High Life (2019)

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Direction: Claire Denis
Country: UK / France / USA

French director Claire Denis’ High Life is not an easy film to watch. With simplistic scenarios and unshowy special effects, this psychological sci-fi thriller has bursts of violence within a deliberate pace that, despite fluctuating, never makes it a boring experience. Denis has a magnificent reputation for earthly dramas such as Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material, and Let the Sunshine In, but this story, co-written with frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, marks a turning point as her first English-language film as well as her first involvement in the specific topic of space exploration.

Intriguingly, the first scenes of the film present Monte (Robert Pattinson), a psychologically strong astronaut working outside a stranded spacecraft in order to fix energy problems while maintaining communication via radio with a little baby girl, who remains inside. They are the unique survivors of a failed mission into a black hole to extract energy. The crew was exclusively composed of death row inmates operating under the orders of the lascivious Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist totally devoted to artificial insemination. Obsessed with creating a child through the aforementioned method, Dibs forbids any sexual contact between crew members. But, of course, she didn't include herself in this restrictive rule. She makes sure that everyone on board becomes a compulsory user of a cabin referred as ‘the fuckbox’.

Through flashbacks, we realize how the radiation positioned in the mouth of the black hole killed a pregnant woman and her infant; how captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger) suffered a nearly fatal stroke; how the violent Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) silently sneaks in the sleeping room to claim Boyse (Mia Goth) as his sexual prey. We also catch sight of every death that leaves Monte and the baby as the sole survivors. Is she his daughter? How was she born?

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The idea matured in Denis’ creative mind during 15 years and the result is a compelling, thought-provoking piece of sci-fi with moments of undisturbed brainwork and sheer horror alike to give the audiences a jolt. Kubrick is a reference that comes to mind and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (who worked with François Ozon, Olivier Assayas, Luca Guadagnino, and Jim Jarmusch) is absolutely phenomenal. Also worth mentioning, the trippy score was created by Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart Ashton Staples.

Something really interesting to observe is that the spacecraft was never under external attack. They were never in danger, not even when a similar ship is sighted with ravenous stray dogs inside. As we could testify, humans are the main threat to their own existence. High Life is a mesmerizing, cerebral collision of uncontrolled human impulsivity and troubled survival.

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Let The Sunshine In (2018)

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Directed by Claire Denis
Country: France

French director Claire Denis created her own niche of fans with thoughtful dramas like "Beau Travail", "The Intruder", "35 Shots of Rhum", and "White Material". She now returns in top form, after two documentaries and one short, with an engrossing story adapted from the 1977 text A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. Juliette Binoche is an unquiet, emotionally unstable Parisian artist who desperately needs true love to survive. Isabelle is indeed a difficult divorcee who dreams of the perfect love. However, the men she picks are usually married, volatile in their emotions and decisions, and not so accessible as she would like them to be. 

At the same time that she closes one door to the despicable banker Vincent Briot (Xavier Beauvois, director of "Of Gods and Men" at his best), who is only interested in the pleasures of life and informs her he could never leave his wife, she opens another one to a successful younger actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who seems as nearly disorientated with his life as she is with hers. There’s also Mathieu (Philippe Katerine), a cordial, wealthy and single neighbor who keeps inviting her to spend some days with him in an estate in the countryside. She doesn’t pay so much attention to him as she keeps searching for something spicier in her relationships. 

Social class is also a factor that weighs in her evaluation of men. Hence, her preference goes to Marc (Alex Descas), a circumspect 50-year-old fellow artist, instead of the ordinary Sylvain (Paul Blain), with whom she flirted one night just for fun. She has nothing to lose in probing different relationships, but life can get dramatically tortuous when you don’t get what you’re looking for.

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Lonely, frustrated, and somewhat depressive, Isabelle can’t be blamed for feeling jealous of one of her best friends, Ariane (Sandrine Dumas), whose amorous life is better than ever. Maybe that’s why she embarked on inconsequent sexual encounters with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill), who now takes care of their 10-year-old daughter. Isabelle acts with indifference in regard to the kid. Her general dissatisfaction and inconstant mood consume so much energy from her that she can’t help crying alone.

Be aware that this is not a romantic film. It’s exactly the opposite. The self-assured Ms. Denis, who collaborated with Christine Angot in the script, takes the path of success by making it deliciously complex and witty. Her detailed observations are meticulously transposed to the screen through a fantastic Binoche, incredibly compelling in her performance, and the outstanding supporting cast. 

The finale is simultaneously droll and trenchant, with a 10-minute appearance from Gerard Depardieu as a spiritual counselor. His own relationship with his partner also reached an impasse. Yet, he talks in circles until drawing a smile from Isabelle out of a false hope. Can she let the sunshine into her life? I have serious doubts. Denis’ most diaphanous work to date is a subtle, powerful, and intelligent look at human relationships and society.

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