I had been keeping my eye on the possibility of catching a screening of the new Claire Denis flick High Life while visiting Vancouver this last week. It opened Friday, and I realized that my only opportunity to see it would be at the most commercial possibly downtown multiplex at 10pm Friday night. Not ideal, but I went for it because I’m not sure I’ll be able to see it on the big screen in Missoula (it will play at the art theater, but I won’t watch movies there: the place attracts people who view the movie theater as a place to eat, drink and socialize). The Vancouver audience was relatively well-behaved. One awful woman crinkled a bag of smuggled candy during a quiet moment, but even the popcorn barbarians generally knew when to stop crunching. This movie really benefits from the big screen presentation and I’m so glad I decided to go.
Denis is among my very favorite living filmmakers, so I was dying to see this. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though. Her narratives are often so elliptical that they approach incomprehensibility and her subject matter tends to be very multiplex-inappropriate. Given the relatively optimistic marketing blitz High Life has received (complete with obviously deceptive trailers), I wondered if maybe she took a more accessible turn with her first English-language movie.
Definitely not! It’s not her most elliptical narrative (this is of course L’intrus), but it is quite elliptical (more and more so as it progresses), and it does have some of her most challenging subject matter (alongside Bastards). I think it’s an absolutely tremendous film. I expect it will be in my top ten for the decade. It’s a film that will surely be divisive and I fully understand how someone with good taste could dislike it, but I’m all in.
***I can’t discuss the film further without mentioning certain things that I personally wouldn’t want to know before seeing it, so some may want to stop reading at this point.***
Why is it bound to be divisive? Well, aside from the elliptical narrative and unpleasant subject matter, it is her most heavy-handed film, with the possible exceptions of her two films directly about colonial Africa and her relation to it as a French person who grew up in Cameroon (Chocolat and White Material). It very bluntly and sometimes a bit didactically addresses the moral atrocities of the death penalty, lifetime incarceration of young people, and incarceration as a solution to social problems. It also addresses the vastly disproportionate impact of these atrocities on black people, and even builds in a mea culpa about the fact that the three main characters in a movie concerned with incarceration are white. “Even up here the blacks die first.” There’s a moment that I found brilliant where we see the body of the one black male central character (André 3000!) fertilize the spaceship’s onboard garden of Eden. Whoa. Another reason many will dislike High Life is that as a sci fi movie (which she denies it is, though, c’mon, it clearly is), it’s not innovative.
These are not problems for me. Some artists use heavy-handed thematic content and symbolism and well-worn genre trappings as a context for other sorts of artistic achievement. The interest of High Life is primarily in the details of the execution. The heavy-handed and well-worn elements work for me in the film because they provide the context in which these exquisite details are realized. This is not to say that the film is flawed in some respects but excellent in others: I don’t think it could have worked as well if the handling of the main themes were more subtle — the heavy-handedness generates brute force impact. The details elicit such a visceral response in part because the larger structure is so unapologetically blunt.
I was reading a few reviews this morning and I found a very negative write-up from parental watch organization Common Sense Media that unintentionally did a great job conveying much of what’s great about the film. They write (NB there are spoiler-ish revelations):
“The result is a crude, profane, violent film that aspires to be high art but is more a collection of things you wish you could unsee. It creates a highly sexual environment in which everything about reproduction is cold, clinical, and icky. French director Claire Denis viscerally attacks the audience with shocking rapes (brutal and drugged), dripping bodily fluids, and a never-ending scene in which a completely nude Juliette Binoche masturbates on top of a sex chair.”
I often come across negative reviews that increase my interest in seeing a film, but this example is the bee’s knees. Doesn’t the movie they describe just sound GREAT? If not, it’s probably not for you. High Life outdoes Denis’ wonderful Trouble Every Day with respect to its fixation on bodily fluids and orifices (including a literal black hole!). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film (aside from gross-out comedies) with more semen and urine. There’s also a whole lot of blood. The clinical, Cronenberg-esque approach to reproductive bodily functions is indeed deeply icky, and I love it. The brilliant set design enhances this icky clinical feel. These elements pile up into what I found to be an intensely visceral experience that left me shaken and unable to sleep. High Life infected my thoughts with images that just won’t leave me alone (the ones the Common Sense Media folks wish they could unsee), and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a film. It also addresses sexual trauma in a particularly visceral way, and delivers moments of tragic catharsis that took my breath away.
Juliette Binoche’s performance is perhaps her most bizarre effort to date. I have seen a whole lot of Juliette Binoche movies and I can report that she is fully capable of delivering English-language dialogue in a non-stilted way. Many of her most important lines in High Life are delivered with a Bressonian level of emotional blankness. This is clearly a deliberate artistic choice. In general, the emotional blankness of much of High Life sets the viewer up to be absolutely destroyed by the moments of nakedness and catharsis. Binoche’s character—a terrifying latter-day Medea—is one of her very best. I don’t have as much to say about Robert Pattinson, but he continues to be excellent, and the thought of unexpecting young folks going to see this because of residual Twilight fandom utterly delights me.
I would also call attention to the portrait of fatherhood in High Life. It’s interestingly almost like a prequel to the father-daughter relationship in Denis’ (again, wonderful) 35 Shots of Rum. In that film, the father-daughter pair are isolated from French society by their status as immigrants, whereas in this film they are isolated from humanity by light years of literal distance, but in both the result is an unusual degree of intimacy. It’s at once creepy and warm, and the warmth is somehow both disrupted and reinforced by the icky and disturbing dog scene. It’s that special Denis magic.
Is High Life the most refined new release I’ve seen lately? No. That would be Ash is Purest White. But High Life is certainly the most intense, viscerally affecting new release I’ve seen in a long time. I love it without qualification.