Claire Denis’ High Life is a film you have to go into while in the right frame of mind in order to even begin understanding it. As discombobulated as the first viewing might leave you feeling, it also ends in a way that urges you to go back and watch it again with a more discerning, adjusted perspective now that you’ve experienced the emotional deluge presented in the film’s story.
We recently caught up with director Denis and star Robert Pattinson to discuss some of High Life’s more narratively opaque elements, its messages about the inhumanity of prisons, and just what it is that’s leaking out of the interstellar “fuck box” prominently featured in the film.
io9: There’s so much about the characters in the movie that’s really interior and left unexplained. Part of that feels as if it’s just like a manifestation of the fact that they’ve been isolated for so long that they have no reason to talk really about themselves to each other anymore. So, I want to talk to you both about Monte (Pattinson’s character). As the person who created him, and the person who brought him to the screen, who is he, in your minds?
Denis: Monte chose to accept the offer [to go into space] because he wants something better than the mediocre jail life that was already destroying him when he was so young, you know? I envisioned Monte like a Knight of the Round Table from the Middle Ages. He’s a man who’s got full control of himself and he’s trying to find a better state of being.
io9: Is that something you feel he wouldn’t have been able to do back on Earth? Is that the sort of life he even wanted before ending up on death row?
Denis: It’s difficult to say with Monte, and there’s a reason for that. I watched many documentaries about prisons and death row inmates for this movie, and what you see over and over again with the prisoners is how the body goes soft as if it’s given up and forgotten how to stand erect. We have this idea about what happens to people when they go into jail—they get fit because they’re working out because they know that, eventually, they’re going to be released. They don’t want to lose that hope, and you can see it in their bodies. But when you’re on the death corridor, you’re...almost dead already.
Pattinson: I think there’s something about Monte. Whatever he was punished for, he was so young, and the punishment was so large, he wasn’t capable of computing what making penance for what he did would even look like. He’s been trying to figure out how to live his life with none of the tools to help him finish becoming a person. There’s no real effort to rehabilitate him or even try to figure out how to rehabilitate him. Monte’s trying to figure out a way of bettering himself in a place where no one has any idea how to do it.
io9: I missed this my first time seeing the movie, but everyone that’s on the ship is a death row inmate, right?
io9: What are the other aspects of prison life that you wanted to explore besides what being trapped does to a person, physically, when they know they’ve got no hopes of ever being free again?
Denis: The prison system in France is terrible, for sure. Except that we did away with the death penalty 30 years ago, and that’s something I wanted to think about. The death penalty, for me, is a remnant of something that was never really well thought out properly. No matter how modern and advanced a prison system is, when the death penalty is there, it’s this strange holdover from medieval times. It’s based on this idea that by executing people, you can rid the world of monsters, but that’s completely untrue and it’s unfair. The death penalty doesn’t make the world better. It doesn’t stop people from killing. Or shooting, or robbing. People don’t think about the death penalty when they commit crimes, they’re just thinking about what they need to get.
So much has been written about how to improve the prison system. Creating the right jails to help people and to change them, but there’s always a fraction of people who believe that you can’t change: “Once you’re a monster, you’re a monster forever. There’s no hope for you.” Me, I believe that it’s important to be part of a society where people believe that change is always possible. It’s not human to live in a world where change isn’t possible, because that’s just not true.
io9: Are the people on the ship monsters, do you think?
Denis: They’ve all committed crimes, maybe, but we don’t know what all of them are and how horrific they were. We don’t know. I’m not trying to defend them, but I don’t think that “horrific” is the right word for them as a whole. They’re criminals. That’s it. Now, there are some horrific murders that happen in the film, but the film never labels anyone specifically as being a murderer in the way we usually think.
io9: But what about Dibs (Juliette Binoche)? We know for a fact that she killed her children and her husband.
Denis: Yes, Dibs committed the most heinous of everyone’s crimes. She killed her family, but I saw it as an empty gesture of despair from something about her life that we don’t know. It’s terrible, but that’s part of humanity.
io9: Compared to Dibs, there’s still so much about Monte that we’re never privy to. What were the things about him that you felt you had to tap into in order to step into the character?
Pattinson: The thing about Monte that jumped out at me, you can see in his reaction when his daughter finds his criminal record and says “Did you kill someone? Did you kill your best friend over a dog?” He’s someone who’s never been able to really come to terms with something that’s affected his entire life, and really he’s trying to reconcile these various parts of himself with himself.
He’s trying to make his life a singularity where nothing ever changes over time so that he can be whole, but he’s trapped in this place where nothing literally ever changes—and it’s a kind of hell for him, because he has these memories of what it was like to live in a kind of, I guess, widescreen view way, if that makes sense. But on the ship, what he clings to is control. In that scene when he’s pulling the life support from the space suits with the dead bodies, that’s him trying to hold onto some small part of control of what’s happening. The bodies are already dead. They don’t need the space suits of the life support, but he wants it for them because it’s something he has domain over.
Denis: I have to say something. That kind of question is good because, in a way, who Monte is is something that only came to me after we completed the movie. While working, you start with the simple energy of the film, and it’s only afterwards that maybe you can try to build a lot of reason and meaning into what happens. A script is a simple thing. When I wake up in the morning, if I go too far in the reason of why I’m alive, I go back to bed immediately. There’s a simple energy of just moving forward, and that’s something I wanted to carry over into filming High Life.
io9: We’ve got to talk about sex and the way it’s deployed throughout the movie.
Denis: I’ll say this. I watched a lot of movies and documentaries about jail and prisoners’ memoirs, and sex really is one of the few things that matter in jail. Sex can be violence and power and a manifestation of frustration. Food, sleep, and sex are human, important things we need. They’re natural things, but prisons aren’t and there’s tension in that idea. I didn’t invent this idea or anything you’re seeing in the movie. Except for the fuck box. I invented the fuck box.
io9: One last question about the fuck box. The entire ship is designed to be a contained, self-sustaining system where nothing goes to waste, but you see that after people use the fuck box, there’s liquid pouring out of it right onto the floor. What...what is that?
Denis: [laughing] It’s the washing system. It’s soap.
High Life is in theaters now.
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