High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I feel like I was uniquely qualified to enjoy watching the live action Ghost in the Shell, a hunch that paid off nicely. First, I watched the movie weeks after its fiercely negative hype had already died down. I also caught a free screening, which eased a lot of its potential moral dilemma in regards to its white-washed casting. Then there’s the fact that I have no personal attachment to its source material, having never read the original manga or seen the anime film that followed in the 90s. I went into Ghost in the Shell expecting nothing more than Blade Runner-runoff eye candy and a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot. The movie did not disappoint on either front. It’s an intensely beautiful, intellectually empty spectacle overloaded with laughably stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot machinations. I would never hold it against anyone who takes offense with how the movie functions as an adaptation or how it handles the casting of its front & center protagonist, but divorced from that context and considered solely as a trashy sci-fi themed shoot-em-up, it’s a deeply silly, surprisingly entertaining film.

In two upfront information dumps, one provided by onscreen text and one delivered by a slumming-it Juliette Binoche, we’re explained to be living in a dystopian techno-future where the cutting edge of robotics is bio-enhancements to the human body. Routine cosmetic surgery outfits citizens of a Future Tokyo with everything from robo-eyes to robo-livers to enhance both the practical and the recreational aspects of modern life. Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg protagonist is the next logical step in this technology: a human brain/soul (“a ghost”) implanted into a completely synthetic body (“a shell”). She’s not allowed to be her own autonomous person with this new merchandise, however. It turns out the Evil Corporation that implanted her ghost in its new shell intends to use her solely as a militarized bio weapon, erasing memories of her true past and ordering her to strike down people she might consider comrades if given freedom of choice. This inevitably leads to a dual quest to both track down her (embarrassingly ill-considered) origin story and to take down the corporate monsters who own her. And if that weren’t enough of a by-the-books superhero plot for you, she begins & ends the film perched like Batman on the edge of Tokyo rooftops, surveying the city she’s reluctantly doomed to protect.

What a city it is, though. The delicious synths, neon lights, and post-Blade Runner grime borrowed for this dystopian techno-future make for a surprisingly intense visual experience despite Ghost in the Shell‘s cookie cutter superhero plot. Billboard advertisements have evolved into kaiju-sized holograms, layering an eerie artificiality onto the city like .gifs flickering on a gigantic smartphone. The range of influences on this visual palette cover everything from the legitimately respectable (The Matrix, Advantageous, The Congress, Paprika) to the trashy media I probably shouldn’t champion as much as I do (Nerve, Tron: Legacy, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic). This isn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction with director Rupert Sanders either. I remember leaving his Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman thinking it hopelessly vapid, but hauntingly beautiful, like a feature-length perfume commercial. I’m not exactly sure what product Ghost in the Shell would be selling me as a 120min advertisement. Maybe those Pop Tarts with the bright blue icing or, I don’t know, light-up Reebox? Whatever it might be, I was totally on the hook to make the purchase even while recognizing to an extent just how much of a sellout dweeb with no moral compass it makes me.

The moral crisis at the center of Ghost in the Shell‘s production is the casting of ScarJo in the lead role, a character initially depicted with Asian characteristics in the original anime and manga. The live action version decided to double down on this casting choice by not only outfitting Johansson with an Asian-style haircut and making her & the few other white characters (in an otherwise diverse cast) the constant center of attention, but also by making her character a literal Asian woman trapped in a white woman’s body. If I were at all taking this film seriously, as I assume many dedicated Ghost in the Shell fans have, I could see finding that choice horrifically misguided. Instead, it plays to me as humorously clueless, just another colossal misstep in a film that’s essentially a long line of colossal missteps. Besides the racial implications of ScarJo’s casting, the film also hilariously misuses the cold, inhuman delivery that she’s employed so well in films like Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and The Jungle Book. It might entirely be a question of quality in dialogue too. I can’t say that Johansson is doing anything especially different in Ghost in the Shell than she does in any of her other non-human roles, but something about her robotic delivery of lines like “I will find him and I will kill him. It is what I am built for, isn’t it?” that plays more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate character study. By the time a villainous Michael Pitt arrives to attempt to out-do her robo-speech, all bets are off and Ghost in the Shell plays like an oddly violent, expensive-looking comedy.

Your personal experience with this disposable sci-fi action spectacle is going to depend almost entirely on how seriously you’re willing to take it. For those expecting an intricately crafted visual feast that presents a glimpse of a haunting, technology-ridden future, Ghost in the Shell will only offer you morsel-sized scraps: creepy “geisha bots” with segmented faces, neon-lit nightclub shootouts, a sea of writhing bodies in a brief dive into a machine’s subconscious, etc. What’s a lot easier to latch onto is the humor in the movie’s overblown absurdity. Spider tanks, robo-Yoda speak, casual references to something called “The Lawless Zone,” digital cloaks, blatant ogling at ScarJo’s naked, Barbie doll-smooth body: Ghost in the Shell is teeming with ridiculous production details and screenwriting choices. Any awe I had for its visual craft was equally balanced out by my frivolous amusement with throwaway lines like, “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost. Your ghost is yours.” Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, this strange mess of a film is fundamentally misguided as an adaptation of its source material, but also surprisingly impressive in its attention to its intricate Blade Runner Jr. production design and charmingly dopey in its reductively simplistic superhero narrative arc. It’s a delightfully dumb source of sci-fi action entertainment as long as you don’t ask for too much intellectual stimulation from it. You’re not going to get it.

-Brandon Ledet

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Nothing can sink a film faster or more thoroughly than the viewer’s misplaced expectations. I know it’s not fair to judge a film based on what you expect it to deliver as opposed to what’s actually on the screen, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Clouds of Sils Maria is a good movie. It’s visually stunning, hosts a handful of excellent performances from greatly talented actresses, and doesn’t have any particular scenes that fall flat without impact. Still, I can’t help but feel like the movie let me down in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was good, but I was expecting it to be great, an unfair expectation or not.

As far as the film’s performances go, most of Clouds‘ emotional weight rests on the shoulders of Juliete Binoche & Kristen Stewart, who play an aging actress of stage & screen who’s struggling with an ever-evolving industry & her young, no-bullshit assistant, respectively. Having never seen Stewart in a single Twilight movie (okay maybe I drunkenly heckled the first one), I’ve only ever had positive experiences with her work, so her success in Clouds of Sils Maria comes as no surprise to me. Juliet Binoche’s immense talent is another no-brainer, but it’s her unlikely chemistry with Stewart that makes the screen sing. Whether the two are tensely conducting business across a series of electronic devices, tensely rehearsing lines for Binoche’s latest role, or tensely enjoying an alcoholic beverage, there’s a great push & pull to their relationship that unfortunately proves to be a well-played non-starter. Chloë Grace Moretz also cashes in on some long detected, but rarely seen acting chops here in a role as a Lindsay Lohan/Miley Cyrus archetype, but there’s no mistake that this is Binoche’s & Stewart’s show.

The other significant element in play is the movie’s play within a play structure, which of course comes with an avalanche of meta context. As Stewart’s & Binoche’s characters discuss acting as a craft, it’s difficult to separate their words from the real-life actors speaking them. As they rehearse lines from a script about an older executive seducing a younger version of herself, it’s difficult to separate the-play-within-the-movie’s sexual power dynamics from their characters’ relationship as intimate coworkers. As they discuss the current state of tabloid culture & celebrity gossip it’s difficult not to think of the dialogue as the actresses venting on camera. Clouds of Sils Maria has a lot of fun playing with audience perception, blurring the lines between fiction & reality in an admittedly catty, but intricately layered fashion.

There’s also a lot of simplistic, but effective visual majesty derived from the location of the film’s title. The clouds of Sils Maria’s mountaintops are flowing, river-like washes that add a drowning sadness to the separation, death, and axiety that plague the opening of the film. At one point the clouds & mountain roads overwhelm Stewart’s character in a psychedelic cacophony that suggests a drastic change coming in the film’s structure (à la Bergman’s Persona) is imminent, but alas very little changes & the film silently rolls along, just like the clouds that decorate it. There’s so much commendable about Clouds of Sils Maria that it pains me to admit that I wasn’t fully satisfied with the entirety of what was delivered. I left the film with a mind full of pleasant sentiments & images, but still feeling empty-handed, as if I had tried to grasp a passing cloud, only to watch it dissipate between my fingers. It’s a difficult reaction to describe, but I also doubt I’m the only one who felt it.

-Brandon Ledet