Outer Limits: A Conversation on Claire Denis’s High Life

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EVAN MORGAN: Recently, I found myself thinking about Claire Denis and failure thanks to—what else?—a Film Twitter thread asking for cinematic recommendations on the subject. I offered up Bastards (2013) as a representative example, a film as enamored with ruin as any I know, but now having seen High Life, I’m thinking I may have spoken too soon. In the very least, I’ve been left wondering if Denis’s oeuvre isn’t uniquely crowded with contenders for this sad prize: Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001) for their bleak assessment of desire as something caught perpetually in the throat, White Material (2009) and No Fear, No Die (1990) for their entropic politics; even something like Let the Sunshine In (2017), despite that exhortative title, is mostly a series of frustrations, no one of which is a true catastrophe on the merits, but as they pile up over a lifetime, they manage to block forward progress nonetheless. I’d like to nominate High Life too, though for different reasons and, it must be said, with some reluctance: for the first time, I suspect that Denis has been defeated by her own material. Unable to bend it to her will, she’s left with a film that only fitfully achieves her idiosyncratic vision. I’m willing to grant that the results might prove productive upon further reflection, but only in the way that mutations are productive: the variations introduce as much waste as they do benefit. As a Claire Denis Project, I think we have to speak of High Life in terms of failure. To emphasize the film’s continuity with Denis’s other work, as most of its admirers have done, is to fall into an auteurist trap. The film’s signal virtue, it seems to me, is bound up in its failures: it ought to frustrate easy auteurist readings.

For one thing, High Life is significantly less elliptical than the descriptions I’m reading: there are no lacunae to rival the narrative and structural gaps of a L’intrus, for example, and an honest attempt to outline the film’s trajectory should produce a fairly straightforward summary. For another, I think the approach to the images here (and in Let the Sunshine In, to an extent) is different from the approach in her mid-2000s films; again, people seem to be describing memories of L’intrus (2004) or something when talking about the way this looks. In all fairness, I haven’t fully articulated to myself the precise distinction between this late style and her mid-career style, but I feel it and I haven’t seen anyone grapple with it in a sustained way. In his interview with Denis at Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman gestures at this, but doesn’t probe further:

She never forces her images, which are striking without exceeding their narrative function, nor does she get lost in an elliptical thicket à la L’intrus, which is probably her most unsettled film. In terms of content and implication, High Life is anything but easy, and yet its craft gives an impression of effortlessness, as if its various complex, interlocking elements simply floated into place, zero-gravity style.

LAWRENCE GARCIA: Thematically, there’s no question that the film is of a piece with the rest of Denis’s filmography: the story alone charts the dual human failures of society (death row inmates sent on a perverse experimental voyage) and technology (the mission to harness the rotational energy of a black hole). In his mammoth appraisal of her career, Darren Hughes delineates the critical meta-narrative surrounding her work, and astutely describes High Life as “classic speculative fiction in that all of the narrative mechanisms—cosmology, astrophysics, violence, reproduction, the ethics of crime and punishment—are interlocking pieces of an ontological/theological puzzle box.” Indeed, the cube-like shape of the prison-cum-spacecraft seems explicitly designed around that notion. But the “unsettled” quality that Nayman suggests of L’intrus is what seems to be missing from High Life. Whereas, say, Trouble Every Day fuses its various oppositions—horror and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, drives of sex and death—into an experience of visceral, brutal beauty, High Life comes across as more monomaniacal in both intention and effect; the extremity of its gestures feels beholden to an external design, so the film registers mainly as an authorial expression of worldview. The moment-to-moment rhythmic, tactile, and sensuous incitements that I’ve come to expect from Denis’s cinema are, if not entirely absent, then severely diminished. To put it even more simply, High Life is less confounding or bewildering than any film of hers I’ve seen before.

As you suggest, the narrative is fairly easily pieced together, and what ellipses are present seem to remove ambiguity rather than inject it, which renders much of the character/action strictly symbolic/conceptual. Ewan Mitchell’s glowering convict, for instance, is so stringently defined in terms of his sexual frustration that his actions take on a lugubrious sense of portent. One might lament his eventual demise—a result of his rape of a female inmate, expected from the moment he’s introduced—but only in the sense of youth wasted by an oppressive order. So overall, High Life does seem to present a marked formal difference, one that goes beyond a shift in genre and a different set of collaborators. But what’s to account for it?

EM: It’s easy to see thematic consistency from a 1000-foot view, so yes, I’m thinking primarily in terms of style, but also the way style ought to shift our understanding of the thematic interests. Bastards, as I’ve already implied, is the baseline from which I’m trying to track the deviations: it’s also digital, similarly mythic, equally in erotic thrall to death, but hyper-specific in a way that makes High Life seem free-floating, anonymous even. There’s nothing here that comes close to the stuff with Vincent Lindon’s shirt in Bastards, for example, which is perfectly designed to explicate his character and string together a number of otherwise disparate sequences. The conceptual rigor represented by that shirt has no corollary in High Life.

LG: Part of me wonders whether or not this overall lack is a direct result of production constraints. The imagery of speculative fiction and sci-fi is so freighted by genre iconography; by her own admission the long shadows of Tarkovsky and Kubrick were inescapable in this. So perhaps in evoking the bare minimum of engagement from the viewer (i.e. the belief that this is “a space movie”) and then attempting to put her individual stamp on the narrative trajectory, Denis wasn’t quite able to make the ground-level experience specific enough to really connect.

EM: I think it goes deeper than the production constraints: As was the case with Sunshine, she pokes fewer holes in the generic template than one might expect, which suggests either a greater fealty to the genre than I would have thought possible given her earlier films or a thin conception of the genre’s possibilities. But I’m also curious whether that’s a feature and not a bug: in more ways than one, the film is about the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the edges where her style breaks down, where intimate touch—both physical and cinematographic—is no longer possible, and so there’s a way in which the lack at the heart of the film is the text. Again, I think the auteurist reading that this is a self-evidently successful elaboration of her pet ideas and images, rather than an attempt to map out the points where they fail, seems flawed to me. Though in a way, I welcome High Life’s failures.

LG: That approach seems like the most compelling avenue for considering the film’s (mutated) success. Throughout the film, there’s an intense preoccupation with ritual: specifically, what occurs when one is removed or irrevocably cut off from it. Denis seems interested in the (im)possibility of continued existence apart from the human rites and observances that require deep codification—only possible across lengthy spans of time, which is precisely what the convicts don’t have—to truly take hold. This is, in part, the appeal of funeral ceremony, which consoles precisely because it places the individual at a kind of remove; the impersonal nature of its rituals and movements is part of its power. The sequence leading into the title card shot, then, during which Pattinson’s Monte disposes of the crew’s bodies, is an unequivocal rejection of that possibility—and the toll of its lack becomes increasingly evident. As we see throughout the film, there’s an attempt to build up a new set of ceremonial forms: Monte’s own diurnal rituals (in particular, the scene where he collects his hair); and, most obviously, his daughter Willow’s attempt to pray, mimicking some of the glitchy “transmissions” that the ship receives from Earth. But cut off from all else, these are bound to fail.

Along these lines, there’s a way to view High Life as an attempt to work through history—including film history—through such transmissions; to recapture a lost existence through glitchy snatches of it. Early on, Monte’s toddler daughter is faced with a pair of monitors: one showing Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), the other showing a surveillance video of Monte outside the ship. There are also seductive flashbacks to what feels very much like a previous life, as well as home-video footage of a child playing by the sea. There’s a sense that Denis is practically reconstructing her style within this black box, or at least probing its limits by removing certain tactile pleasures. (In this, it’s salient that the Earth scenes are shot in 16mm, the space scenes in digital, and the finale in 35mm.) So if there’s an overall feeling of lack, it stems from an attempt to, as you say, map out points of failure. It seems no coincidence that the film’s most compelling sequences are all departures from the main spacecraft location: the overhead shot of a train, which leads into the most bewildering, and thus engaging expository bit; and Mia Goth’s descent, all strobing lights and warped space-time. (Though I’d also like to mention the Beau Travail-like sequence of the inmates exercising on the craft, which reminded me of Jeremy Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy, specifically Liminals.) Still, I’m not sure that I can ever fully embrace a film that, however intentionally, sparks so little in-the-moment engagement.

EM: The earth scenes are crucial, especially given their texture: a means for the film to establish all that’s being left behind, as you suggest. And if the move to space is in fact an abandonment of tactility, then I think the film’s trajectory makes a strong case for jettisoning the received wisdom regarding Denis’s aesthetic proclivities and finding ways to start over. Though I sense that, at this point in her career, Denis is herself too conscious of the expectations that burden her work to begin anew, no matter the narrative’s invocation of a new Eden. I’m thinking, primarily, of the approach to sex, which she touches on in an interview at The A.V. Club:

A.V. Club: You see beauty in High Life? There’s horror in it, too.

Claire Denis: Yes, but also beauty. The horror is not in the rape scene. It’s in having to throw the crew into the void because they’re dead. This for me is the horror. I don’t think the sex scenes are horror, honestly.

I might expect her to say something like this about Trouble Every Day which, as you said earlier, more convincingly melds horror and beauty, but she’s simply failing to describe High Life’s effect here. Not her job to do so, perhaps, and she possesses the author’s absolute right to her own intentions. On the other hand, it’s not the critic’s job simply to parrot those expressed intentions when the images on screen induce a contrary experience in the viewer; Denis may conceive of the Binoche/Pattinson rape scene as throbbing with some kind of repressed pleasure, but given its narrative purpose and the chilly blue light that pervades it, it reads to me as clinical or, to borrow Nayman’s word, functional. When compared to Beatrice Dalle’s bite, Binoche’s touch is more or less gentle. So in a way I agree with Denis: the scene doesn’t register as horrifying, but that’s also why no real pleasure registers either, and therefore even less beauty.

If for Denis thanatos is a precondition of eros, and we accept that High Life fails to generate much that’s erotic, then I suspect that the problem lies with thanatos. Boundless, incorporeal voids aren’t capable of firing up the limbic system quite like an embodied threat; fear of a thing that touches and fear of a thing that fatally withholds touch are quite different beasts indeed. Which is why High Life only really palpitates when Binoche steps into the fuckbox and outer space is swapped for inner space. The sequence comes close to replicating the mise-en-scène of Trouble Every Day, with its dried blood palette and its very New French Extremity taste for shadow (Daniel Kasman rightly cited Philippe Grandrieux), and so it temporarily promises to revive the old Denis pleasures. But the film’s pessimism, its systematic denial of pleasure (contra Denis), is also located here: somatic experience in High Life is so degraded that a machine is necessary to arouse something, anything.

LG: In a 2015 interview, Denis pushed back on the general (critical) notion that her cinema is uniquely focused on the body: “I’m filming characters, you know?… I don’t see why I do more bodies than other directors.” In High Life at least, it’s more difficult to countenance that assessment, particularly given the film’s self-consciously horrific presentation of various bodily fluids (semen, blood, breast milk) and functions decoupled from the individual person; if anything, the film is defined by such demarcations of character/body. Trapped into self-evidently Sisyphean 24-hour-cycles of pointless activity, the inmates’s pursuit of touch becomes stripped of intimacy and eroticism and love: understandable, when faced with a yawning void—for after all, a thanatropic drive doesn’t indicate a fundamental desire for death, but a compulsion so overwhelming that it overrides one’s fear of it. That “systematic denial of pleasure,” as you put it, seems to be the crux of the matter: images and sensations pushed to a point where all that registers is numbing indifference. But on that note, I’d like to throw in Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017)—a film that itself owes a fair debt to Denis, specifically Beau Travail—as an oblique, but perhaps relevant point of comparison. The chief achievement of Grisebach’s feature is the precise distance she locates from the material: the film’s studied withholding of conventional pleasures and confounding of viewer expectations creates, well, its own kind of pleasure; in the process, the film renders ostensibly familiar territory alien and new. To my eyes, High Life doesn’t offer a similar substitute, though perhaps that’s also an indication that my appreciation of Denis’s films has always been of a narrower, though still enthusiastic sort.

As the film heads towards its finale, there’s a disorienting cut to a teenaged Willow crawling into bed with Monte—an ellipsis that recalled the thrilling moment-out-of-time transition of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018), another work concerned with a desire to continue living in the face of overwhelming odds. (The trajectory of High Life could be seen as a distorted fulfillment of Armin’s desire to bring a child into his post-apocalyptic earth.) For as long as it took for Willow to reach this point, Monte found a desire to live—though not for much longer, as the film’s conclusion sees father and daughter, that familiar unit of Denis’s cinema, now descending into a black hole. But it’s to High Life’s credit that despite its overwhelming pessimism up to that point, this scene still feels as much a leap of faith as it is an affirmation of nihilism: the blinding final shot fulfills, with terrifying clarity, Let the Sunshine In’s ambiguous closing exhortation to “be open.” If we have indeed reached the outer limits of Denis’s cinema, the question now is: where will she go from here?

Good Time (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2017)

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The Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What was one of the singular films of VIFF 2014, a harrowing, grimy, close-up look at the life of a homeless junkie and her estranged boyfriend, enlivened by a remarkable performance from Arielle Holmes, upon whose life the film was largely based. With a pounding score and aggressive handheld close-up images from cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film delivered a kind of extreme realism, like a Neveldine/Taylor movie for the socially conscious art house crowd. The Safdies’ follow-up, which premiered at Cannes and opens at SIFF this week, is more explicitly a genre film, if only because instead of a real person playing the lead, they now have a bona fide movie star, Robert Pattinson. It’s a One Crazy Night story, with Pattinson digging himself ever deeper into trouble in the wake of a bank robbery he pulls with his brother, played by Benny Safdie. During the escape Benny is arrested, and later hospitalized after getting into a fight in jail. Pattinson tries to sneak him out of the hospital, which leads to the kinds of unanticipated snags and increasing lunacy that is the hallmark of this kind of film (the movie’s poster explicitly points to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours). As an exercise in suspense filmmaking, the movie is excellent, the music (this time by Oneohtrix Point Never) and Williams’s images perfectly suited to the manic nervousness and driving obsessions of the scenario. Pattinson is, as always, equal parts charismatic and deeply disturbing (would be interesting to pair this with his other great city film, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). The supporting cast as well is marvelously weird, headlined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi, but also including newcomers like Taliah Webster, Eric Peykert, Peter Verby, and Buddy Duress (who was also in Heaven Knows What), who has rightfully drawn comparison’s to the great oddball character actor Timothy Carey. One performance though has me baffled, and that is Benny Safdie’s as Pattinson’s developmentally- and hearing-impaired brother. I don’t know what to make of the film’s bookends, with Benny in a hospital undergoing treatment, first answering free-association questions from his psychiatrist (Verby), later in a group exercise. It’s been a couple weeks and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for these scenes, but they don’t feel right to me at all. But in-between them lies the most exciting American movie of the year so far.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

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…a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

–Rudyard Kipling, “The Explorer”

And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.

And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way.

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer.

–Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”

James Gray’s adaptation of the story of early 20th Century British explorer Percy Fawcett, based on a New Yorker article and subsequent book by David Grann, is as beguiling, beautiful and ultimately confounding as the Amazonian jungle in which it is largely set. Shot on actual film by the great Darius Khondji (Seven, My Blueberry Nights) the film has a granular opulence rarely seen in the Hollywood cinema today, lush details of both the rain forest wilderness and the rich dark warmth of the woods and leathers of English libraries that are overwhelmingly tactile and mesmerizingly immersive, which, combined with the film’s languorously fluvial pacing washes away all the gaps and inconsitencies and oddities in the screenplay, leaving only the impression of the grace and tragedy of the human impulse toward transcendence.

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Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog, 2015)

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Werner Herzog’s biopic of British archeologist Gertrude Bell premiered more than two years ago at the Berlin Film Festival to poor reviews, and is only this week making its way onto American screens. Why this should be is not immediately clear, the ins and outs of which international art house films make it into domestic distribution is far too complex a matter for my mind to comprehend, but I believe it involves some combination of corporate nepotism, the star system and random chance. The stars in this case are what make the film worth watching, as Nicole Kidman can enliven even the deadest of features, and this might be her most heroic effort in that vein to date. There’s almost nothing of Werner Herzog in the film, though there might have been once: Bell superficially appears to be his kind of a hero, obsessed with a harsh landscape, driven outside the bounds of society to do something remarkable, but at nearly every level the film feels compromised. Herzog is the only credited writer, but this has all the hallmarks of a film written and edited by a committee.

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