Claire Denis Talks 'High Life,' Casting Robert Pattinson and Her Long Path to Filmmaking

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Claire Denis

The 72-year-old French auteur was at Thierry Fremaux's Lumiere Festival for the French premiere of her new sci-fi drama, which stars Pattinson.

French auteur Claire Denis made a stop this week at Thierry Fremaux’s Lumiere Festival in Lyon to premiere her new sci-fi drama High Life and to give a public masterclass, which was conducted by movie critic Serge Kaganski.

Denis, 72, spoke to a captive audience about her early upbringing in Africa, her years as a film student and her path from first assistant director to her 1988 debut feature, Chocolat. She also talked about the unique brand of sensuality that has marked much of her work over the course of three decades and more than a dozen feature-length movies, which run the gamut from intimate dramas to thrillers to a gory horror flick to a recent rom-com and now, to a science-fiction film.

The director began by evoking her childhood in Cameroon, where she lived with her parents until she was 12. “I grew up in a place without movie theaters, so all I knew about film was what my mother told me,” she explained. “When we moved to France I joined my high school movie club, which was run by a Communist militant in love with Russian films. I learned from him that the cinema could contain an ideal.”

She spoke nostalgically about taking the train as a teenager from the suburbs of Paris to the center of the city, where she saw art-house classics like Pierrot le Fou and Au Hasard Balthazar for the very first time. “That period changed my life, although I never for a minute thought that I would have anything to do with the cinema, let alone become a film director one day.”

Denis explains that since she married young — “I was still a minor” — she was able to pursue whatever studies she wanted, enrolling in L’IDHEC film school (now called La Femis) where the free-form curriculum allowed her to get to know French directors and cinematographers, including the DPs Henri Alekan (Port of Shadows), Sacha Vierny (Belle de Jour) and Pierre Lhomme (Army of Shadows).

“It wasn’t a theoretical education at all — there was an enormous amount of freedom at L’IDHEC, and I had the feeling that I was finally entering real life,” she recalled.

Among her best memories was serving as an extra on Robert Bresson’s 1971 film Four Nights of a Dreamer and encountering the director Jacques Rivette on the shoot of his 12-hour opus Out 1. “It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life,” Denis said. “Rivette treated me like a fellow director even if I was just an intern. There was very little money and he only had a few actors and a camera, but that was all he ever needed.”

Denis then spent over ten years working as a first assistant director on such movies as Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. She wound up on the latter after encountering actor-musician John Lurie on the set of the Wenders film. “We had a little fling and I followed him to New York, where I met Jarmusch,” she recalled.

Working on Paris, Texas inspired Denis to write and direct her first feature Chocolat, which she shot a few years later in Cameroon. “The vast American landscapes of the Wenders movie reminded me of the landscapes of my own childhood. I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my first film. I knew it had to be something that counted for me.”

Chocolat, which tells the story of a young French girl’s friendship with her family’s houseboy, is set during the end of colonization in the late 1950s, with many scenes infused with Denis’ memories of growing up in Africa. The film was selected for competition in Cannes — a major feat for a first feature — and set Denis off on her career as a director.  

Many of her features that followed, including the serial killer story I Can’t Sleep, the coming-of-age drama Nenette and Boni and the French Legionnaire saga Beau Travail, are filled with rapturous images and scenes of a very sensual nature — even though Denis actually finds that she has a “rather prude” approach to sex in her films. "It's the erotism present in daily life, in the way we eat meals or go about our chores, that interests me most," she said, citing the Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu as a major influence in that respect, especially on a film like 2008's 35 Shots of Rum.

Regarding High Life, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month and screened for French audiences for the first time in Lyon, Denis agrees that there is a more overtly sexual side to the film. “I definitely thought about sex a little… To paraphrase Marguerite Duras, if you don’t think about it when making a film, then you won’t make a good film.”

Indeed, High Life contains scenes where a young woman is drugged and raped, where a scientist (played by Juliette Binoche) walks around cupping semen in her hands and where characters use a space-age masturbation device called the “fuckbox,” making it perhaps the most carnal movie Denis has ever shot.

But she sees the film more as the tender story of “people who have drifted so far from our solar system they have no possibility of returning to Earth. They are floating in outer space entirely alone, and they need to hold one another in their arms.”

For her first English-language effort, Denis wound up casting heartthrob Robert Pattinson as the lead, though he wasn’t necessarily her first choice: “I was thinking of someone much older, but the casting director kept saying we should meet. I honestly didn’t know what I could do with him — he’s so beautiful that he’s almost an immaterial being.”

But the actor immediately convinced Denis that he was right for the part. “He simply said that he wanted to do it. And his determination made me realize he was the one,” she said.

Although Denis admits to being a science-fiction fan who was influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Stalker, as well as by the sci-fi novels she read as a kid, she ultimately sees High Life as a movie about characters that are “alone, alone, alone.”

Loneliness is a theme present throughout much of her work  — from the solitary vampires in Trouble Every Day to the exiled soldiers in Beau Travail to the divorcee looking for love in her last film, Let the Sunshine In — if always in a different way. In the end, every Claire Denis movie becomes its own transformative experience — especially, perhaps, for the director herself.

“You’re not the same person after you make a film,” she said. “Each one changes you.”