NYFF: Robert Pattinson Stars in Kinky Sci-Fi Drama ‘High Life’

High Life

Robert Pattinson stars as an astronaut who swears off sex in High Life, a kinky and perverse sci-fi adventure by French director Claire Denis.’ High Life, which is the acclaimed director’s English language debut, had its U.S. premiere Tuesday evening at the New York Film Festival.

Pattinson walked the carpet in a tight fitting jacket paired with wide-legged shorts, an outfit only he could pull off without looking silly. He actually had three costume changes that day, with jeans in the morning for the press conference, the shorts suit for the red carpet and back to casual wear and a baseball cap for the Q&A following the evening public screening.

Robert Pattinson on red carpet/Paula Schwartz photo

In  High Life, Pattinson plays a dead row convict on a spaceship headed to a black hole for a physics related experiment. The space craft looks like a cross between a cargo box and a hospital, and the fellow astronauts are other young criminals with a death sentence hanging over their heads traveling in what essentially is a prison, forever. At the same time they’re participating — some reluctantly —  in a reproduction experiment orchestrated by a sex obsessed doctor played by Juliette Binoche. 

Binoche’s Nurse Ratched-like doctor (her crime, which she says is the only one worthy to be called one, is that she murdered her family) wears a black braid down to her waist and a white unbuttoned nurse’s outfit and seems obsessed with collecting sperm samples to impregnate the women. She tricks Monte (Pattison) into some weird, half-asleep sex play and uses the sperm to impregnate one of the women on the spacecraft, which is how he ends up becoming a space dad. (Binoche herself has a sex scene you have to see to believe, where she writhes around naked on a large steel dildo in a space called a “fuckbox.”)

Earlier in the day at the film’s press conference, Pattinson was asked how he became attached to the film. He said  he caught Denis’ 2009 film “White Material,” on TV by chance and tried to set up a meeting to finesse himself into one of her films. 

Meanwhile Denis did not have Pattinson on her radar for High Life. She envisioned the character of Monte in the film as an “older man, tired of his life, at the end wishing nothing but to die,” Denis said, “Robert brought something unexpected to the part. I was a little bit afraid, to be honest. I’m wasn’t afraid, not of his youth, I was afraid maybe he was too good-looking or too precious… I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have to be aware of that and not be afraid of that, you know, not to be afraid by his charisma.”

“Don’t be afraid,” whispered Pattinson.

The actor was asked at the press conference about his choice of eclectic roles, including “The Lost City of Z,” “Cosmopolis,” “Damsel” and now High Life.”

“In general it’s pretty simple. I’ll see a director’s work (I admire) and “basically I just approach people whose work I really love.” 

Of Denis he said, “It seems like all of her actors have total unselfconsciousness and they really seem to inhabit their physicality. As a person who doesn’t totally inhabit my body,” he said, “I hoped if it happened to other people maybe it will happen to me.”

I asked Denis on the red carpet how she dreamed up such a kinky script. “I don’t know. I am like that. I am kinky maybe,” she said. “I thought it was the way to do it, that was my plan.”

I asked her what she meant earlier in the day about her reservations about casting Pattinson because she feared he might be too charismatic to play Monte. That’s not what she meant she told me. “I said there was at the moment I was shy, I didn’t say he was too charismatic. I said, I was afraid that I was not going to understand how charismatic he was in a film you know? No, I was not afraid by that, it’s only that I was shy, that’s all. And he is mysterious and shy too you know?”

Of the adorable baby scenes in the film, during the Q&A Pattinson said the baby was the daughter of his best friend, and they cast her after a few other babies didn’t pan out.

“This baby was terrific to work with, so cute, so open to people, so interested in sharing,” said Denis.

“From the first day she was like that,” said Pattinson. “She also took her first steps on set and called me ‘dada dada.’”

The director was  asked why she decided to make High Life in English? 

“In space people speak only English or Russian,” said Denis during the Q&A.

The final question was to the 72 year-old director about masturbation and “the fuckbox.”

Said Denis, “The fuckbox is more than (a place to) masturbate. They do masturbate alone in their box” but “this box is a way to be alone and it was important that there was such a place.”

Pattison smiled and nodded along “yes.”

Pattinson sings over the closing credits of the movie to a ballad called “Willow” by Stuart A Staples of English alternative Rock band Tindersticks.

A24 purchased High Life with no release date yet set.

 

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About Paula Schwartz

Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who worked at the New York Times for three decades. For five years she was the Baguette for the New York Times movie awards blog Carpetbaggers. Before that she worked on the New York Times night life column, Boldface, where she covered the celebrity beat. She endured a poke in the ribs by Elijah Wood's publicist, was ejected from a party by Michael Douglas's flak after he didn't appreciate what she wrote, and endured numerous other indignities to get a story. More happily she interviewed major actors and directors - all of whom were good company and extremely kind- including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman and the hammy pooch "Uggie" from "The Artist." Her idea of heaven is watching at least three movies in a row with an appreciative audience that's not texting. Her work has appeared in Moviemaker, more.com, showbiz411 and reelifewithjane.com.