Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2018 11:54 am 
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Sex and violence in space

Claire Denis is a unique French filmmaker and one of the best working today. Her filmography is one of great variety and accomplishment and independent spirit. Somehow many seem now to know White Material, with Isabelle Huppert as a stubborn French colonial lady, though it doesn't seem one of her greatest successes. These are many. Personal favorites are The Intruder and 35 Shots of Rum. Let the Sunshine In, just before this, was fun.

Denis' first film in English, and her latest, High Life, is an oddball sci-fi film written partly by Nick Laird and his wife Zadie Smith. In it criminals are tricked into a dangerous mission searching for new energy sources hinging particularly on a question about black holes, on the false promise that they'll be rewarded with freedom for participating. Long planned by Denis as an English-language film because "I don't know why, but for me, people speak English – or Russian or Chinese – but definitely not French in space." This relates somewhat, obviously, to Duncan Jones's 2009 Moon.

But of course it's nothing like Moon either, because that is neatly focused on one character and one clearcut set of conditions. The initial focus here on Robert Pattinson';s character, caring for a baby girl, while appealing, the warmest segment, is a bit misleading. This apparently is a flashback. In the present time the girl has grown up. Many of the scenes are flashbacks of a program supervised by Juliette Binoche, looking wrecked and wearing extremely long hair extensions. Men in the program produce sperm and woman are impregnated with it, and when they give birth the babies are immediately taken away.

There are several scenes that stand out in this strikingly original and off-putting film. The ones with Pattinson and the screaming baby, to begin with. Then, the jaw-dropping scene where he picks up a bunch of floppy "cryogenically" preserved people and unceremoniously dumps them out into space: we see them slowly falling downward. Then, a scene where Binoche masturbates, using a silvery dildo and arm straps, her long hair flying and her body twisting alarmingly. And one in which a wiry young criminal type, one more convincingly criminal than Pattinson, with his kind face and perfect profile, who starts raping some women and is viciously attacked, till we are shown his corpse with ugly, mutilated face. There is much that is harsh and brutal here. There are also casual discussions, and moments outside among verdant plants and dark earth.

Also notable are the odd production choices. The space suits are floppy affairs seemingly made of 100% cotton and flimsy plastic. The space station interiors look more like some miserable land depot. Obviously Denis lacked the budget required for slick state-of-the art sci-fi fabrication but would not have wanted that anyway. She was seeking something original perhaps more in the order of folktale or comedy. At moments she succeeds.

However this isn't one of Denis' films, like 35 Shots of Rum or Beau Travail, that show great command, are life-affirming, and make magic happen.

High Life, 110 mins., debuted at Toronto, and is scheduled for 15 other international festivals including New York, where it was screened for this review 4 Oct. 2018. Metascore 81.

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