Claire Denis is far beyond making her lasting mark on cinema. In 1974, at the age of 28, she earned her first Second Assistant Director gig on Dušan Makavejev’s disturbingly unforgettable arthouse essential Sweet Movie. Fifteen films later, she would embark on a flawless three-movie tear as Assistant Director on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), and Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), defying the stereotypical definition of the role in her invaluable creative contributions to each film. Not to mention, she squeezed in work as the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary last film, The Sacrifice (1986). All of this came before she ever translated her own visions to the screen, before she introduced us to her mind, her greatest offering.
In 1988, she released her first film as writer and director, Chocolat. The following 30 years resulted in 11 feature narratives with plenty of short and documentary work wedged between them. She’s made a career out of disregarding societal taboos, like in her portrayal of drag culture and trans life in I Can’t Sleep, in which she captures the essence of communal rejection and what it means to belong in a world that refuses you, ultimately conveying the ever-daunting and oppressive sterility of those in power as a source of the world’s evils in her own strange way.
Most of her films are incredibly strange, but strange in the most refreshing sense. There’s never a template. Watching a Denis film is like shooting a heavy dose of narrative originality straight into your veins, immediately subject to the soul of the character(s) she’ll consume you with. Sometimes that takes the form of a critique on masculinity through a violent French Legionnaire officer in Djibouti (Beau Travail), other times an exploration of AIDS, savagery, and human connection—too provocative for many to appreciate—through the carnal love of transatlantic vampires (Trouble Every Day).
Her examination of post-colonial West Africa (where she grew up and lived until she was 14) in the heart of civil war and uncontrollable turmoil through the lens of a white, French coffee plantation owner played by Isabelle Huppert in White Material is startlingly brilliant, likely never to escape your lingering thoughts. Her still, quiet, and calm meditation on the life of a mass transit conductor and his relationship with his grown-up daughter in 35 Shots of Rum is arresting. And it’s not only her writing and directing but her consistent collaboration with other creatives, like Stuart Staples (a.k.a. Tindersticks), the maestro behind her films’ breathtaking scores, and Agnès Godard, the cinematographer who’s adorned almost all of her films with lush filmic texture and compositional wonder.
Denis is a master of tone and mood, able to fashion a dark, grave sensuality as readily as she can a soft and sweet version, or a philosophical depth infused with hope as masterfully as one void of hope entirely. It’s not uncommon to name Denis the greatest living filmmaker alive at this point. She exists in a tier of filmmaking artistry that very, very few greats will ever ascend to. And her new film, High Life—her first in English—is a cementing of that truth.
The film opens on Monte (Robert Pattinson) taking tender care of a newborn child on an empty box-shaped spaceship hurtling towards a black hole in deep space. Flashbacks slowly let on what happened to the crew he left with, a crew made up of prisoners sentenced to death and sent on the trip to collect research data as an alternative, Monte one of them. Juliette Binoche plays a sinister, sensual witch of a doctor tasked with inseminating the women on the ship. There’s an elaborate masturbation chamber called the “Fuck Box,” a gorgeous green Edenic garden (complete with marijuana and a soil-toiling André 3000 named Tcherny), heaps of raw violence, another hypnotic Stuart Staples score, and an overwhelming sense of endless dread.
After writing an essay about the functionality of prison in the film, I got the chance to dig a little deeper in person. I sat down with Denis in the cozy, velvet, den-like lobby of The Bowery Hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on a sunny morning for some coffee, tea, and conversation.
I was at the New York Film Festival premiere last October and I heard you say in the Q&A that you chose the sci-fi arena because “space is the ultimate prison.”
Maybe my English is not good enough, but I thought in that film, for them, space is the ultimate prison. I think for any astro-physician, too. It’s a field of the unknown. It’s a field of research, you know? For those characters, yes, it’s the ultimate prison. Not only are they still in jail, but also their bodies are used, and by the time the film starts, they know it. Even if the mission was a success, they would be dead. There will be no return for sure.
Is that supposed to be a reflection of prison as an institution?
Prison is something everyone one day or another will think about. It’s something important that exists, you know? It’s part of a society. If you are out of the rule of a society, then, of course, there is prison or death or whatever. But I was mentioning something more important to me. It’s the use of the death penalty. I was born in a world where the death penalty existed in France and in Europe.
It doesn’t exist in France anymore, right?
Oh, no. Since ’82. It was an important thing for us when it was banned, when it was stopped by a very glorious pitch from a famous lawyer and the president. It was a great moment. It’s a moment when you feel something is happening that is purely a signal of—hmm, not generosity or humanity. It’s a reflection about humanity. It’s a very spiritual and physical moment when you are in a country and you’re told one day, “This is the end of the death penalty.” There won’t be any more [slides finger across throat]. Well, in France it was [lightly chops back of neck]. And for some reason, because I was there, I remember. I’ve been reading a book, of course, since I was a student—what brings the death penalty? What kind of security does it bring to us? The real problem, is re-education possible in a jail? Is it possible for someone to change? Or not? But even if a person cannot be re—I don’t know how to say it…
Mm, re-educated because redeemed is almost a Christian word. But even though someone went too far—not only because he’s crazy, but because he went too far ignoring [points to chest] in himself the partition between good and bad, you know? I think it’s better to keep that person in jail for life, but to kill that person…I think it’s evil. A bad signal. As if you can eradicate a life even as you know damn well in yourself that things can change. Things happen. No one knows. No one knows the future. For me, the death penalty is no future.
So you designed the setting of the characters in their seeming eternity to be an alternative death penalty?
No, it’s because I read an article once when I was in Texas. I went to Texas during Katrina because I had a friend in New Orleans, and after Katrina, I was afraid because I heard their house was destroyed and they were living in a tent. So, I flew to Houston. I had a friend in Houston. And I drove from Houston to New Orleans because there was no other way to go there at that time. Everything was destroyed. And I remember reading in the newspaper that a community somewhere in Texas was complaining about the cost of the penitentiary in their county. And also the fact that because of death row, to feed people, to get their clothes washed, and to have them with bed and comfort was indecent because so many people were having such a bad life, you know? And I thought, “I understand that, yeah.” It’s like this morning when I was listening on TV that it’s unfair to have social/medical ed for people who do not work because then people who work pay for people—I heard someone say “losers,” I think. It’s true, it’s unfair. But everything is unfair in life. And there is a sort of necessity if we believe we can all make the world better maybe by paying for medicine for people who are out of work. So, I think it’s important. I’m not a very generous person. But I think it makes people feel [takes deep breath], you know?
So would you say there is some thread of institutional justice taking place in High Life in the way the prisoners rebel even though it’s—,
Oh no, High Life is not an example of the perfect republic.
No, not perfect at all. The opposite.
The film does not have a political meaning. I made that film not to give a political lesson, of course not. And in a way, I think Monte’s character maybe was condemned to death for things he did before. He shows through this baby girl and his life with this baby how he could re-open himself to love, you know?
Would you consider yourself an existentialist then?
No. I’ve been reading Jean-Paul Sartre since I was young, but no. Not at all. I don’t want to consider myself anything. I don’t want to be part of a movement.
So where does the lack of hope in High Life come from?
Lack of hope? In a way, they have accepted the mission hoping something might happen because it’s better than Death Row. So, I would’ve said, “Do the same,” you know? I would have taken the chance, I’m sure.
What about once they’re deep into it and they all know?
Well, I mean, that’s different. That’s after. It’s like life, you know. As you get older, you reach closer and closer to the moment when your body is getting old and you are closer to death. There is a sentence in life. We are mortal. We know that. We live life for granted as a child, as a young person, but somewhere as you get older, you realize you are really mortal.
I kept thinking about a line from 35 Shots of Rum at the beginning when Josephine is in class and a guy in the class quotes Frantz Fanon, saying, “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Do you—
Yes, yes. I have to say yes. I agree with that. When I was reading Frantz Fanon at the very beginning—I was a teenager—I thought I understood that. I understood the way Frantz Fanon felt. He could no longer breathe. This is true, this is true. The way black people have been treated could make us choke. And now it’s strange because the way to survive for a lot of black people is to fight for the black community, as there is a community for this and a community for that. But I was born in a world where I thought there would be one time when there is no more separation—everyone is treated the same. And it’s not true.
Not yet, but it seems like a far-off possibility…
It’s not really on the way, you know? People are fighting for a community. But when I was a child, I thought there would only be one community in the world: human beings. No problem with color. Maybe the only problem would be to be sick, to be born with something wrong, to be blind. These things I understand being problems. But to be black, to be half-black…I don’t know, but I think Frantz Fanon described so well what he experienced and what we can still experience.
There’s a line in High Life where André 3000 says, “Even up here the black ones are the first to go.” Did you have race on the mind while you were writing the screenplay?
Oh, yeah. I wrote that line for André and I said, “Would you like to say that? and he said, “Yeah.”
How did he come onto the project? Was that just a casting move or did you reach out to him?
No, not at all, not casting. I’m a fan. I’ve liked André 3000 for a long time.
Outkast, too? Or just André’s stuff?
Outkast, too. Of course, of course! After I saw him as an actor in [Jimi: All Is by My Side]—he was acting as Jimi Hendrix—and it was so great, so I said I want to meet with him, and I contacted him and he said, “I’m not sure I can accept being in the film unless you come visit me in Atlanta,” so I went there. And we met. And he sort of trusted me.
Do you have a favorite Outkast album? I know that’s a tough question…
Oh, wow. Hm, I want to say all of them, but the problem was me, because I know now he doesn’t want to be Outkast anymore. He wants to do something else, you know? So, I don’t want to push him back into Outkast.
I also wanted to talk about sexuality and—
Wait, have you heard what he did on the new album of James, uh—
James Blake. Yeah, I love it.
I love everything he’s done with James Blake and Frank Ocean. His work with Frank Ocean is some of my favorite.
[Eyes start watering]…it brings tears to my eyes.
I feel you. I’ve been listening a lot lately, too. Which was why it was so great to see him in the film.
[Through tears, in earnest] Yeah, yeah!
I noticed that little bit where he leans over and smells the weed plant in the garden.
I wanted weed that he was supposed to roll, but then after 10 days [starts laughing] the real weed we had died. Lack of humidity and it was cold in Germany, so we had to get fake weed [keeps laughing].
Okay, so. Sexuality in the movie is really dark, or sinister is the way I saw it. It’s violent. It’s—
Sinister? I mean, it’s like in a jail, you know. It’s what happens in a jail. Sex is frustration. Either you masturbate and everyone knows or…that’s it.
The “Fuck Box?” What about the “Fuck Box?”
[Laughing] Yeah, the “Fuck Box.”
Yeah, it’s great!
It is great.
It’s a great way to masturbate. It’s a better way!
And the sexual violence? It was so realistic.
Especially one—the scene with the rape. It’s probably the only fight scene because he’s raping the girl. Can you imagine? It’s like being in a submarine for five or six years, you know? And then with all these desires, this young boy, he can smell sex, and suddenly he can’t resist. I was like that when I was a teenager. I would not resist my impulsion you know. I was not raping boys at school. But I think sex is so strong, you know? But it’s like in the army you cannot do it. Or in jail. Have you heard about violence in jail?
Yeah, I spent a couple years in Durham, North Carolina, and there was a lot of social movement for prison reform.
So, you know my film is soft compared to jail life. People are dying every day. They are raped every day.
It’s a terrible place.
Okay, lastly I wanted to talk about Stuart Staples and his band Tindersticks.
We’ve been working together for 20 years.
His score for High Life reminded me a lot of his score for White Material. It’s absolutely amazing. Do you work with him much on the score? Do you spend a lot of time in the studio with him?
Of course! His studio is in France now, so I travel there, and I listen. But he started working before we started shooting. He had written some of the score before while we were preparing. When we did the “Fuck Box” with Juliette, we had the playback score for Juliette. Stuart is a great companion for me.