Great French director Claire Denis again drew inspiration from her childhood in colonial French Africa for her new movie “High Life,” her English-language debut.
“In Ghana, when they were playing jazz, they invented the name ‘high life’ for the music, as a sort of joke for the white people. I have a lot of ‘high life’ records at home, and I thought, ‘That’s great for the film, because it’s high. … and it’s life!” Denis said while in The City for the San Francisco Film Festival.
The stark, provocative sci-fi movie is about death row criminals (Rob Pattinson, André Benjamin, Mia Goth and others) sent into space to investigate a black hole as a potential energy source.
At the same time, a doctor (Juliette Binoche) experiments with artificial insemination using the crew members. Eventually, a baby is born, and one crew member must raise her.
“The baby brings so much hope,” says Denis.
Denis has said that she made the film in English because she couldn’t imagine astronauts speaking French. Yet she began writing in her native French with her collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, then enlisted many others to translate it. (One suggested translator was novelist Zadie Smith, whose proposed changes to the story didn’t please Denis, so they they parted ways, amicably.)
While Denis is known for poetically placing characters in natural space — especially the wide-open African exteriors of “Beau Travail” and “White Material” — the enclosed, stale spaceship of “High Life” proved a challenge.
The solution is the ship’s indoor garden.
“Nobody liked my little garden,” she says. “I was asked at one time not to have the garden. The studio thought it was a crazy idea and would cost too much money. I said, ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be costly, but it has to be there.’”
The movie’s simple opening shot, a gentle mist moistening the garden, wasn’t so easily filmed. At first, the water came out like heavy rain, and a mist machine could not be located. Denis insisted, explaining that water would be scarce in space.
“Then, in the end, when the mist was there, everyone loved my garden!” she says.
Finding English-speaking actors was also a long process. Benjamin, of the great hip-hop group OutKast, didn’t understand why Denis wanted him. But she flew to Atlanta to meet him and pleaded.
“I said, ‘This character knows more than the others,’ she says, citing a self-awareness she saw in the actor.
Binoche was a last-minute replacement after Patricia Arquette dropped out due to scheduling problems.
Binoche was at the Cannes Film Festival for “Let the Sunshine In” in 2018 when “High Life” funding came through, and she told Denis she thought she could play the part.
“We had such a belief in her and we trusted each other,” says Denis. “So we reframed the character for Juliette.”
In another example of stars aligning, “High Life” features a score by Stuart Staples (of the English band Tindersticks), who has provided music for Denis’ films since 1996.
“I would never ask anyone, especially not Stuart, to be my official musician,” she says. “I always send him the script, and he says yes or no.”
For her 2008 film “35 Shots of Rum,” she planned to use only a few songs, with no orchestral music. But she changed her mind when Staples arrived in the editing room with a piece of music that fit perfectly over the film’s opening.
The timing of the “High Life” release couldn’t be more perfect, coming just days after the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics released the first photograph of a real black hole.
During writing and filming, Denis worked with astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau to get the details of her film right.
“Because we were following the process of me learning what it is, choosing that golden color, it made everything real for me,” she says. “If I had to invent something that I didn’t believe in, it wouldn’t work. So, when I saw that image, I said, ‘My God!’ I was really moved to tears.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth
Written by: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox
Directed by: Claire Denis
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes