By Elisabeth Lequeret
How to enter an oeuvre of more than 20 films, documentaries and fiction combined, which touches all genres, autobiographical fiction with her first feature film Chocolat (1988), thriller with I Can’t Sleep (Festival 1995) , vampire film (Trouble Every Day, 2001) or war (Beau Travail, Festival 2000), and even comedy (Let the Sunshine In, 2017)? High Life, her new movie, offers a sumptuous entry point. This most atypical French filmmaker is trying science fiction for the first time, with an international cast led by Canadian star Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. High Life, so ironic a title, if we consider the fate assigned to its characters: half a dozen reprobates locked in a spaceship, under the supervision of a nurse with her own particular disorders, played by Binoche herself. Ecological catastrophe? With the backdrop of humanity’s imminent disappearance, High Life burns at both ends with the obsessions of Claire Denis. The bite of desire, as it spurs the ballet that engages Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson’s characters. Confinement, the solitude lived amid the hell of the group, the breakdown of tissue, brought to its highest point of incandescence in this jail of dilapidated space, where violence does not take long to break out. And in this universe of death where everything seems to slide inevitably in the worst direction, there is soon a miracle, a spark of life, a birth, the path of a possible redemption for the criminal played by Robert Pattinson.
Since her first feature film, Chocolat in 1988, Claire Denis has occupied a special place in French cinema. By the fever that haunts her work, by the beauty and violence of her stories. From her childhood in Cameroon, raised by colonial administrators, she kept a taste for otherness. For distant landscapes, preferably African, she films without a trace of exoticism: the stony beauty of Djibouti in Beau Travail, Polynesia crushed by the sun in The Intruder (Festival 2005), the ocher and arid bush where Isabelle Huppert wanders in White Material (Festival 2010).
Powerfully concrete, Claire Denis magnifies indistinct places. Even when she films in Paris and its surroundings, it is always by placing her camera on the edges, free zones, squats, all places haunted by the worrying prospect of a departure, of an impending leak. The shabby apartment, like the lair of a big beast, where the serial killer of Bastards takes refuge after his villainous crimes. 35 Shots of Rum‘s (Festival 2009) cramped three-room apartment near the Gare de l’Est where Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop) live, where each train seems to announce the separation between father and daughter, the departure of Jo to her new adult life. In No Fear, No Die (1990), the cockfights that bring the characters together are held in a abandoned restaurant near the Halles de Rungis, between wastelands and tar.
With Claire Denis, beauty is always in limbo, between heaven and earth. She worries at the certainties of identity, upsets the usual references. Her characters are always haunted by loneliness and madness, grazed by the black wing of trance and possession. A reminiscence of her African childhood?
The filmmaker has always been eager to bring new faces, new bodies into her cinema, from Isaaché De Bankolé to Alex Descas. The years have seen her move away from any psychology, except – notably – Let the Sunshine In, co-written with the novelist Christine Angot and inspired by Fragments of a Love Speech by Barthes. From film to film, this admirer of Jacques Rivette brings to French cinema a promise of enchantment, a stylized appetite for the dance of bodies, delivered to the solar joys of desire (Nenette et Boni, Festival 1997) or to the disciplinary order (Beau Travail). In 2005, she devoted a beautiful documentary, Vers Mathilde, to the choreographer Mathilde Monnier. With Claire Denis, we must always agree to jump into the dance.
Elisabeth Lequeret works as a journalist at Radio France Internationale. She is also the French delegate of the Berlin film festival.