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In Claire Denis’s High Life, Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, a death-row inmate sent on a deep-space mission from which he’ll never return.

Courtesy of Elevation

There are a few good reasons to seek an interview with Robert Pattinson. The first, and most crass, is that the guy is good for clicks. Mention Pattinson on Twitter and watch your mentions explode. Post an article about the star’s new movie, and congratulations, you’re now a certain kind of audience’s – one with, perhaps, a penchant for lovelorn vampires – new best friend. Pattinson content is a one-step measure for proving your audience-metric worth as an arts journalist. This paragraph alone is doing double-duty – I’m going to copy and paste it right on top of an e-mail to my boss asking, nay demanding, a raise.

But there is a second, more thoughtful reason for speaking with Pattinson. Since wrapping up the Twilight franchise, the actor has become the most adventurous and curious performer of his generation. Instead of picking up easy studio paydays – there is not a Marvel movie to his name – the 32 year old has gone out of his way to work with today’s most challenging, independent-minded artists. His first post-Edward Cullen project was Cosmopolis, in which he spends about an hour and a half in the back of a limousine for David Cronenberg. It was a daring move – even Cronenberg fans would hesitate to call the film accessible – and one that screamed a surprising sort of idiosyncratic sensibility on the part of Pattinson. Since then, the British actor has made a postmodern colonial adventure with James Gray (The Lost City of Z), a grimy New York crime thriller with the Safdie brothers (Good Time), and another limo-centric psycho-thriller with Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars).

It is his latest collaboration, though, that should propel Pattinson into a new kind of art-house orbit. In Claire Denis’s High Life, the actor stars as Monte, a death-row inmate sent on a deep-space mission from which he’ll never return. While that log-line conjures images of a shallow big-budget space epic – it’s Passengers meets Suicide Squad! – the film is everything you might expect, and a lot of things you will not, from the French auteur Denis (Trouble Every Day, Beau Travail). It is deeply challenging, brazenly sexual, absurdly hilarious and profound. It is a film that makes you reconsider not only the work of those who made it like Pattinson, but the concept of just what art can and should do. It is also, of course, absolutely fantastic for clicks.

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Ahead of High Life’s Canadian release this Friday, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz spoke with Pattinson about nerves, black holes and subverting expectations.

It’s interesting to be talking about this film the day after scientists released the first photograph of a black hole. High Life features a very similar image, but it’s a film much less concerned with science than … other things …

And that’s what I like about Claire’s movies. Nothing is conventional. Her movies, they’re elliptical. There’s a sense that you don’t know where you’re going. That’s something about Claire as well. She’s very open about certain things, but she’s quite a mysterious person, and she holds quite a lot back. She’s open to suggestion, but a lot of the scenes we shot, we’d start them in one way, and then it would end up in an entirely different place by the end of the day. You’d always end up with something surprising.

Filmmaker Claire Denis and Pattinson pose for a portrait in New York, on April 4, 2019. Pattinson says it took four years to get a meeting with Denis.

Brian Ach/Invision/AP

When were you first introduced to her work?

I saw White Material in 2011. I was filming [Twilight] in Louisiana, and it came on TV at two in the morning, and I immediately e-mailed my agent the next day. It took four years to get a meeting.

What were your expectations of working with her?

I knew there were so many parts of [High Life] that I didn’t understand, but I wanted to put myself entirely in her hands. I knew there was a lot of stuff to do with bodies, our physicality, the minutia of how people touch each other. I’d never done anything that focused on the ways I move. But I just wanted to be a in a Claire Denis movie.

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Was there an instant connection when you finally did meet?

I was terrified walking into that meeting. I’m still nervous meeting almost anybody. My social skills are so hit and miss. I thought she was going to have this much more academic approach than she actually does. There’s a lot of mystery to her, but she works very intuitively. And she’s very funny.

It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m sure there are many people who wouldn’t describe High Life as funny, but it’s pretty hilarious in many ways.

It’s absurd, isn’t it? There’s this very strange note to all the dialogue that is interesting, and audacious. It’s kind of insane, like when Juliette [Binoche] says, “big booty girl.” When I was watching it for the first time, I was laughing so much that I got frightened that maybe I was just reminiscing of how I had such a good time making it. But then I watched it with a larger group of people who enjoyed it as well, and thought, thank god. It’s not just me smiling while, like, looking at a photograph of a fun summer I had in Cologne.

Working with artists like Denis, like Cronenberg, like Gray, do you feel you’ve always had a firm control over who you want to work with, and where you want to take your career?

It’s a push and pull. You have to play the cards you’re dealt in a lot of ways. The movies I’m making are the movies that I would want to see, and would be attracted to any way. The one thing that makes me a little bit worried about doing mainstream movies is that it suddenly gets into the territory of when a movie’s worth is based on its opening weekend numbers. If you’re working with smaller budgets and doing things that are more esoteric in a lot of ways, it doesn’t get judged in the same way. I hate the idea of doing something that is supposed to be commercial and it’s deemed a total failure just because not enough people went to see it. Whether or not a movie gets an audience is dependent on so much more than just the quality of the movie. And once you get into that mainstream area, if it doesn’t make any money, it’s automatically bad.

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You have two Netflix films coming up, David Michod’s The King and Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time. A lot of the conversation right now is about how those less-mainstream projects will live on. Does it concern you at all, the evaporation of theatrical exposure for these movies?

It would be sad, but I can’t claim that I watch every single movie in the cinema. I watch things everywhere, and I wouldn’t have seen so many of my favourite movies if I was only going to the cinema. I can’t say I’m a total purist. But it’s kind of amazing that Netflix, Amazon, they’re more willing to roll the dice on movies that even six or seven years ago would be impossible to make. I just saw some of the cinematography from The Devil All the Time in the editing room, and it’s insanely beautiful, and it would obviously look incredible in the cinema. But it’s also amazing to have TV shot in 35 mm, and it still look like one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.

You were first exposed to Denis in 2011, but was there a movie before or around then that turned you on to work outside the mainstream? Was there any cinematic light-bulb moment, or specific awakening you had that got you to where you are today?

I think it’s always been there. I don’t watch movies for escapism. I feel my attention span, I have to wrangle it, so if I’m going to sit in a dark room for two hours, I want to gain something out of it rather than be spaced out. Maybe before I was acting, when I was a teenager, and I saw [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Breathless. I saw that, and the same thing happens to other people, but it really did something for me, and I started to seek things out.

Well, Godard is still out there making movies. You should ask for a meeting, too …

I’ve tried many times.

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High Life opens April 19 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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