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Getting high with Claire Denis

A still from ‘High Life’

A still from ‘High Life’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


A look at the French filmmaker and writer’s work, and what makes her cinematic vision so special

As you read this, Claire Denis is presiding over the Short Films and Cinefondation Jury at the ongoing Cannes film festival. We are blessed that Denis, along with her 1940s-born European compatriots, Pedro Almodovar, Werner Herzog and Michael Haneke, continue to make films. Haneke is at work on dystopian series Kelvin’s Book; Almodovar’s keenly awaited Pain and Glory — his first film since 2016’s Julieta — reunites him with his muses Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and is in competition at Cannes; while the prolific Herzog’s Japanese film, Family Romance, LLC, will have a special screening at Cannes.

In the case of Denis, whose English-language debut High Life is currently on release internationally, it is clear that she is working at the top of her game. It is a film difficult to write about without spoilers, as the filmmaker reveals her secrets slowly and elliptically, so here’s a broad idea. A group of death-row inmates are on a mission on a space station deep in space. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

It is best that you go into High Life not having read or watched anything about it, like I did, so that you can be gobsmacked by Denis’ vision. The film nods to a whole bunch of its predecessors including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris and Silent Running (both 1972) and Event Horizon (1997) and the cast includes a whole lot of beautiful people, including Juliette Binoche, Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, and Scarlett Lindsey, who is the most astonishing on-screen baby in decades. I could go on about the production design, or about how unlike many of its austere predecessors, High Life thrums with humanity, but really, that’s all you need to know. Just watch it.

The first Denis film I watched was her masterpiece Beau Travail (1999), set amidst the French Foreign Legion in Sub-Saharan Africa. That led me back to her debut feature, Chocolat (1988), where a young woman revisits her youth in Cameroon. Denis would visit the continent again with White Material (2009). While these films are very good indeed, the one that blew me away and began a lifelong love story with the music of frequent Denis collaborators, the English music group The Tindersticks, was Trouble Every Day (2001). A paean to obsessive love, this is one of the few films that I watched, walked out of the cinema, bought another ticket and watched the very next show. The level of obsession in the film is something that our own Bhaskar Hazarika has achieved with his Assamese-language Aamis (2019) that is currently on the festival circuit. Lest this reads like a Denis laundry list, I’ll limit myself to saying that I have a lot of time for Friday Night (2002), and my heart bursts with the humane nature of 35 Shots of Rum (2008).

It has been said that Denis focusses on the outsider, the marginalised. I disagree. If Denis trains her lens on you, you are cinema.

Naman Ramachandran is a journalist and author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, and tweets @namanrs

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 3:32:37 PM |

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