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.
Hotel by the River’s opening credits inform us that filming took place between January 29, 2018 to February 14, 2018. It comes as no surprise that Hong Sang-Soo shot Hotel by the River so quickly given his output of six films in the past three years alone. By this point, Sang-Soo aficionados will know the elements that make this possible: Natural lighting, small crews, minimalist stories, and scenes shot on location. Sang-Soo’s style recalls the guerrilla nature of French New Wave filmmaking, but there’s a fifth element that enables Sang-Soo to be distinct. It’s not a dramatic climax involving soju and food, but rather, how Sang-Soo handles time. To watch a Sang-Soo film is to inhabit time or as Henri Bergson puts it, “time as duration.”Perhaps the plot first. The aging poet Younghwan (Ki Joobong) resides at the eponymous hotel located by the Han River. There, he reunites with his two estranged sons (Joon-Sang Yoo and Hae-hyo Kwon) and befriends two women (Kim Min-hee and Seon-mi Song) also staying at the hotel. Through their conversations we learn the backgrounds of these characters and the significance the hotel plays in their lives. Like other Sang-Soo films, events in Hotel by the River feel episodic and disconnected as if they were, appropriately, an assemblage of verses pieced together. Younghwan waits for his sons at the hotel cafe. Unbeknownst to Younghwan, his sons wait for him on the opposite of the cafe, hidden from view. Later on upstairs, the two women lie in bed napping, exchanging brief words between moments of waking. Sang-Soo punctuates dialogue with silence giving Hotel by the River a sense of non-urgency. Younghwan tells the two women that he has no qualms with passing away after having seen their beauty. Younghwan may initially appear to be an old and awkward man flirting, but he’s sincere enough and repeats the sentiment towards his two sons. Hotel by the River’s atmosphere, like Younghwan, contains an atmosphere of peace.
Velvet Buzzsaw seems to be from the bygone era of the literary Brat Pack’s heyday. The film’s world of selfish characters, sleek architecture, and high couture, despite its L.A. trappings, recall the east-coast set novels of Brett Easton Ellis—American Psycho, for example. Yet, an L.A. setting alongside a script meant to both terrify and satirize make it clear that the influence of David Lynch haunts the film. But Lynchian Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t.
If Lynch’s interests lie in exposing the horrors burrowed underneath our quotidian lives, then Dan Gilroy, who wrote and directed Velvet Buzzsaw, chooses instead to focus on the specific niche of the high-art crowd. The horror of Lynch’s films arguably comes from the transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar. One of the most striking and recurring of these Lynch images is that of a car barreling down a highway. In Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), these scenes signify a territorial shift into the supernatural, and therein lies anxiety and fear. Like Jeffrey Beaumont in the back of Frank Booth’s car we can only wonder in abject horror: where am I being taken to?
The same question arises in Velvet Buzzsaw during a similar scene involving an artist, stolen paintings, and a ghost. But here, we already know the answer: certain death. Velvet Buzzsaw is a black-and-white moral tale, and a rather uninteresting one. Not because of the film’s subject matter, but because what Gilroy has to say and how he says it. Those that value art only for its commercial value are greedy and deserve to be punished. Velvet Buzzsaw’s message establishes the fates of its characters, and we understand who the film’s perennial virgins are.
There’s no one central character. Rather, Gilroy tells the story through a central group all working within the contemporary art-world. The thread of the film, however, is Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), a painter living in solitude who passes away. His body of work is found by his neighbor, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who absconds with everything. Josephina’s boss, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), makes this discovery and blackmails Josephina into working alongside her to display Deases’ art. The exhibition is a smashing success, but par for the course, things begin to go awry when those connected to Deases’ art are grisly murdered.
Velvet Buzzsaw has been done before, and in fact, done better. Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) was similarly an attack on those who valued commerce over art. While not a horror film—look towards Week End (1967)instead—what Contempt does display is an aesthetic imagination. Godard employs the cinematic form itself to imbue Contempt with a sense of urgency, humor, romance, and whatever else comes to be expected of a genre film. Yet as the trailer for Contempt does, Godard plays with these genres. The importance of these factors doesn’t lie in their singularity—the divorce, the affair, the car crash—but in how they’re used.
Velvet Buzzsaw only hints at its artistic possibilities. Produced by Netflix, Velvet Buzzsaw had a chance to be a champion of sorts. From Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) to Steven Soderbergh’s latest, High Flying Bird (2019), it’s no secret that Netflix allows its directors to flex their creative freedom. Velvet Buzzsaw lacks this reflective quality. Unlike Jacque Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse (1991), no one in the film paints. Business deals are made, books are written, and critiques published, but even these elements are handled with a sterile quality.
At one point in the film, in an attempt to woo Piers (John Malkovich), a famous artist, gallery owner Jon Duddon (Tom Sturridge) tells him, “It’s not copying if its your own canon.” Duddon’s line rings true for the relationship between Gilroy and his two films, Velvet Buzzsaw and Nightcrawler (2014). Nightcrawler, too, takes place in L.A., and there Gilroy similarly endows the script with a satirical edge. But in Nightcrawler, Gilroy makes the medium the message. When I reviewed the film four years ago, I wrote the following (coincidentally I also made a comparison to another Godard film):
There’s a sense of cinéma vérité in how Lou goes about his job. Lou wants the truth and is willing to manipulate the cinematic image not to distort the truth but to accentuate it. One of the philosophical ideologies in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 “Notre Musique,” is that the truth has two sides to it. That very same multi-faceted truth is found in Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” Despite filming for the news–film which should only present the truth because it seeks to inform on the objectivity of events–there are no qualms with Lou’s manipulation of scenes. The morning audience of L.A. revels in the violence of its nighttime counterpart and Lou is simply giving them what they want. In a montage of images mirroring the opening shots of the film, morning L.A. is too characterized by its own series of images and sounds. The shots here focus on the satellite television dishes adorning the various houses as well as the mixture of sounds of different morning news programs being turned on
Perhaps Velvet Buzzsaw’s most interesting moment comes from a scene where paint drips from art, and like a snake, engulfs a woman. The scene is a marriage between the film’s horror and aesthetic sensibilities, yet the execution still leaves something to be desired. Instead, it plays out like the string of poorly produced horror films found in Netflix’s recommendation queue.