Out There, Alone

Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) makes an apt comparison to her latest, High Life (2018) because both are genre films made by a director who doesn’t traffic in them. The two, however, couldn’t be any more different than one another. While both share horror elements, the genre conventions in Trouble Every Day are either pushed to their grotesque extreme or subverted. High Life, on the other hand, aims for a broader appeal (in New York City, the film is playing in select arthouse theaters but also at AMC). A broader appeal doesn’t conflate with a film being bad—even here, Denis proves to be more imaginative and enthralling than Interstellar (2014) and Gravity (2013), other recent space-faring films. Yet, High Life lacks an element of spontaneity and instead feels like a product of rigor. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Willow (Jessie Ross) are the last surviving members of a mission to investigate black holes. The narrative jumps between the present where Monte cares for Willow and the past, where Denis reveals how the crew members died and how Willow was born. As in Denis’ sophomore feature, No Fear, No Die (1990), the camera in High Life accentuates claustrophobia and imprisonment. The images, however, are perfectly ripe for reproduction, such as the film’s title opening depicting corpses floating in space. Yes, a film like Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) contains moments of grandeur—soldiers dancing in the desert. But in that film, both bodies and camera are in motion. In the film’s finale, when the camera does stop, it’s not to entertain the audience, but to inhabit a character’s internal psychology. High Life, on the other hand, strikes one as being ready for Tumblr reblogs or Instagram snapshots. For those who have seen it, of course, the fuck-box scene is noteworthy. Juliette Binoche, who plays the mad doctor Dibs, imbues the entire film with an imperial quality that’s both terrifying and alluring. For all the seemingly radical qualities of the above scene, however, Denis is nearly two decades late.

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