Short Cuts: HIGH LIFE

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At one point during High Life‘s opening sequence—an extended, eerily serene passage that floats through the aftermath of the movie you’re about to watch—Robert Pattinson cradles an infant and tries to teach it the word “taboo.” He’s thinking out loud, the way parents do when they’re talking to both their child and themselves, and his tone is nothing but love. “Break the laws of nature,” he advises, “and you’ll pay for it.” It is a quick narrative lodestar—though the better question, examined by the film like an alien object, is what the laws of nature are, and whether you could ever break them in the first place.

High Life is science fiction as done by the French director Claire Denis. It is her first film in English, a decision she charmingly explained by saying that no one speaks French in space. It has a very Denis-like structure, slipping in time with dreamy edits, and a very un-Denis-like voiceover to keep you oriented, which just places it in sturdy sci-fi traditions that have somehow been hijacked by arthouse kink. Indeed, Mme. Denis is back in her transgressive mode, willing to go far enough that a genre hook, a Hollywood celebrity, and a dissolved language barrier still bend any notions of commercial appeal into an only vaguely recognizable shape. It is as if, in 1968, 2001 and Barbarella had had a scrappy pagan lovechild, then raised it in a venereal 21st century apocalypse. And while the result has too many rough edges even on its own idiosyncratic terms, this handcrafted space odyssey grabs quite a lot of the subversive, unsettling, intriguing, and fascinatingly dangerous potential of such mad science.

In the not-too-distant future, a group of criminals, bums, and undesirables are rounded up and shot into space. Ostensibly, it’s to gather research—something about fertility and black holes—but there’s no plan to ever bring them home. All of these exiles, male and female alike, take part in scientific sexual experiments, with their spare time spent wandering the halls, tending to a small but lush arboretum, and taking turns in “the fuck-box”, a room on the ship that provides a frustrated individual with mechanized release. It’s a festival of base instincts, and the only one in this voyage of the damned who seems to rise above it is Pattinson. There is something quietly virtuous, even saintly about his character—which, of course, just makes him more alluring to the ship’s twisted scientist, played with dark secrets by Juliette Binoche. (Who’d have thought, ten years after Twilight, that fetishizing Pattinson as some sort of elusive ideal male partner would end this way?).

It is not exactly a pleasant viewing experience. In fact, it is frequently and with great purpose the opposite, spilling any bodily fluid it can in ways that only a female director (and a provocative one at that) would think to film. But no one should miss the lucidity of its arc: an inescapable microcosm where dark side effects of sexual life—violence, self-loathing, infertility, compulsive masturbation, a mother’s resentment of her children, a pregnant woman’s disgust towards her own body—rattle around profanely before yielding the purity and clarity of a new life. This all flows in a movement of tones, from dirge to chaos to horror to tentative peace. Its atmosphere comes from modest elements: an interior lit in tender hues; FX sequences used as measured, abstract visual art; and actors who reveal themselves in ways that count. And so the L word of the title is a symbiotic relationship between repulsion and beauty, neither denying the latter nor judging the former. Kubrick had his Star-Child. And Denis, simply a child—no more or less cosmic than human biology, portending nothing but the momentousness of parenthood at a time when the next generation may not have so much to hang onto. This is one of the strangest, most disturbing movies of the year, and in the end one of the most ecstatic. Any film that can be both deserves to be treasured.

✬✬✬✬✩

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High Life is now out on Blu-ray and VOD streaming services, accompanied by Amazon customer comments calling it “boring”, “degenerate”, and “the worst 2 hours of my life.” Know what you’re getting into.

Short Cuts: BOOKSMART

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Meet the Class of 2019: the same old inarticulate confusions, now mixed in with new technology, careerisms, ideals/pretensions of social consciousness, and shifting gender norms. They can be a bit monstrous, as everyone is at that age where you know less than you think but are well on track to inherit the earth anyway. But that monstrosity is a good starting point: in teen movie terms, the successfully ingratiating new comedy Booksmart adds up to something like the salvation of Tracy Flick. Here, the Overachiever from Hell is reborn as Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a pathologically dedicated student who, along with her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), decides it’s time for both of them to cut loose and squeeze as much fun as possible out of high school before graduation day. This is not the novelistic accumulation of detail of Lady Bird, or the “let’s get real about right now” cringes of Eighth Grade, but an altogether poppier and simpler tradition: the raucous up-all-night teen comedy. This is also to say that there is absolutely nothing conceptually novel about Booksmart—and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Here is a generation that may point out, with fair cause, that the timelessness of American Graffiti is lily-white, that Sixteen Candles is rapey, and that Superbad only gives its raunchy, empathetic close-up to the boys. So why can’t these kids go for an up-all-night comedy of their own?

The director is the actress Olivia Wilde, marking her first feature behind the camera, and the film’s likable, somewhat anonymous energy shows a periodic urge to play: a stop-motion interlude, say, whose weirdness is meant to justify itself, or a rather graceful long take when the emotions call for it, or an underwater sequence in a swimming pool that does more for teen freedom than any property damage. Some of it can feel oddly out of sync, with its plot mischief and its tenderness not quite occupying the same plane. It leans heavily on the heroines’ chemistry: the film takes their charm and runs with it, letting them riff and flow between story points that have varying degrees of imagination.

But the charm is undeniable, and anxious industry reports have sprouted to ask why, despite strong reviews, it didn’t take off at the box office. Pick your poison. Did it need bigger names? Better marketing? Is it simply not raucous or clever enough to break through? Are its teen movie tropes just too dated for our insane, politically charged 2019, no matter have many Gen-Z-isms you throw in? Is it more dire, that the market is drying up for Indiewood crowdpleasers? (J.J. Abrams thinks it might). Or is it something broader—that the very audience the film wants to be about doesn’t care that much about seeing themselves on the screen of a movie theater? Either way, Booksmart‘s problem, artistic and commercial, is falling short of a critical mass of urgency for adding another night to remember to the teen comedy pantheon, even if it shows the right underlying wisdom. Indeed, the film’s misadventures (which include arrests, drug trips, boat parties, and a last minute race to the podium) mostly fade away quickly, as if they were borrowed, used as directed, and now have to be returned. But its loveliest aspect, as well as its most urgent, is a quieter idea that it warmly illustrates well before the big obligatory speech makes it plain: that the people in high school who seem to be on the other side of some invisible barrier, seen or gossiped about more than engaged, are actually pretty nice if you take the chance to know them. I hope the Class of 2020 learns that before too long.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Booksmart is still in theaters. Three years in a row with a worthy, female-driven coming-of-age comedy. Don’t jinx it.