Binoche out of this world

High Life star on creating character and feeling fear

by Amber Wilkinson

Juliette Binoche: 'Claire described to me this strange doctor with long hair and she was quite enigmatic in the way she was describing her... I thought I needed a strong mythological figure to help me to find this sort of ‘dark goddess’
Juliette Binoche: 'Claire described to me this strange doctor with long hair and she was quite enigmatic in the way she was describing her... I thought I needed a strong mythological figure to help me to find this sort of ‘dark goddess’ Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Juliette Binoche joined High Life director Claire Denis and co-stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth at San Sebastian Film Festival last week, before the film continued its festival tour by calling at New York – where it plays today (October 4). Taking some time out in between screenings in the differently out of world surroundings of the city’s plush Marie Cristina hotel, the actor talked about the inspirations for her character, Dibs, a doctor with a dark past on Denis’ spaceship full of convicts, who is carrying out fertility experiments on the rest of the crew. Despite having a sex machine (which Denis refers to as a “fuck box”) available to use, Monte (Pattinson), who is determinedly celibate, becomes the focus of her attention.

The film marks the second in row that the actress has filmed with Denis, after Let The Sunshine In (which she spoke to us about here.

The French stars says this time she turned to the Hindu goddess Kali – often associated with death, violence and sexuality – as a touchstone for her character.

“The first ideas or visions I had before I read the script was from Claire,” says Binoche. “She described to me this strange doctor with long hair and she was quite enigmatic in the way she was describing her. I was trying to understand and feel what she was saying but when I the script afterwards, I thought I needed a strong mythological figure to help me to find this sort of ‘dark goddess’.

“So, I thought of Kali, the Indian goddess, and I read about her. Because Dibs is a scientist but totally burnt inside with this criminal background and physical trauma, she had to be strange, complex. There’s no taboo, in a way, she’s beyond taboo. She’s a survivor. The fuck box is about the need that she cannot complete because she’s made of plastic too. Still, the need is in her soul and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. So, these studies are a sort of liberation because there’s no other way. Yet, there’s a sense of responsibility. She’s a scientist and she’s trying to put those young people into duty things as well and trying to make reborn again – is life still possible. It’s a way of being hopeful for humanity and themselves as a group. When she’s accomplished her work, then she can leave.”

Juliette Binoche on her long hair: 'I loved it. That was the goddess thing'
Juliette Binoche on her long hair: 'I loved it. That was the goddess thing' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Despite the dark reference point for the character Binoche says, “You can’t be judgemental with the character you’re playing” and says that she views Dibs as trying to “survive” the crimes she has committed. “She’s a human being,” she adds. “She’s been through stuff, and dark stuff, but don’t put aside a human being. Kali is the one who’s going to push you into dark sides but not to stay in dark sides, but to go into the other side. Kali is provoking and can be very hard but she’s not mean, if you see what I’m saying.” The spaceship in High Life is on a mission to a distant black hole in space and although Denis’ main concern is with the psychology of the characters rather than the abyss that lies beyond the spaceship, the cast and crew did spend some time with astrophysicists to get a sense of what might lie out there and spend some time in swimming pools to get a sense of what zero gravity might be like.

“It didn’t need to be physical training in zero gravity for six months and being in this kind of religious physical exercise,” says the star. “It was more to make a link between us and to experience what it was. They’re in a place that they’re going so fast that they don’t feel the weightlessness. Just to see what an astronaut was going through. Nobody’s been there so you have to imagine, that’s why having those astrophysicists there explaining what would happen with the knowledge we have today was interesting because we had questions because you have to create a reality even though it’s a science fiction.”

The character’s costume also helped Binoche to get into her role and, particularly, the cascade of waist-length hair that she sports.

Speaking about costumes, she says: “They are your friends because they have to work with you and you have to work with them. A good costume designer is there to help you as well. As soon as you have a white blouse, it feels like a surgeon already. Just finding the right shoes was something, because we’re on a spaceship but she didn’t want to have a crazy spaceship, because we didn’t have the money for it and because she didn’t want to be too much into convention.”

As for the hair, “I loved it. That was the goddess thing. The fact that they left five years ago and she never cut it. Taking care of it is part of feeling like a woman and feeling still alive. The danger of being a woman somehow, because she’s strong.”

Juliette Binoche: 'What I enjoy is the fear of being an actor. When you meet the fear, you can transform it'
Juliette Binoche: 'What I enjoy is the fear of being an actor. When you meet the fear, you can transform it' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Binoche recalls a conversation with an astronaut, who said: “Well, yeah, we train to be those big heroes and all, but I’m telling you that when you’re outside the station, you don’t look around in the abyss, you don’t play with it. You don’t turn your head and look because it’s fucking frightening.”

She adds: “So they train to be heroes, but inside theirs a little voice saying: ‘Oh, please keep me alive.’ I love that because I think it’s so true.”

The idea of being afraid is something the 54-year-old is familiar with – and embraces. Recalling how she has learnt to sing in the past couple of years for her stage show about French singer Monique Andree Serf – better known by her stage name Barbara - C’est Presque Rien (It’s Almost Nothing), she says she experienced some panic during one of her performances in China.

But, she adds: “What I enjoy is the fear of being an actor. When you meet the fear, you can transform it. So the challenge is how you’re going to enjoy the fear.”

High Life screens at New York Film Festival tonight (October 4). The film will be released in France on November 7. No distribution date in the UK or US has yet been set.

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