling, and sometimes dancing. Meanwhile, the music of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd plays on the soundtrack, lending everything a moody grandeur.
The style of Beau Travail was dictated partly by necessity while she was shooting in Djibouti. “We had no money and we had four weeks to shoot,” she recalls. Worried she’d run out of time, and hampered by all sorts of production delays and logistical problems, Denis shot as much as she could of her actors’ military training sessions, and stopped worrying too much about covering the script. This taught her the value of a particularly oblique style of storytelling, one which she has since developed even further. “The editor said, ‘Oh my God, this scene is missing, that scene is missing!’ But I saw that it was not a problem. The strength of doing it is very important in film. If worse comes to worst, you cannot sit down and complain. I will accept a hole in the story.” You can see such holes in Beau Travail’s unorthodox narrative, where key events unfold almost as afterthoughts, or flashes, while passages of labor or movement are extended to almost absurd degrees. Even better, Denis says, is to put those holes in deliberately. “I discovered I liked to write ellipses. Instead of being obliged to do it in the editing, I could write the film with a piece missing.” She says she prefers this to the idea of a story in which everything is methodically told, step by step. “If a moment is stretched, or something is missing, you have to jump a little bit. It gives you a different kind of emotion.”
It also allows you to reflect a little bit on what you’re watching. This is true of High Life as well, which makes its metaphoric quality clear from the outset, as we see Pattinson’s Monte jettisoning the corpses of the ship’s crew; the title card playfully appears over an image of the bodies all floating in space, as if in a dream. The story, told in fragmented fashion, glances across certain key plot points, while indulging all sorts of other bizarre elements. It is also surprisingly earthy, particularly in Binoche’s performance as the mad scientist determined to force her wards to procreate. The spaceship notoriously contains a room in which the crew can pleasure themselves — a “Fuckbox,” it’s called — and Denis gives us lengthy scenes of Binoche’s naked character gyrating and flailing madly atop a silver dildo. With her performance in this and the director’s previous effort, the delightfully demented romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In, it’s a side of the actress we haven’t seen much. “I was unhappy with the way she was filmed before,” Denis says. “She deserved more beauty and more wildness. We wanted her to be very fierce and beautiful.”
Pushing against the demure, slightly repressed roles that Binoche often plays has clearly freed something in her, and the animalistic vitality of her performance lends High Life an electric unpredictability. The passion with which Dibs moves in the Fuckbox contrasts sharply with the trancelike deliberation she demonstrates as she later harvests Monte’s sperm and uses it to impregnate another crew member. The contrasts don’t end there: That same crew member has recently been the victim of a brutal attempted rape. Dibs’s actions on her body, and on Monte’s, while not violent, are also a violation — and their consequences are even greater.
High Life may not quite be science fiction — it offers little in the way of speculation about the future, or about how technology may develop. (You could build a Fuckbox right now if you really wanted; you don’t need to go to space to do it.) But it does fit into the metaphoric strain of science fiction — allowing Denis to use the hermetically sealed, fantastical nature of her setting to further distill her obsessions. Maybe that’s what ultimately makes the quiet, determined tenderness with which Monte cares for his daughter, first as a baby and later as a teen, so profoundly moving, especially as we see his past and his life on Earth. This is a broken man who largely refuses connection, or pleasure. Living a monklike existence, he is the one crew member who refuses to use the Fuckbox. And yet here he is, all by himself, with a child that he did not want, and discovering within himself boundless reserves of both love and anguish. It’s the kind of predicament familiar to Denis’s protagonists. High Life is ultimately about a man who has walled himself off from all emotion and responsibility finally learning — at the far, desolate end of the universe and maybe even of human time itself — how to open himself to another being, and all the wonders and horrors that come with it.