Brow Beat

High Life Director Claire Denis on Designing a “Pro-Sex” Space Prison

Robert Pattinson in High Life and director Claire Denis.
Robert Pattinson in High Life and director Claire Denis.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by A24 and Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.

Most of Claire Denis’ High Life takes place on a spaceship far outside the solar system. Its inhabitants, who include Robert Pattinson and André 3000, are convicts, audacious men and women who evaded Earthly prison time by volunteering for a kamikaze mission to gather data about distant black holes. Confined on the ship, the prisoners wander among a cluster of spaces: dimly lit bedrooms and corridors; a lush greenhouse garden; a lab; and finally an austere room known as the “fuckbox,” where Juliette Binoche’s doctor enjoys time with a severe-looking dildo apparatus.

Slate sat down with Denis to discuss how she designed the film’s elegantly lo-fi aesthetic, including her “pro-sex” approach to the fuckbox.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Natalia Winkelman: The spaceship the convicts in High Life inhabit is boxy, like a shipping container. How did you conceive of that shape?

Claire Denis: A lot of science fiction movies have wardrobes and exteriors that look so shiny, and white-y, and military, like NASA, so I chose something different, more like a jail. More banal. I’ve been reading Foucault, and he says that with history, the shape of prisons change as the psychology changes. The shape I chose has to do with how a jail looks today.

Because of the story, I thought nobody would design a ship very fancy. If you send prisoners in space, you don’t want to spend extra money on extra style. It has to be the minimum, the strict minimum, simple. Also, when you go out of the solar system and you go at a great speed, you don’t need an extravagant shape. Anything could fly—a chair, a table.

Outer space in the movie is so dark it almost feels claustrophobic rather than expansive. Was that a feeling you intended?

Have you an idea of what is space outside the solar system? Far from a star, let’s say. It’s black, there is no light, unless there is a big star like the sun. Those modern science fiction movies, they make space so artificial. I really decided to keep it the way it should be, with almost nothing. I don’t feel like it’s claustrophobic. It’s a void. I worked with an astrophysicist and made it as close as possible to what he told me. I would not have dared to invent crazy things, no.

The spaceship rooms are often bathed in monochrome light, and you end with a yellow light similar to the one in your short film Contact, which you made with Olafur Eliasson, who also worked on High Life’s production design. How did you make those color choices?

That’s the process of a ship—in space, you don’t have night and day, so you have artificial day, artificial night, artificial red alert, artificial dusk. All this we programmed before shooting, so we can use the light. It looks beautiful just because Yorick [Le Saux, High Life’s cinematographer] and I have talent. No, I’m joking. But I don’t know why we would have made ugly things. It’s not fun to do ugly.

When I made that film with Olafur, I was already preparing High Life, and it was already the yellow light for High Life. It was in a test we made. Originally, I chose Olafur because I had seen an exhibition of his, the sun in London. I spent a lot of time with him and he inspired me very much, but the best thing he created was the golden light at the end.

On the ship, the passengers spend a lot of time either in the garden or the fuckbox. When you designed those spaces—one for sustenance, one for sex—did you think of them as a pair?

They were meant to be necessary for them, the garden and the fuckbox. I read that many, many projects for traveling in space were including gardens and I thought it was a great idea. The garden is like Earth, for them. When Tcherny [André Benjamin’s character] dies, he leans on the earth to be closer to his family.

The fuckbox—I think it is beautiful. With the red cover, the metallic dick. When you say sex, you say it as if it was so ugly. Sex is good! And to have a machine that masturbates you, it’s great. It’s not horrible. When Dibs uses it, she’s in some pain, maybe, because she’s desperate. But this machine is supposed to give pleasure. There is a little frustration there—she’s suffering for not feeling good enough. She wants more. But sex is not ugly. I am pro-sex.

Do you think of the black hole that they’re seeking as sexual? Especially when Robert Pattinson’s character Monte and his daughter approach the hole at the end, could that be a metaphor for sex?

It’s not sexual. Their relationship is sexual, maybe, for her, but a black hole is not a sexual thing. It’s more like a promise to die, and if they don’t die, then they reach a point where maybe something will make them live another life.

Like a rebirth?

Reborn? No! Christ, this is American—that reborn stuff. No, we don’t believe in that reborn shit. I’m not a reborn Christian. We only believe in scientific things.