Writer/director Claire Denis gave a confusing response as to why author Zadie Smith left the developmental stage of Denis’ science fiction horror film High Life.
During the film’s press conference at the New York Film Festival, Denis answered a fan question about Smith’s decision to leave the project, saying, “I met Zadie in London with a producer. I met her with her husband, because she wanted to share the work with Nick Laird, her husband,” she said according to Vulture. “She was beautiful and half from the Caribbean, and I thought yes! I was impressed by that.”
She added she and Smith “were so opposed on every idea” and that “there was not a word we could share,” outlining how the two of them argued about if the film’s characters, criminals who are sent on space expeditions, should come back to Earth. Smith wanted the characters to go back home.
“Nothing against her, but she wanted the people of the ship to–she wanted them to return to Earth,” said Denis. “‘Going home,’ she kept telling me. I said, ‘What the f**k do you mean, going home?’ There is no one alive there, you know?” They also argued over the name of the film, with Smith wanting the film titled A New Life. Denis said their lack of collaboration stemmed from “different perceptions of the world.”
“And I’ve read her books, in French, in English. And I know why,” said Denis. “We are on the same planet, but not living the same life, for sure.”
It’s interesting Denis would phrase her and Smith’s bad working relationship in this way; instead of making it seem more like the clashing of differing ideas, Denis appears to be framing the relationship as a clash of cultural experiences. Seeing how Smith’s body of work, which includes books like White Teeth, On Beauty and Swing Time among others, Smith’s work focuses primarily on identity, particularly analyzing how the confluence of racial, cultural, economic and social identities work together to create a more significant, multifaceted identity of a person.
The statements regarding Smith’s racial background and her different life experiences also seems myopic from someone like Denis, whose work includes creating films critiquing identity, such as her work focusing on the colonialist systems at work in Africa. Denis, who grew up in several French-colonized African nations including Cameroon, used her experiences as the daughter of a French colonial administrator to inform her non-autobiographical 1988 film Chocolat, exploring the social, cultural and political dynamics at work in the country. What she said in the article seems to align with what Smith explores in her work.
“I was raised in a world that probably never actually existed, the world my parents hoped for…where there was no separation between people,” she said in a May 28 interview with The New Yorker. “I was raised in a dreamland.” There’s also mention of more of her filmography like 35 Shots of Rum, which features a primarily black cast presented in a non-racially specific manner, something that could be seen as revolutionary for the black image in film.
However, within that same interview, she reveals her lack of understanding of racism within the U.S. when she says how High Life‘s U.S. producers urged her to change the script so that the black male character, played by Outkast rapper/actor André Benjamin, doesn’t die first. She didn’t, choosing instead to give Benjamin’s character more dialogue, including the line, “See? Even in outer space, the black ones are the first to die.”
Denis said of her producers’ suggestions that racism in the U.S. “is buried so deep. For me, it was not deep.”
It’s unfortunate Smith and Denis couldn’t come to a consensus about High Life. Perhaps Denis only mentioned Smith’s racial background because she was thrilled to add a woman of color to her team after focusing her filmography so much on black imagery and black experiences, particularly those under colonial rule. Smith’s interactions with identity could have meshed well with Denis’ interest in identity. However, Denis’ statements, particularly the one about “not living the same life,” wrongly give the impression that Denis actively chose not to take from Smith’s point of view into account, even after admitting to reading her books. Surely Smith could have added something valuable to the film if her ideas were given proper weight.