Diary of an SFF Fiend, Part III: High Life, Varda by Agnès
By Fred Pryce
If you’re anything like me, you suffer from constant anxiety about the ongoing downward spiral of the world as we know it (yay!). It could be nightmares about complete environmental collapse, the imposing and inhumane systems we are born into, or how as individuals, we seem so small and powerless to change things.
At its best, High Life, the new scifi-horror-thriller-drama from French arthouse master Claire Denis, manages to eerily capture this depressing, gut-wrenching milieu we exist in, without even a word of dialogue. Robert Pattinson (consistently turning in great performance in indies like Good Time and The Lost City of Z) plays a criminal, who takes an offer -- rather than extended jail time, man a mission to a black hole in order to discover a potential source of infinite energy. It is soon clear that the ship, a faceless grey-metal box with no interior decoration, is nothing more than a glorified prison itself, and its crew are on a doomed mission with no conceivable exit, spinning endlessly through the void. Within these confines the breadth of Denis’ critique becomes clear, from the dehumanising repetition of our prison systems, to corporate science’s tendency to overstep boundaries, to aforementioned environmental concerns made clear by the decrepit metal and plastic we’re surrounded by. The ship’s greenhouse is the only respite to this, every inch of dirt and every trembling leaf rendered tactile to the extreme, emphasising the importance of man’s relationship with nature. Only in Pattinson’s dreams do we see nature, in a tantalisingly damp and alive forest - but even this is tainted by human violence. Other crewmates, ranging from Mia Goth to André 3000 from OutKast (Denis is apparently a big fan of his music), are slowly worn down by the unending monotony of this purgatory, and give in to madness, animalistic impulses, and eventually violence. Lording over them is Juliette Binoche, playing a reproductive scientist whose attempts to create life among the crew members becomes more and more deranged. All this might make the film sound a lot more enticing and accessible than it actually is; this film has zero regard for mainstream audience’s expectations, and is a thoroughly soul-crushing experience, with individual scenes ranging from disturbing to upsetting. It was also disappointing when early scenes that provoked the reading I first brought up gives way to a sort of fertility-thriller, that seems less and less interested in these political and environmental issues as it drags along. The crowd in my theatre was clearly less than thrilled, and I was baffled as much as I was fascinated. But I am glad that this space oddity exists, and there is much to pore over in its gruesome details, and the extreme, sensory filmmaking that Denis casts a pall over. The film never tops its opening, in which Pattinson, aboard this lifeless ship, goes through the rituals of raising a child familiar to any parent, feeding it, clothing it, teaching its first steps. In these hushed, poignant moments, we see the resilience of humanity, quietly fighting destruction simply through existing.
After wading through such heavy themes, maybe it’s best to mention a much lighter watch, from fellow French auteur Agnès Varda, who has been consistently making great films since the 1950s, and was one of the last surviving members of the French New Wave until her recent death at the age of 90. Her last film is Varda by Agnès, appropriately titled given her recent trend of self-exploration, and is an all-too-fitting sendoff to the godmother of French cinema. In previous films like The Beaches of Agnès and the delightful Faces Places, Varda has created a novel approach to documentary filmmaking by examining herself as much as the subjects she chooses to document. Which is great for us, as she is simply a magical presence. Even well into old age, she practically emanates wholesomeness, and is always a witty and charming presence to watch, as if you’re already an old friend of hers. This extends to her interactions within these films, where she genuinely delights in connecting with and talking to everyday people, and creating joyous works of art about their lives. This film is essentially an extended lecture about her body of work taking place in front of a live audience, though she cheekily hops around from location to location depending on what her next topic is. Though I wish I had seen more of her films before witnessing her own thoughts about them, the film is accessible and enjoyable no matter how unfamiliar you are with her, as she takes you through clips spanning the course of an entire, richly-lived lifespan. It’s like one of the great artists of the last century making a Youtube video essay about herself, but with far more intellect and introspective thought than any other could hope to compare to. And it’s an invaluable cataloguing of her forays into visual, museum-based artworks, many of which would fly under the radar otherwise, but all of which are worth witnessing even in this detached format. She also reckons with her ageing, as if knowing she hadn’t long left, and seems sincerely calm and happy approaching it. This is a warm and interesting self-portrait, and is a worthwhile introduction to one of the greats to anyone curious.