Claire Denis is a French filmmaker whose movies include Chocolat (1988), U.S. Go Home (1994), Beau Travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), and Let the Sunshine In (2018). Her latest work, High Life (2019), opens in Boston on Friday (it depicts the deep-space journey undertaken by a crew of convicts; they’ve been sent out to complete experiments such as testing the energy properties of black holes and investigating whether or not humans can reproduce in space). Also recently distributed in the U.S. are two of her non-fiction movies, Towards Mathilde (2004) and The Breidjing Camp (2015), released on the same DVD last December. We spoke about those films—and others, including Vice—last week at the Eliot Hotel.
DIG: Central to your work is voiceover narration.
The voiceover [in High Life] came naturally. I don’t know why, the beginning was always, for me, an empty old ship, not in good shape, with a luxurian garden, and a baby. A certain voice comes from outside, saying hey, I’m here, I’m coming back, I’m doing this and that [this is the character Monte, played by Robert Pattinson—he and the baby are the only two survivors on the ship as the film begins in medias res]. The father is repairing a piece because everything is dull and old and not functioning so well. I thought this was a… it was always the way I wanted to enter the story. It brought of course the question of what happened before? How can this baby be alone with this man? So then I knew I wanted to see him throwing his companions off ship to save energy. Then immediately knowing there were other people before. And to wait until after that to start the voiceover. Not to say I’m alone because they’re all dead, but just to say I can’t stand any more of these images from Earth. I wanted him to be in a present time, not relating to the past.
On the subject of those fucking images from earth, which Monte and the baby often view on screens inside the ship… those images have a certain pixelated quality, what in another context might be called “glitch art”. Was incorporating that particular texture into the film something you were conscious of?
Even in the first version of the script I knew they were too far from any connection with Earth, which meant to communicate would take months or years. And of course hope of returning home doesn’t exist. Then I thought, it would be fun, but not very scientific I guess, if there were some remnants… as if ghost images from Earth, sent by our TVs and all our means of communication… have somehow left the solar system, and are now like ghosts in cosmos… I wanted the Curtis image of the Indian [a shot from Edwin S. Curtis’ 1914 film In the Land of the Headhunters], and then I thought, I wanted a little boy at the seaside. Things like that, you know?
Evocative of things… images that really could exist. Not extremely beautiful images…
Yeah, the little boy is actually my nephew, and it was shot in the family circle. And Curtis made his film as a souvenir for the Indian people, to protect their image. I think also I have a traffic light in the street. That’s it.
Another element of High Life which I’d like to discuss is the character Ettore, played by Ewan Mitchell. [The character is a crewmember who in many early scenes is depicted staring at the women onboard, during a later one he commits sexual assault]. For so much of the movie we’re watching him watching other people. And that seems very important to me… Ettore has a violent sense of desire, and the film seems to suggest a connection with his perspective. What are your thoughts about the character?
There was not a very highly sophisticated thought about this character. His name was from Italian origin, and the young man I cast is really so much more British, but he asked me to keep the name. The thing is that I wanted someone younger, near the age of the girls [crew members played by Mia Goth and Gloria Obianyo]… not coming of age but someone who’d have been coming of age as the ship was getting away from the solar system.
I think we presume he came of age relatively young since these characters were obviously not leading easy lives before the film began.
No, he probably had a terrible childhood, and was in juvie, as they say. Maybe he committed murder, I don’t know. For me he was a sweet child, in a way, among the bunch of the crew we see. It was so insecure for him not to have physical contact. To be in the process of giving sperm, and doing other stuff, cleaning or whatever, just being there… like in jail, actually, exactly like in jail. In jail, the sexual pressure is high, and it creates masturbation…
And we do see Ettore masturbating in the film.
Like in jail, probably. And the machine is something that can make him more relaxed—the fuckbox [a device onboard the ship which many of the characters use to get off]. But that doesn’t mean that he’s satisfied, and it doesn’t mean the same as holding someone. So even though it’s a rape, even though it’s a violent act, there is no way to do differently, you know?
The colors of this film have imprinted on me. There’s a particular shade of blue which tints most of the scenes on the ship, and I feel like I can conjure it up exactly. Same for the shade of orange which lights some other spaces. But the blue tint most of all—and that light is especially seen on Ettore. When he’s watching Dibs and the Captain in their scene near the vents, it’s as if light is on everyone but him: he’s watching them, and they’re lit brighter than he is, then Andre Benjamin approaches, and he too is emerging from a warmer light, but Ettore is just left in this cold blue.
We planned it like it would actually be in a ship. With the director of photography, Yorick [Le Saux], we programmed lights: a blue for night, a red for alerts…. this white-ish shade for when the ship is younger, more orange and dirty for when the ship is older, when Monte is alone with his daughter. We kept green for the garden, which is a more natural place. But the thing is that I wanted… We were obliged to adapt ourselves to the ritual we had organized and programmed. So I would say “night!”, and the lights would turn to night. Or I would say, “red alert!”, or “pristine daylight”, or “non-pristine daylight”, things like that. Of course it was easy and fast, but it also made us obey the lights too. It was not a light made specifically for this shot, no. It was a light that was programmed.
Extremely important to the experience of watching the film are these cuts which bring us from one color to another, like the many occasions when the red appears suddenly atop the blue. How does color affect your editing rhythm—do you feel as if you’re following changes in light?
This was in the script, actually. In the script the first scene was in the garden, he’s repairing the ship, and it’s non-pristine daylight. Then when he’s back, he’s feeding [the baby], and cleaning her, and putting her to bed, and then the red alert comes. So it’s red, and then after that, it’s blue, night. So those sections in the script—with day, [then] red, [then] blue—they were already reasoned like that. It was important for us, because we knew there was nothing outside for them to rely on.
Those programmatic colors for me seem to evoke the inhumanity of incarceration. Because on the rare occasions in High Life when we do see images from Earth…
Shots of Earth? It’s remembrance, because they are too far away. Earth is out of reach.
…there’s a warmness and texture to the image that’s not there when we’re on the ship.
Because we did it on 16mm. All the images from Earth were made with 16mm film. Also the end, when they [spoiler redacted], the film is very sensitive to that orange light, so we used 35mm for that. All the inside of the ship is shot digitally.
Another film of yours just released in the United States is The Breidjing Camp, a nonfiction film which depicts a refugee camp in Chad. Despite both featuring characters who cannot leave a limited space, that film and High Life are in many ways polar opposites: The Breidjing Camp presents a space where people are working together for the sake of bettering their community and their opportunities, High Life presents a space where the very concept of community seems to be atrophying into oblivion. I was curious if for you there was any connection between the projects.
No, but I was so moved when I went there [to Chad]. At the time it was so difficult, we had to cross by car because there was a problem with the plane, and I mean… I was really moved. I was with a very small crew, there were three of us, and to be very honest… I thought all the time, why do I feel so strong and happy? I should feel so devastated and sad. But I felt happy because I could see the strength of those people. The hospital was the greatest moment for me. Of course they are complaining because they don’t want the new school program, I understand, they want to stay Sudanese, they don’t want to become Chadian, I understand that. It’s like a moral fight. They fight for spiritual things.
And it was of course wonderful to hear you finally deliver “Claire Denis voiceover” yourself—Claire Denis voiceover performed by Claire Denis.
They asked me to do a comment [voice over], and I didn’t want to. I felt forced to do it. And then to say what I felt: I was moved, and impressed, and also afraid—I didn’t want to be a voyeur.
There’s a quote from yet another film of yours that was just released in this country, Towards Mathilde, which I felt so beautifully describes your own work, particularly with regards to how you approach narrative. We hear Mathilde Marrion, while correcting a performer on a certain point, say “Do not make it a crescendo. It makes it too dramatic… it should be something opening up from the inside.”
I don’t know why I am such a strange… I always have a feeling that if I don’t feel the opening or the end, it will never work on me. And when I met Mathilde, it struck me and it struck her that we were very close, in a way. Very close in our work. Like sisters almost. Companions of work. We felt… not exactly the same, because she’s a choreographer, but this need to feel it before, you know?
For me your films approach narrative in a way that so naturally befits the motion picture format. So much of the storytelling in your films is accomplished entirely via the juxtaposition of images, as opposed to, say, via dialogue.
Yeah, sure, sometimes dialogue is great, but the process of editing is… I take for granted that I have to anticipate this process while writing a script. This sort of blurred connection from one scene to another… when I say “blurred”, it’s because I like ellipses. I don’t like when it’s [Denis slashes the air while making a swift cutting sound], you know? It’s like a scar—if it’s already sealed, it’s better. For instance, yesterday, on the plane, I was watching Vice (2018), because I really wanted to see the film. I missed the film when it was released in Paris and I was very sad because I like this director [Adam McKay]. And I liked the way the voiceover is from someone else [not a primary character], I was really thrilled by all this. And by the acting of course. But then comes the moment when the voiceover is in a car accident, and blood is coming on the pavement, and then Dick Cheney is dying if they don’t find a donor for a new heart… and I was so, how would I say? I regret those surgical moments in the film. I thought, for me, in film… film is not medical.
When I did L’intrus (2004), there was also a heart transplant in the film. The big question for me all the time was, do I film the heart transplant? So I went to a hospital, and I watched a heart transplant, and believe me—I was also driving in the car with the new heart. I did the complete thing. And I thought, my god, do I have to film that? Then after awhile, I thought, maybe we will go back on him when he’s already in South Korea with this huge scar. Because I thought if I see this actual transplant, it will make it more objective than subjective. For me the heart transplant is so… when I see the young man dying on the street in Vice, and the voiceover is saying “it’s me, although I’m dead…”—I would’ve loved not to have seen those shots of the heart. Also I know it’s not a real heart. I’m sure those in the film Vice are special effects hearts. And when I was watching the real transplant, I thought, I will never film a real heart, dead or alive. Because it belongs to someone, you know?
Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TOWARDS MATHILDE IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM GRASSHOPPER FILMS. THE BREIDJING CAMP IS INCLUDED ON THAT DVD AS AN EXTRA FEATURE.