PRINT April 2019



Claire Denis, High Life, 2018, 2K video, color, sound, 110 minutes. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey).

THE REVERENT ADEPTS of French director Claire Denis hold her work inviolable, finding in its every lapse and disaster new conduits to her unconscious, mistaking her films’ copious incoherence for visionary poetry and their recurrent absurdity for narrative daring. Like her compatriot Olivier Assayas, Denis cannot resist forays into genre filmmaking: the vampire-cannibal horror movie in Trouble Every Day (2001); the modernist puzzle picture in L’intrus (The Intruder, 2004); film noir in Les salauds (Bastards, 2013); and rom-com in Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In, 2017). From the grim evidence, she is ill-suited to the enterprise. So it is with Denis’s latest work, a lugubrious sci-fi farrago whose title, High Life (2018), offers its sole attempt at wit—the film is set in outer space—and whose haphazard revisions of the tropes of astral opera once again suggest the director’s discomfort with genre.

Still from Claire Denis’s High Life, 2018, 2K video, color, sound, 110 minutes. Baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey).

Denis’s adherents recast the high “huh?” factor in such films as The Intruder and Bastards as an indication of her audacity, insisting that her fixation on the sensuous tactility of the image and its close, fluid scrutiny of bodies and faces justifies her indifference to conventional narrative. (They also overlook her reliance on signposting and egregious coincidence—35 rhumes [35 Shots of Rum, 2008] repeatedly presages one character’s imminent suicide, which just happens to occur on the very track on which his best friend is operating his train so that the latter discovers his body.) In The Intruder, a gorgeous but ludicrous exercise in manufacturing mystery, Denis’s ur-actor, Michel Subor, is shown one minute in a swank suit purchasing a Patek Philippe watch and heading into the luxe Beau-Rivage hotel in summertime Geneva, and the next tied to a horse and being viciously pulled through a snowy field in the Jura mountains by a young woman and a teen boy. (The woman parades through the narrative as an angel of death, or maybe of deliverance; it’s that kind of film.) Like the crudely allegorical imagery that also populates that story—a human heart nestled in the snow portends a proliferation of cardiac symbolism—this blunt spatiotemporal rupture recalls the shock-chic editing effects of the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, but at least his enigmas adhere to a consistent chosiste artifice, whereas Denis’s queasily coexist with a natural penchant for the quotidian. The many inexplicable or preposterous aspects of Bastards, among them a sequence in which a mother searches a nocturnal forest with militiamen and breaks down when she discovers her little son’s abandoned bike—a scene that connects with nothing else in the film—and another in which a nasty pimp offers a daytime tour of a rural sex dungeon to the mother and uncle of a young woman he is brutally exploiting there, can perhaps be explained by the fact that the script’s synopsis was written quickly on a dare from Denis’s sales agent. In Denis’s cinema, the loosest of ends pose as artful lacunae, the ellipses and jumbling of time (as in her White Material [2009]) generating not Resnaisian complexity but mere convolution.

Still from Claire Denis’s High Life, 2018, 2K video, color, sound, 110 minutes. Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche).

High Life, scripted by Denis, Geoff Cox, and the filmmaker’s longtime cowriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, offers a catalogue of Denis’s themes, images, and methods, from the central relationship between a father and his child (a baby daughter who ages to adolescence during the span of the film) to the prolonged deferral of the movie’s title credit; the score by Denis’s house band, Tindersticks; and her signature image of an outstretched hand. Denis has frequently refashioned other films to make her own: Bastards adapts Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), and 35 Shots of Rum remakes Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). From its opening shot, a languid traversal of a terrarium of lush vegetation, through a late, arcane incursion of canines, High Life plunders the imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classics Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) so thoroughly that it enters the danger zone of imitation and risks becoming a Tarkclone. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter, Willow—yes, Willow—are the last survivors on a spacecraft that once carried a crew of doomed criminals who, duped by the authorities into believing they would eventually return to earth, chose to avoid long prison or death-row sentences by agreeing to undertake a cosmic mission to investigate black holes as sources of energy. Flashing back to the past on the planet, which abounds with Tarkovskian water and dogs, High Life supplies a lot of awkward expository infill to establish the central premise, especially a sequence in which a young woman interviews a scientist on a train. (One wonders if the dialogue is an auto-homage to Denis’s Vers Nancy [Towards Nancy, 2002]. In that short documentary, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose essay about his own heart transplant served as the inspiration for The Intruder, is similarly interviewed on a train, in a sequence that itself looks back to the famous exchange between Anne Wiazemsky and the political philosophe Francis Jeanson in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise [1967].)

A gluey amalgam of sci-fi, political critique, and Borstal brawler, High Life might qualify as camp were it not so glum and self-regarding.

Still from Claire Denis’s High Life, 2018, 2K video, color, sound, 110 minutes.

A gluey amalgam of sci-fi, political critique, and Borstal brawler—Denis has compared the spaceship, designed in part by Olafur Eliasson, to a jail, though from the outside it looks more like a jumbo dumpster equipped with superfluous headlights—High Life might qualify as camp were it not so glum and self-regarding. Denis has frequently flirted with campy elements, especially when deploying Béatrice Dalle, first in Trouble Every Day as a cannibal with a voracious gap-toothed maw and a power saw handily hidden under her bed, then as the “lovely otter of the valley” in The Intruder, which ends with that grinning mammal mushing her way through a snowy forest behind a dog team, an image that John Waters surely treasures. Dalle has a sister in one of the spaceship’s inhabitants in High Life, a latter-day Medea with the exquisitely Seussian moniker of Dr. Dibs, who is obsessed with artificial insemination (one character calls her the “shaman of sperm”). Embodied by Juliette Binoche with resplendent dark hair extensions, the alliterative doc spends her days harvesting the male inmates’ cum for her experiments in impregnation—that is, when she’s not frantically masturbating with an elaborate dildo machine called “the Fuckbox,” which prompts the Tindersticks’ synths to shriek like banshees, or mounting a sedated Monte to reap the precious fluid, which he has been withholding in monkish defiance, from his oblivious testicles. (From this coerced harvest comes Willow.) High Life’s not-quite-camp reminds one of Susan Sontag’s dismissal of movies that are “too dogged and pretentious” to qualify as enjoyably arch.

Still from Claire Denis’s High Life, 2018, 2K video, color, sound, 110 minutes.

Despite its authorial imprints, High Life marks several departures for Denis. None of her habitual cast members makes even a cameo appearance, nor does Denis make use of her usual cinematographer, the genius Agnès Godard, whose work on Beau travail (1999) and The Intruder was nonpareil. (In Trouble Every Day, Godard manages to restore mystery to such clichéd imagery as a nocturnal shot of the Seine or a Parisian sunrise.) Oddly, many reviews of High Life also claim that it is Denis’s first English-language film, though a sizable chunk of Trouble was shot in English; perhaps critics didn’t remember it as such, given Vincent Gallo’s morose American mumble and the semi-Esperanto of Tricia Vessey who played his wife. (Vessey’s line readings, especially when she exclaims about the lighted grid of Denver beneath their jet—“Yeah, it’s so geometrical. It’s like a computer chip”—come straight out of the Alexandra Hay school of elocution.) Pattinson, who reportedly pursued Denis to work with her, manages his dialogue and Malickian voice-over with flinty aplomb—in a film swimming in liquids, the close-cropped actor remains resolutely sec—but for others, including a histrionic Mia Goth, and especially Jessie Ross as the teenage Willow, the ill-written idiom is an oral obstacle. In an act of preordained doom, Zadie Smith was initially signed to collaborate on the script, but Denis quickly discovered that the two were “so opposed on every idea. There was not a word we could share.” Apparently.

High Life opens in select theaters on April 5. “Strange Desire: The Films of Claire Denis,” a retrospective of Denis’s films, runs through April 9 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

James Quandt is a frequent contributor to Artforum.