NEW YORK – Claire Denis was guiding Robert Pattinson through a black hole.
The two were on a sound stage in Cologne, Germany, shooting a scene from Denis' space oddity “High Life,” while the revered French filmmaker called out descriptions (“Now it splits into a pancake!”) of the time-warping imagery Pattinson's character, Monte, might be seeing. Pattinson was having a hard time keeping it together.
“I was literally crying laughing. Everyone else was completely serious and I just had tears streaming down my face,” Pattinson recalls. “Splits into a pancake? I was like, 'What are you talking about?' ”
“I remember 'spaghetti effect,' ” adds Denis with a grin.
“The spaghetti effect, it takes place before the pancake effect.”
As willing as Pattinson has been to be stretched and contorted by some of the most adventurous directors in film, “High Life” – a cosmic conundrum pulsing with bodily fluids and the infinitude of loneliness – is a new frontier for him. The same could be said for Denis, the enigmatic and revered filmmaker of “Chocolat” and “Beau Travail,” who is making her English-language debut in “High Life.”
Together, they are a curious, fascinating match that despite their vastly distant origins seem to buzz to a similar frequency.
“I am lazy. I would love to be in bed all the time, to read, to swim, to do nothing. And yet making films is the best thing that happened in my life, with love and sex,” says Denis. “There is something special in making movies, especially for a very lazy person. If I was a very performative person, very active, I wouldn't care about making movies. Movies are made for people who want to do nothing.”
Pattinson, sitting alongside the director in the Manhattan offices of the film's distributor, A24, cackles with delight. “I like that,” he giggles. “No, I agree. I couldn't agree more.”
“High Life” is about a space ship, flying far outside the solar system, populated by a group of convicts plucked from death row. They are guinea pigs for experimentation on black holes by Dr. Dibs (a long-haired Juliette Binoche), who's really using them to try to incubate a baby.
If it wasn't already abundantly clear, “High Life” is not your typical science fiction film. Denis doesn't even consider it one.
“A lot of science fiction films are about conquest. In that void, that huge universe, there's not many things to fight, unless you do 'Star Wars' and there's an alien living there. But of course this was not the point,” says Denis. “Even though I like those stories, I would not have been able to do it for many reasons. My imagination, maybe, and the budget, of course.”
“High Life” is instead about a lot of the things that have coursed through Denis' work: violence, sex, colonialism, isolation, helplessness.
“I have absolutely no abstract ideas,” Denis says. “I don't know what I do. I try to do my best. For me, I'm trying to make films without concept. Honestly.”