High Life (UK-France-Germany-Poland-US, 2018)

Life sentence

It’s difficult to write about Claire Denis’ latest film after just one viewing not because it is particularly dense, and so hard work to watch, but its rich allusiveness and elliptical narrative offer more questions than answers. As the Sight & Sound reviewer points out, the first English-language films of arthouse directors can lead to simplification; not in Denis’ case.

Arthouse science fiction immediately brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972) and there’s no doubt that it was in Denis’ mind when making High Life. In the former, an alien sentient ocean learns about humanity by bringing back to life loved ones; in the latter, life sentence prisoners are sent on an interstellar voyage to harness energy from black holes (Silent Running, US 1972, 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK 1968, are other references). The similarity between the films, apart from the standard SF trope of investigating what it means to be human, is in the mise en scene of the spaceship corridors and the flashbacks to wet and wooded Earth. Although not as dense as Tarkovsky’s film, Denis’ refuses to offer easy understanding as we are given little information about characters’ motivations; even though there is an intermittent voiceover from Robert Pattinson’s protagonist, Monte. We probably learn most about Juliette Binoche’s diabolical Dr Dibs who is determined that procreation will happen, in an unorthodox fashion, during the voyage.

Even if you struggle somewhat, as I did, with the narrative there is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous cinematography to revel in and Olafur Eliasson is cited in the production design; he was responsible for the awesome Tate Turbine Hall installation, Weather Project. The manifestation of a black hole is memorable if a little off-putting as the blackness surrounding the cinema screen was darker than the hole itself. However, although Denis consulted scientists when writing the script, it’s clear (in one scene particularly) that the needs of art over-ride the laws of physics (which is as it should be).

Elliasson’s Weather Project

Am I clearer about what it means to be human after seeing the film? I’m not sure because the choice of characters as ‘lifers’, some of whom live on the feral end of the spectrum, skews the sample; though Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny exudes humanity. Monte himself if something of an enigma and as such is superbly played by Pattinson; an actor to be praised for his choice of material when he could have been a ‘matinee idol’. What I am sure about is the haunting quality of the film, in part due to Stuart Staples’ score, because I’m interested to see if I can understand more about the film (and so about life) and to enjoy the startling imagery again.

It’s worth noting that ‘babies in space’ is an unusual representation and the opening of the film focuses on  Monte with a child. They are affecting scenes that emphasise human bonding even when the technological interface is paramount, as it is in a spaceship.

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Faces Places (Visages villages, France, 2017)

Still worth watching

Agnès Varda’s last feature film is a true joy. Crowd funded to allow her and street artist, and co-director, JR, to travel in his photo booth to shoot locals and briefly turn them into icons on their walls. There’s a wonderful whimsy, not withstanding the horrible animation of the credit sequence, to the project that conceals the directors’ desire to celebrate the under-represented. These aren’t ethnic minorities, I spotted only two black people in the film, but the ordinary person who populate the parts of France they visited. Thus miners and dockworkers of the working class are shown as well as women.

It’s obviously JR’s schtick to stick up giant images on buildings. They are only paper so don’t last long; like our lives. The black and white images are incredibly striking; moving the last woman living in old miner’s houses to understandable tears. Varda tells her it’s supposed to make her happy; the director’s humanism shines throughout. One of the few overtly political moments was the contrast between goat farms: one burns off their horns to increase production the other doesn’t.

The unlikely friendship between the artists, 60 years apart in age, is one of the joys of the film which is infused with humour. Their relative size, he seems to be twice as tall as she, is one running joke. In one scene an optician’s letter chart is mimicked by people on steps holding letters. Varda says they need to wobble to represent what she sees; she was suffering from an eye disease. It’s both funny and sad showing how Varda came to terms with her infirmity.

So much of television is full of reality TV where characters get to respond to whatever ‘after’ the narrative has provided them with. In Faces Places, though, the ‘after’ is genuinely awe-inspiring: seeing their images writ large and there is plenty of satisfaction in hearing the ‘ordinary people’s’ responses. At a factory, groups of shift workers are placed together to form a community that is, in reality, never there at the same time.

Varda’s film career started with the French new wave and the only sour note in the film is fellow pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s curmudgeonly non-appearance at the end. Sadness also infuses watching the film now as Varda only died two weeks ago; she comments upon impending death in the film. However, the experience of the film is life affirming because she continued to work and continued to share her humanist perspective with us all. She will be missed.

Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.

 

Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belguim, 2016)

The professional-personal

Katell Quillévéré (who directed and co-wrote the script based on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel) is a talent new to me and I can’t wait to see more. Heal the Living focuses on a heart transplant: the first half of the film deals with the donor’s death and his family’s reaction; part two is about the recipient. The film manages to represent sublime moments in life: for the donor it is surfing (superbly photographed); for the recipient it is a piano concert played by a former lover. It also has a documentary eye on the actual heart surgery and, more importantly, the way doctors and nurses deal with the extreme emotions involved in the death of a child and the professional necessity of getting on with the job.

Of course such extremes rely on the actors to deliver the director’s vision and the assemble cast deliver with utmost skill. The putative star, Tahir Rahim (above right), has less screen time than some but manages to convey deep humanity from an apparently passive face; Quillévéré gives him time to explain why he loves goldfinches, to the be/amusement of a couple of nurses. The other ‘big name’, Emmanuelle Seigner, is similarly superb as the bereaved mother. However, all the cast hold there own with deeply committed performances.

It may appear a film about organ donation will be a ‘bit grim’, and there is much sadness represented in the film, but ultimately it is life affirming. Quillévéré takes time to dip into the lives of peripheral characters: a nurse has a sexual fantasy in a lift; a son hides his ‘dropping out’ from his mother. Her presentation of the bewilderment and joy of youth, when a boy meets a girl, is affectingly done and I’ve already mentioned the joie de vivre of the surfing sequence.

I read that the heart surgery scene is all special effects: they are as impressive as the film itself. Often cinema is an idea medium to spend some time in the ‘lives of others’. Heal the Living gives us time to understand the pain of the bereaved and at the same time understand the vitality of life.

School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie, France, 2018) – LIFF8

The kids aren’t alright

Sébastien Marnier’s second film as a director (he also co-wrote) is pleasing in that it deals with the key political, indeed existential, issue of our time: ecological destruction. It’s couched as a thriller where Laurent Laffitte’s Pierre takes over, as a substitute teacher in a private school, a class of gifted children. Their previous teacher jumped out of the class’ second floor window during a test. The slow burn development of what’s going on in the six of the kids’ creepy minds is satisfying but the denouement can’t hold the burden of what precedes it.

The kids could be out of The Damned or Village of the Damned such is their apparent disassociation from the social world; unsurprisingly the other children in the school see them as elitist (which is a bit rich considering they all are privileged). Pierre endeavours to understand them (suitably he’s completing a thesis on Kafka reflecting the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in) and rails against the Principal who (a malaise in France as well as the UK apparently) is only concerned with results. However, it is always difficult to convince a teacher (ex in my case) of the veracity of school life and I cannot believe that violent attack on Pierre would have been shrugged off in such a perfunctory fashion (unless that’s France for you).

There are plenty of beautiful, portentous, shots of the sky and I kept expecting aliens to arrive but, as the horrifying ‘found footage’ of animal cruelty and desecration of the Earth shows, the real threat are humans who are depriving our children of a future. Zombie Zombie’s music heavy-handedly emphasises the point, however the film needed a bigger climax though the final scene is quite haunting.

Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.