‘Why would something seem perverse if there’s no one else around?’ French auteur Claire Denis talks taboos and black holes with Robert Pattinson, the star of her existential sex odyssey
Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Space doesn’t owe you anything. The sheltering mass above us is a place where our morals, our passions and our belief systems are reduced to dots of faraway junk. It doesn’t care about birth and death, love and hate, the mental and the physical, the hallowed and the taboo. To gaze into space is to witness the possibility of true transgression, the terrifying and galvanising freedom of a vacuum where the rules that hold the Earth together simply don’t apply.
It’s no great surprise, then, that space has an intoxicating hold over a filmmaker like Claire Denis. In the French auteur’s first English-language film High Life, a group of prisoners shuttle to the edges of a black hole in exchange for their freedom. On board, inmates are sold another Faustian pact: time alone in a self- pleasuring booth – known as the ‘fuck box’ – in return for sexual experiments carried out with Victorian savagery by Juliette Binoche. Robert Pattinson plays Monte, whose semen is used to impregnate prisonmate Boyse (Mia Goth) against his will, and who is forced to raise the child on his own after the crew is wiped out. Alone together in space, the father-daughter relationship drifts into murkiness beyond the platonic.
“When you take away all of the world’s mechanisms of judgment, how would you behave?” Pattinson asks me, wheeling around a philosophical cul-de-sac. “How would you act if you knew that no one could judge you? How does this affect our understanding of love?”
Denis has always been fascinated to see what happens when no one is looking. In the closing salvo of her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail, Denis Lavant dances alone in a dark nightclub having been fired from his high-ranking post in the French Legionnaires. He spins across the screen like a wurlitzer dislodged from its mechanisms, free, at last, from a lifetime of repressed queerness. Her debut, 1988’s Chocolat, follows a French woman into colonial Cameroon, where she falls in love with the family’s servant. Unlike the freedoms explored behind closed doors in Beau Travail, Chocolat tells a story of forbidden lust and embedded racial prejudice through agonising moments of silence.
To express his appreciation of her work and its dualities, Pattinson gave Denis a picture of Henri Laurens’ second world war-era sculpture, “Le Grand Adieu”. The shape of a parent curved over her child to create a protective pocket, the piece was regarded as an act of rebellion against Nazi oppression, and a portrayal of the intimate and freeing sensuality of family bonds that thrive in the quietest moments.
For an actor who rose to A-list fame in the afterglow of the Twilight series, Pattinson has spent the best part of a decade invested in flawed characters. The riskier end of his repertoire – his turn as an accident-prone bank robber in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time (2017), for example – hint at career sabotage. “I want to work with directors where you know, no matter what, you’ll be in their film,” he says. “It’s not going to be your film.” Alone on screen for the largest part of High Life, immersed in the vast meaninglessness of space, there’s a controlled wildness to Pattinson that feels freer, and truer, than ever. It’s at this particular point of the Venn diagram that he and Denis meet.
Tell me about your first meeting with Claire, Robert. Inspired by the script, you handed her a picture of a Henri Laurens statue.
Robert Pattinson: When I first got in touch (with Claire) I would show her things. I think that a lot of directors would have been like, ‘What are you talking about?’ The sculpture that I showed her was of a woman cradling a child. It was an abstract sculpture, but I liked it because there was something about how she was holding it. I knew that it was something I wanted to incorporate into the movie. I think that I’m drifting, with everything I do now, into a far less cerebral approach to the characters I play – into whatever I feel like doing with them. Claire is very open to allowing for that kind of process. Instead of the traditional way of talking about a part and saying where a character has come from, it’s just a completely different experience with Claire. (You are given) all kinds of different things like paintings just to inspire you, there’s not much logic to it – it’s much more to do with the feel.
Claire, you originally wanted somebody older for the part, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he died during the film’s planning stages.
Claire Denis: For some reason very obscure to me now, when I started pre-production and testing and met Robert, I was afraid he was too young and good-looking. The man I had in mind was a guy with no hope, who was disgusted with his life, who went there to find a monk-like way to finish his life. I thought Robert was too great for that – not as an actor, but as a young man. I thought, ‘What the fuck? This guy must still be full of life.’
Robert Pattinson: Claire, you didn’t recognise the depths of my self-loathing! But as soon as you met me, you really saw it. (Laughs) It was just there.
Claire Denis: No, I recognised the depths! I’ve seen you in films before. But I was obsessed by the idea of a tired body – exhausted, reaching the end, you know? It was after meeting you a few times that I realised there was no better choice than you and your depths. I remember thinking, ‘Only with Robert can I make this film now. Without him, the film does not exist anymore’. To be honest, I have a problem now: it’s hard to forget you. I figure I can only work with you; it’s hard to imagine working with anyone else.
Robert, tell me how you came across Claire’s work and what it sparked in you. Could you see yourself fitting into her world?
Robert Pattinson: I saw (2009 drama starring Isabelle Huppert) White Material. I’m (mostly) interested in two types of performance: one with insane intensity and operatic bursts, and the other so naturalistic that you can’t even tell if you’re watching a film or not. Claire’s movies incorporate a mixture of both. She creates a world and her films feel very contained within themselves. In every shot, you could point the camera in any direction (and still feel like you’re in Claire’s world). It’s a very fluid thing, and I became curious as to how it worked.
Claire Denis: The way I direct, people watch me and know more about me than I do. There is something that I always felt about some actors or actresses, though. With Isabelle Huppert, for example, we were shooting in Cameroon (for White Material) and everyone said, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be a nightmare for her to be in the bush’. Not only was it not a nightmare, but she brought her youngest son along and put him in a school in the little village next door. She was the most alive person in the crew, visiting every forest, every lake and volcano in the area. She was abducted by the village, you know? And for me, there is something like that with Robert. They are not in (the film), you know? They believe. It’s (about) trust, of course, but it’s also like playing with a child in that nothing that happens during filming feels like a mistake. I remember the scene where you are throwing the bodies (from the spaceship). In moments like that, I don’t want to say to actors that they should feel this or that. It’s a no-word communication, a feeling. Every move you made in that scene, for instance, I was with you, I was doing the same moves inside me. I don’t know if it’s a great way to direct, but it’s great to be in-sync. And to believe.
Robert Pattinson: There’s a scene where I start hitting myself in the face. The next day Claire walked on set with two massive black eyes: she was watching me do it and doing the same to herself!
Claire Denis: It’s true! I punched myself.
Robert Pattinson: I was pulling my punches, but Claire was doing it for real.
What did you learn about the mental journey humans can go through, not only through space travel, but by embracing the possibility of doom?
Robert Pattinson: I think Claire has talked about this before, but instead of a space movie, it’s more of a prison movie. The main thing I looked at was death-row prisoners, especially people who had been put on death row when they were teenagers. How do you find any will to wake up in the morning when there is literally nothing? Also, it’s difficult when you think about what parenting is. You are raising a child, but you’re raising them for no particular purpose. Normally you raise a child to help them have a good life, set them on a good path. But if you’re raising them in a fake reality, you have to ask, ‘Am I just keeping them as my companion? Is their only meaning to give my life meaning?’ I think that is (Monte’s) main struggle. It’s also the fact that he clearly believes she’s never gonna meet anyone else, and this is it. It’s a huge moment, then, when they see the other ship, and realise there could be people inside. He’s just as terrified, as he realises he might suddenly not be enough for her. When she says, ‘You’re the only person I need,’ it’s such a profound moment in their journey.
How important was it to involve a physicist like Aurélien Barrau in the making of the film as an advisor? To have your depictions corroborated with the facts?
Claire Denis: Aurélien proofread the script and I could call him every morning, but he never imposed his knowledge; he made everything easy. The other day, I was reading a science magazine, and asked him something about entropy, whether the cosmos is chaos or not. He explained it to me in a way that was complex and beautiful, but you could touch it.
Robert Pattinson: Aurélien would explain scientific things with a kind of metaphysical bent. (He told me) that, the further out in the universe you go, the more the literal becomes strange. There’s a line in the film about reaching a certain point away from Earth that moving forwards suddenly looks like you’re moving backwards. Physical reality in space suddenly becomes quite poetic. Aurélien was so good at describing those terms, making scientific entities sound quite magical.
Claire Denis: He explained to me that it could be possible to go into a very large black hole without dying, and stay there for a while. I was like, ‘What do you mean, “stay there for a while”?!’ And he said, ‘Yeah! It’s something we have studied. It’s possible. Because the black hole is vast enough...’ That opened a door for me. A black hole is so strong and immense and beautiful – suddenly I became concerned about the cosmos. For the first time in my life, I understood I was part of something big and that I didn’t want to behave badly on Earth (with regards to climate change), you know?
Let’s talk about the fuck box.
Claire Denis: I thought it would be great if there was one little space where (the prisoners) could all be alone. It’s the same with the garden (an area on board that simulates an allotment or vegetable patch). I was daydreaming one day and thought, ‘Without a garden, I can’t make this film’. They must have this little piece of Earth on board, you know? Maybe even to cry, you know? Maybe even to masturbate. Of course the fuck box is horrible, but it’s a stupid invention to make these people believe they can have a sort of release. Which is not true.
The film seems to suggest that we are all capable of committing ‘taboo’ acts in some way.
Claire Denis: Taboo, taboo, taboo... In a group setting, so many things are tabooed to protect the community. And yet, because they’re necessary, it’s so interesting to break taboos. As soon as a baby is a few months old, it wants to disobey, you know? I remember thinking things like that when I was young. I was not a bad child, and I had good parents, but to obey... not to try to break the law is not fun. It’s life. I don’t mean killing, but to (cross) a barrier is really exciting. As a child in a family, I felt like a bit of a prisoner. Obliged to obey, go to school, learn my lessons – but I cannot compare it to being on death row. I think there is something savage about jail. I’ve never needed to read Jean Genet to imagine what that is like. It’s wild! There is so much passion in a body that is stopped and locked, so people can turn very violent.
A long time ago, I visited a penitentiary in New Orleans. At that time I had very short hair like a little boy and was dressed like a teenager. I was not feminine at all and knew I was going to that jail, so I made myself very invisible in a way. A policeman kept telling me, ‘Remember, no eye contact’. We went into a lift with a convict, and I was watching my shoes. I could see the chains attached to their ankles. I thought I was going to faint, because I felt as if eye contact would kill me. This is exactly what jail is: lots of extreme feelings. Of course, I made eye contact with someone once, and it made me think that, through our gaze, maybe we can touch the secrets of each other. And what are they? Is it desire? Is it sexual? Is it violent? What is in this eye-contact thing? What is the danger there? To be attracted? To be rejected? I don’t know, but I will never forget that. Never, never.
“They must have this little piece of Earth on board, you know? (The fuck box) is a stupid invention to make these people believe they can have a sort of release. Which is not true” – Claire Denis
Monte is confronted with his transgression at the end of the film. Robert, it feels as if you are consciously downplaying this moment on screen.
Robert Pattinson: The relationship between Monte and (his daughter) Willow, and the movie as a whole, is so gentle. But when I first read it, I saw it as the story of a guy who’d had a daughter because he was raped, and who ends up, essentially, in a relationship with her. It doesn’t really feel like that when you watch it, but that’s what happens! Right at the beginning of this process, Claire said to me, ‘I don’t believe in morality.’ She is saying that morality is a personal thing and that we should all, individually, confront it. I thought the story (of High Life) was so interesting, because when you take away all the world’s mechanisms of judgment, how would you behave? How would you act if you knew that no one could judge you? How does this affect our understanding of love, what our relationships are, what the relationship is between a father and a daughter? When you only have one other person in your life, do you search for every relationship that you need in them? Willow becomes his mother in a lot of ways, as well as his daughter and girlfriend. And I guess that’s the thing with taboos as well, why would something seem perverse if there’s no one else around?
Claire Denis: It was so important that the film starts with Monte and the baby. If the film had started with Monte and a young girl, it would have given no chance for Robert, for me, or for the audience to believe that they invented their own morals, the two of them. The fact that you start with a baby, it creates a real relationship – whatever happens after that, I’m not going to judge. But he has managed, and was brave enough, to stay there for her, to take care of her. So who the fuck would judge Monte and Willow?
Robert, I wonder what you were able to learn by working with someone with such an idiosyncratic vision as Claire?
Claire Denis: He knew everything already!
Robert Pattinson: (Laughs) When I started on High Life, it was a very different environment to anything I’d worked on before. Claire is more willing than any other director to do the complete opposite of whatever the plans were for that day. And so initially, you react really hard against that, and it’s scary. Whatever preparation you’ve done, it’s suddenly out of the window, but you end up trusting yourself a little more than you did. Also, working with a baby for a significant period of time, you have to be much more reactive than usual. It felt very, very live on set. I can go into the next few movies with that idea in mind, to keep my senses alive. She creates this very wild freedom.
High Life is in UK cinemas from May 10