HIGH LIFE (2019, Claire Denis)
Or, Claire Denis’s Blue Material.
It’s hard to imagine a more pretentious version of a movie about a dozen horny death-row inmates and one mad scientist hurtling in a giant lego piece through the cosmos towards the oblivion of a black hole. But then again, this is Claire Denis — she is old, seasoned, and will never make a movie that isn’t overflowing with big concerns about humanity. However, when Juliette Binoche is speed-walking down a spaceship corridor holding Robert Pattinson’s joy juice in her hand, rushing to make it to a turkey baster in time so she can knock up a sleeping girl, one’s thoughts drift not to the concepts of procreation or life amidst futile existence, but instead to the image of George Kennedy running through the rickety aluminum sets of the fake sci-fi film in Albert Brooks’s MODERN ROMANCE, with director James L. Brooks watching on worried about the foley effects of the floor.
It seems that throughout the past 70 years of film history, French directors as disparate as Bresson and Besson have injected existentialist thought into both their overreaching dramas and their genre knock-offs. Why go on living if the only end is death? What is the purpose of continuing life in the face of such universal indifference? Denis doesn’t so much answer this question as she does pose it in unique fashion, jumping around chronologically to investigate the incipience and future of the relationship between Pattinson’s character and his baby daughter. And in doing so, she turns her gaze not outward into the galaxy, where trillions of stars shine casually around this floating box, and black holes loom with matter-sucking light, but inward towards the human body — gashes and stitches in a forearm; secretions of sweat, semen, and blood; the muscles and moles of a naked back; Rapunzel-length hair; the mocking of a voice and the squeals of an infant. Denis does not evaluate or opine on any of these — she presents them coldly and dispassionately, and tells her story the way she wants to tell it. Luckily for us, her tone and pace and compositions are so hypnotic that this is a super easy sit — I could have watched another hour of it — and it goes down smoother than both her better and worse films like TROUBLE EVERY DAY and BEAU TRAVAIL.
But Denis succeeds more when she’s lightening up, such as in her fine romance FRIDAY NIGHT. Here, she turns dour and pompous, utilizing risible dialogue, multiple rapes, a couple murders and suicides, and some animal cruelty for good measure (“What do you know about cruelty?” Pattinson asks his child). So it’s hard to argue that we aren’t supposed to be taking this movie very seriously. But then somehow Denis spends a great deal of time on the dark, solitary “fuckbox,” where people go to masturbate on something that looks like the mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch.