June 2019

Arts & Letters

A master’s misstep: Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’

By Shane Danielsen
The French auteur chooses a sci-fi film to start over-explaining things

The 13th feature from Claire Denis, High Life, premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and it was by some margin the film I was most looking forward to at that event. Yet when I emerged from the theatre two hours later, it was with a baffled and wholly unexpected sense of disappointment. What had I just watched? Denis’ films are rarely linear or straightforward, yet this somehow managed to feel both customarily diffuse and surprisingly over-determined, its themes and imagery failing to cohere into a convincing whole. I knew I would have to see it again – its surface had barely been scratched – but for the first time with one of her works I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect.

The setting is an unnamed spaceship, hurtling through the void between stars. Its crew are mostly death-row prisoners, “scum” considered sufficiently disposable for a suicide mission: bound for a black hole whose energy they hope to harness to save the dying Earth. In their isolation, they succumb to urges both violent and libidinal – the latter assuaged via a masturbation chamber known colloquially as the “fuck box” (which, it has to be said, gets a hell of a workout). Only Monte (Robert Pattinson) remains celibate, refusing both the relief afforded by the fuck box and the aggressive overtures of Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the ship’s medic with a homicidal past. Unable to conceive – for reasons too outré to spoil here – and hardly saner than her charges, Dibs snaps, raping Monte and injecting his semen into another inmate, Boyse (Mia Goth), who becomes pregnant. A child is born: Willow. And Monte, already isolated from the others, begins to go mad.

It is, to say the least, an unusual project – especially for a writer-director like Denis, normally so grounded in the details and textures of ordinary life, whether in Paris, where she lives, or in Africa, where she was raised. Now 73, she is to my mind rivalled only by Hou Hsiao-hsien as the greatest working filmmaker. High Life marks not only her first attempt at science fiction (though in truth, it could just as easily be read as a prison movie) but also, and more crucially, her first English-language production, and as such, a step towards the international audience that has so far eluded her.

She originally sought to collaborate on the screenplay with the British novelist Zadie Smith, a union that seemed improbable when first reported and ultimately proved untenable. (Denis: “We are on the same planet, but not living the same life, for sure.”) The artist Olafur Eliasson was a creative partner, yet apart from a few washes of coloured light, there’s regrettably little of his aesthetic in the finished movie; instead, with its insistence on domestic squalor, its fascination with violent sexuality, with ravaged and punctured bodies, the film owes rather more to the installations of Tracey Emin and Julie Schenkelberg.

Cast-wise, too, it’s a mixed bag. After what seemed like a breakthrough in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, this role finds Pattinson returning to the remote, inscrutable mode of his earlier kunstwerk, films like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Anton Corbijn’s Life, in which he functioned less as a protagonist than as a kind of defining absence, a handsome void around which random events coalesce. Pattinson has sharp cheekbones and the flat, dull gaze of a junkie, so he would seem well suited to playing a sociopath with nothing to live for and less to lose. But there’s something muffled about his performance here, a sense that he may feel limited, ironically, by the very freedom his director has allowed him. André Benjamin – better known as hip-hop artist André 3000 – pops up, mostly looking bemused, and Mia Goth, I’m sorry, I just don’t get. But Binoche is little short of extraordinary, her set piece in the fuck box alone a display of fearless, almost hypnotic physicality.

Denis typically shoots fast and edits slowly, content to “find” the film’s structure in the editing suite over the course of many months. This necessarily involves an unusual degree of reconsideration, discovery and chance. Much is discarded and much else repurposed; the final form might barely resemble the original intention. I doubt she can always articulate her creative decisions, just as I don’t believe she could work in a more structured or linear way. Like David Lynch, Denis is an instinctive artist, not a conceptualist. So much so, in fact, that process becomes all but indistinguishable from outcome, until finally her choices – oblique even to herself – come to assume the inevitability that is the hallmark of any great work of art.

All of which only makes High Life more bewildering. Its time frame is scrambled (we open with Monte tending his infant daughter on an otherwise-deserted ship, then work backwards to discover the crew’s fate), but the device feels redundant, because every plot point, every scrap of backstory or motivation, is immediately isolated and qualified – either explained by a flashback or clarified by a fat wedge of expository dialogue. Watching, you’d almost think Denis had taken notes from a Hollywood studio. She’s always been an impressionistic storyteller: non-verbal, imagistic, most comfortable with implication and elision. But her shots here, while frequently beautiful, are illustrative rather than expressive; they function like pictures accompanying a text, an impression only reinforced by Pattinson’s fill-in-the-blanks voiceover.

As with most “cerebral sci-fi”, there’s a clear debt to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. A number of Denis’ cutaways pay explicit visual homage to the Russian: the drowned body of a dog in a river; a couple riding a freight train through an industrial wasteland, in a sequence that could have come directly from Stalker. Yet it reminds me even more of a B-movie that unnerved me as a boy: Doomsday Machine (1972) – another claustrophobic tale of a destroyed Earth, a violent, nihilistic crew, and a journey to the end of all things.

Olafur Eliasson has spoken of his desire to make the viewer “experience themselves experiencing art”, and that’s precisely the remove one has watching High Life. Too extreme to engage the emotions – all open wounds and scar tissue, sperm and blood and piss – it’s also too odd and idiosyncratic to satisfy on purely genre terms. In an otherwise exemplary career, it might rank as Denis’ first outright failure.

This shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, except that sometime in the past few years, Denis quietly but unmistakably became sacrosanct. Why this might be, after three decades of respectful semi-neglect, remains open to conjecture – though I suspect the unflagging advocacy of Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) did more than a little to turn the tide. But whatever the reason, she currently enjoys a level of passionate support that was conspicuously lacking even as little as six years ago, when her film Bastards premiered at Cannes (in the Un Certain Regard section – she is routinely excluded from Competition) to polite but muted notices, and sold hardly at all.

High Life, by contrast, has been greeted with a rapture bordering on the evangelical. Here’s a tweet from an American critic, posted less than an hour after the end of that first Toronto screening: “It takes roughly one shot of this film to know you’re in the hands of a master; maybe 30 minutes to realize you’re watching a landmark movie; and the remainder to confirm you’ve experienced a visionary piece of cinema.” Others were less measured. Five-star reviews have abounded. The British film journal Little White Lies devoted an entire edition to the film.

To be clear: I don’t have an issue with anyone enjoying High Life. Criticism is an unapologetically subjective activity. What does annoy me, however, are the exalted claims made for this film, which not only set many viewers to be disappointed – it’s worth noting that almost a quarter of its opening-night audience in Toronto walked out – but also threaten to obscure the actual masterpieces Claire Denis has made.

If I sound aggrieved, it’s perhaps because I was something of an early Denis adopter, a fan since I first watched her debut, Chocolat, way back in 1988, in an almost-empty afternoon session at Sydney’s Dendy Martin Place. Some of her films I’ve adored – Friday Night (2002), Nénette et Boni (1996) – while others commanded respect but not love – The Intruder (2004), Trouble Every Day (2001). What never faltered, however, was an awareness that this was an artist of the first rank, working from the top of her intelligence and craft.

For all its failings, High Life does little to change that impression. At the very least, Denis has made something so singular and strange, so steeped in her own obsessions, that it could be the work of no other filmmaker. She reminds me of another artist I revere: the American short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, whose similar rejection of conventional ways of “telling” so thoroughly explodes the limits of the form she inhabits that to be influenced by her is to risk imitating merely the most superficial elements of her style. As Barry Jenkins proved with If Beale Street Could Talk, it takes rather more than rapturous close-ups and a floating camera to make a Claire Denis movie. One is perhaps better not trying at all.

So should you see High Life? Despite my reservations, my feeling, ultimately, is that you should. For one thing, Denis’ failures are more interesting, and more worthy of attention, than most people’s triumphs. For another, appreciation of art is subjective – and this is nothing if not art – so everything that puzzled or frustrated me might prove illuminating or richly satisfying to you.

But you should also see Beau travail (1999), one of the greatest films ever made. And I Can’t Sleep, from 1994. And White Material (2009) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008). You should acquaint yourself with her real masterpieces, her other, better work. And then you may feel privileged, as I do, to live in her time.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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