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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Denis’

It’s not unheard of for young actors to achieve a staggering level of success in what’s essentially their first prominent role – this usually happens in adaptations of books aimed at a young-ish audience, or at least with a young-ish protagonist, as these kinds of projects tend to come with a built-in audience and so the studio is a bit more prepared to take a chance on an unknown. The quandary, then, is what a serious-minded young actor, propelled into celebrity at a tender age, supposed to do next? Some of them take the cards they’ve been dealt, cheerfully gun the engine and head right on down Mainstream Highway, but others are clearly afflicted by the need to show they have taste and range and a desire to do artistically significant work. One of the ways you used to be able to do this was by appearing in a Woody Allen film, as Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart both did, but that option is basically off the table now. Stewart also went kind of art-housey in Personal Shopper a few years ago. It’s the kind of deal that works for both the performer and the makers of the film: the performer will hopefully get to show their range and seriousness about their art, while the big name star should help an otherwise uncommercial project attract attention and funding.

You can see the same kind of trade-off at work in Claire Denis’ High Life, which stars Stewart’s one-time co-star (amongst other things, hem-hem) Robert Pattinson. Denis revealed that every time she came to the UK to meet actors, Pattinson would turn up, whether he was invited or not, despite the fact she felt he was too young. Luckily, the march of entropy being what it is, Pattinson eventually stopped being too young, and now here he is, in a film which I can only describe as… you know, it doesn’t really lend itself to a brief description. What I will say is that this is a startlingly and often unpleasantly graphic film, and there may be turns of phrase on the way that will make you go ‘ugh’. Don’t blame me, blame Claire Denis.

The film occurs almost exclusively aboard a rather odd spaceship, which from the outside resembles a 1970s stereo cabinet. The film opens in the ship’s hydroponics section, which of course leads one to wonder about the extent to which this is a knowing homage to Silent Running; this line of thought is rapidly dispelled by the sounds of an infant, who appears to be being raised by computers. It turns out this is because her father (Pattinson) is outside fixing the spaceship. The two of them seem to be quite alone and lead a peaceful life of quiet routine; he seems to be an attentive and caring parent. Every day he has to make a progress report in order for the ship’s computer to keep the life support switched on for another twenty-four hours, which seems like an odd arrangement. Our first clue that even odder things have been going on here comes when Pattinson, wanting to economise on his electric bill, shuts down the ship’s cryogenics unit and dumps the corpses of the rest of the crew out of the airlock.

Needless to say, there are flashbacks to come, and slowly and incrementally the (rather unlikely, if you ask me) story of the ship comes into focus. This is a long-haul mission set to last many years, with a crew composed entirely of death-row convicts launched off into deep space to carry out experiments on using the rotational energy of black holes to solve Earth’s resource problems. Not that anyone on board seems to be thinking much about thermodynamics: everyone, with the possible exception of Pattinson’s character, Monte, seems to have become fixated on rather more basic issues.

Intimate contact between the members of the crew is apparently prohibited, but the builders of the ship have thoughtfully provided a room in which frustrated crew members can masturbate away to their heart’s content (although duff plumbing means there are puddles of all sorts of bodily fluids in the corridor outside). One keen user of this facility is the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche); there is a frankly astonishing sequence recording one of her visits to the room, in much more detail than I really needed to see. Apart from this, her main interest is in trying to produce a child through artificial insemination, to which end she is cheerfully manipulating and drugging the other crew members. Tensions inevitably rise between the other crew members, which only Pattinson is partly immune to, mostly because he’s trying to stay abstinent (just for a change). But how long will it be before the mission itself is endangered…?

As you can perhaps see from the poster, High Life has earned itself some glowing reviews and enviable star ratings, many of them from sources not often impressed by SF films. I suspect this is one of those SF films which people who don’t like SF will like. SF films which people who don’t like SF will like tend to fall into two categories: there are the ones which basically use SF props to tell a story lifted wholesale from another genre and reskinned – a lot of mainstream studio SF falls into this category. Then there is the more arty kind of obscure movie, which uses SF themes and imagery to deal with subtle and abstract philosophical and artistic notions.

Critics tend to love this latter kind of film, and will happily overlook the fact that the story is ludicrous. This is a film set on a spaceship which looks like a stereo cabinet, crewed by death-row inmates, with puddles of semen all over the floor, and we’re supposed to believe it’s giving us some grand insight into the human condition and ‘what it means to be human’? The most profound insight on offer here is a suggestion of what would happen if someone launched the Big Brother house into deep space, because it’s basically about a bunch of unsympathetic and frankly weird characters who appear to have become totally fixated with sexual matters. I don’t recognise this as ‘what it means to be human’; I only recognise it as what happens when a misanthropic and pretentious film director hooks up with someone from Twilight and gets to work on a script with a suspicious large number of names on it.

I should say that the script starts off being quite weird and only gets worse as the story continues. One character ‘commits suicide by burying himself in the garden’ (that’s from High Life‘s Wikipedia entry). Late-on, there’s a very strange interlude where the spaceship encounters another stereo cabinet, but this one appears to be inhabited solely by stray dogs. What any of it is supposed to signify is very difficult to work out.

As I say, you can see the makers of High Life are not unfamiliar with SF films from years gone by – in addition to Silent Running, you can perhaps discern the influence of films like Moon, Sunshine, and Interstellar. But all of those films seemed to have something to say for themselves about human beings and their place in the universe. The problem with High Life isn’t just that it’s a bleak and dystopian vision of the future, it’s that it seems to have nothing original to say for itself. Yes, human beings can be horrible and repellent, but they’re not necessarily like that, and if you’re going to suggest that the antics of a bunch of people plucked from death row and launched into deep space can offer a real insight into how people in general will behave – well, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.  It may be that this genuinely is a profound and insightful film, but the general tone and atmosphere of it is so repulsive I find it very difficult to look at it objectively. Claire Denis has certainly succeeded in taking the SF movie somewhere new, it’s just not a place there seems much point in visiting.

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