At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.
High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).
The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.
The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.
High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)
If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:
Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda.But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.
The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.
Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):
Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
The Wait turned up in my film rental list. I’d put it on the list because it features Lou de Laâge who was so impressive in Anne Fontaine’s Les innocentes. I’m glad I made that call because I enjoyed The Wait, which I missed completely when it snuck into UK cinemas in July 2016, seemingly without any promotion at all. This is surprising since it also offers Juliette Binoche in the début feature of Piero Messina, assistant director on Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina co-wrote and directed The Wait and composed some of the music.
The setting is a villa in the mountains of central Sicily with Etna as a brooding presence in the distance. Here Anna (Juliette Binoche) is in mourning. The film opens with a highly stylised presentation of what we assume to be a funeral – taking place a few days before Easter. As far as I can make out the time period is around 2002 (a TV programme shows Pope John Paul II and there are no smart phones or social media representations). Anna gets a phone call and her ‘retainer’ Pietro collects a visitor from Catania airport. This is Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of Anna’s son Giuseppe, flying in from Paris. He has invited her to the villa, but hasn’t himself arrived yet for Easter. The rest of the narrative is taken up by ‘the wait’ for Giuseppe’s return. There are several clues to what has happened but Jeanne is kept in the dark – literally at times in the villa. Eventually Anna begins to ’emerge’ and to engage with Jeanne, taking her to a lake to bathe and to a Turkish bath and a museum of antiquity.
The Wait is very beautiful (Sicily is very beautiful) – but it is also very slow. Fortunately Ms Binoche can say nothing more eloquently than most actors and Ms de Laâge has plenty of presence herself. Nothing is resolved, but when Jeanne invites a couple of young men back for dinner there is a climactic moment which will in one sense end the wait. The last section of the film moves into what appears to be a fantasy sequence, aided by the Easter celebrations in the local town. The first time I saw a Good Friday procession (in Madrid many years ago) I was deeply disturbed by the hooded men dressed like the Klu Klux clan. Here, Anna is part of a huge celebration of the stations of the cross with a covered Virgin Mary, a large figure carried through the streets, searching for her son. Anna becomes distressed and is lost in the crowd and then in a narrow alley she is approached by a group of men, many still hooded and she searches through them trying to look beyond the eye holes.
I was struck by some of the similarities between scenes in this film and scenes in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953). In that film, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders rent a villa outside Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. They visit the ruins of Pompeii and try to rekindle their love and their marriage. All of the scenes exude tension and emotional frailty. The film ends in a religious celebration in Naples in which the couple become separated. It may be of course that these are the kinds of things tourists do in Italy and no allusion is intended. Reviewers have mentioned other Italian films and directors – Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for instance and the filmic style of Visconti. One reviewer makes the case for Piero Messina as a clearly very talented young filmmaker (b. 1981) who in this case creates a narrative in which the visual style is too strong for the story (which is inspired a ‘real’ story told to the director and then ‘informed’ by a play and a short story by Pirandello). But no doubt as he gains experience the director will make more use of his stylistic touches? I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can see it is an argument.
I would recommend the film on the basis of the performances of the two leads and the meticulous photography (Francesco Di Giacomo) and production design (Marco Dentici). Piero Messina takes credit for co-ordinating these elements and I think he conveys both a strong sense of place and atmosphere as well as the emotional dialogue between the two women. I should add that the film is presented in CinemaScope ratio and has an intriguing soundtrack with another excellent choice of a Leonard Cohen song for the key party sequence. And that dialogue is in French between the two leads but otherwise in Italian.