Tag: claire denis

High Life

High Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The obtuse but consistently fascinating “High Life” tells the story of a group of criminals, each one either sentenced to life in prison or on death row, who are given the chance to serve science by going to space, approaching the nearest black hole, and collecting its rotation energy. On the way there, most of them participate in an experiment involving artificial insemination led by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a doctor who murdered her family. The work offers a tight and slow pacing but never boring, supported by numerous ideas like the value of a life within a microcosm, freedom in an enclosed space, and what it means to have purpose during what is essentially a suicide mission.

There is a strong possibility that most may sit through the film and find little to no value in it. The closing chapter, after all, is anticlimactic, tinged with sadness, and open-ended. One cannot be blamed for asking, “What’s the point?” But I believe the aim of the screenwriters, Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the former directing the picture, is not to tell a work with a defined shape through precise plotting. This is supported by a non-linear storytelling followed by some vague build-up surrounding fates of particular characters—some die in the hands of one another, others choose to kill themselves, one or two entirely by accident. It is a prime example of a story in which the value lies upon the journey more than the destination.

The work is shot with a keen eye. Never mind the neon lights. Beauty lies in actual details, like the many routines the criminals must partake in, especially when inside Dr. Dibs’ highly impersonal clinic. For example, because she rules over that space, and knowing her obsessive approach to create a life in space, bodies are treated like cattle. She does not ask questions unless answers may be relevant to her work. When she herself is asked questions, she is often dismissive. When a participant expresses distaste for her project, concerns are not addressed directly or elaborated upon. She values her samples over the people who provide the samples. A case can be made that the character symbolizes the oppressive system back on Earth. And yet Dr. Dibs is not portrayed as a villain.

Aside from Binoche’s single-minded “second chance” doctor, another standout character and performance is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson. In the opening sequence, we learn he is the only adult survivor aboard the ship. But he is not alone. There is an infant with him—a little girl that we assume to be the product of Dr. Dibs’ artificial insemination project. I found it strange but curious that although Monte and the baby is supposed to be the heart of the picture, given they are introduced prior to the rest of the characters, I did not find myself invested in their relationship or story. Or perhaps we are meant to feel this way, to prey on or capitalize upon our assumptions that a father figure and a helpless child must be the focal point not only within the vastness of space but also among criminals of varying degrees—from petty crimes, drug addicts, to rapists and murderers.

“High Life” offers an enveloping experience, filled to the brim with thick atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. In some ways, the core is a muted horror film surrounded by ideas closer to science-fiction. Like the Dr. Dibs character, it is, for the most part, impersonal. It is uninterested in making us like the characters. In fact, we are encouraged to dislike some of them. On the surface, viewers may sneer at all the artificiality—its use of light, the synth music. But I think that those who manage to see through the fog may find something worth examining.

White Material

White Material (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Maria (Isabelle Huppert) was in charge of the Vial coffee plantation which was owned by her father-in-law (Michel Subor). Civil war and racial tension intensified outside of the plantation but Maria was convinced that she and her family, her ex-husband named André (Christopher Lambert) and her son named Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), would be safe within property lines. But when desperation was in the air, all rules were thrown out the window. Directed by Claire Denis, I didn’t warm up to “White Material” right away. I was initially confused with what was happening because the story started without providing a historical background. However, over time, I realized it didn’t need to because it really was more about how the Vial family responding to the chaos that threatened their very lives. The moment it got my attention was when two boys decided that they were going to murder Manuel as he closed his eyes while floating on water. Tension was extremely high during that scene because I cared about both parties. Their political beliefs didn’t matter to me. I cared about the possible murderer because they were just children. They may have thought they knew what they were doing but children’s minds are highly influenced by external factors. Propaganda was everywhere. Hate speech was on the radio, they gathered information from their peers, and it was possible that they had no parents to help them discern right from wrong. As for Manuel, late twenty-something, I cared about him, too. He might have been a tattooed slacker who never lent a hand in the plantation but he didn’t deserve to be hunted like an animal. What happened to him after the incident was devastating yet it was an excellent commentary about the political turmoil that Maria so desperately tried to ignore. Huppert was wonderful as a woman in utter denial. There was no doubt that I wanted to shake her, even slap her multiple times, to make her see that her actions were downright ill-advised. I understood that she loved the land and she considered Africa, not France, as her home. After all, Africa was where she gave birth and raised her son–she loved him completely, almost painfully, even though she didn’t exactly think he would turn out as someone who would let himself go. Huppert infused the right amount of pride, arrogance, and strength in her character. Her performance was restrained but the way she changed her body movements and facial expressions during crucial scenes made a lot of lasting impact on me. Her capacity for making mistakes was what made her relatable. Ambiguous, challenging but fascinating, “White Material” need not be admired but it certainly deserved to be talked about.

Beau Travail

Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★

This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.