"High Life" and the Idea of “A Claire Denis Film”

The director’s new sci-fi confirms that popular notions about her style are useful but insufficient for describing such a diverse career.
Darren Hughes


Photo by Darren Hughes


When Film Comment surveyed nearly 120 filmmakers, critics, and programmers for its “Best of the Nineties” feature in the January/February 2000 issue, only four people mentioned Claire Denis. (Manohla Dargis, Atom Egoyan, Jonathan Romney, and Amy Taubin, if you’re curious). A year later Beau travail topped the magazine’s poll of the best films of 2000. The only evidence I’ve been able to find of a complete Denis retrospective in the English-speaking world during the 1990s was one organized by Linda Blackaby at the 1997 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. Whereas between 2000 and 2003—following Beau Travail’s festival tour of Venice, Toronto, New York, Sundance, Berlin, and on and on—Denis was the spotlight of retros at the Cinematheque Ontario (courtesy of James Quandt), the National Film Theatre London, the Dublin International Film Festival, and the Northwest Film Forum. There were certainly others. 

This is not to suggest that Denis was unknown before Beau travail. Her first four narrative features—Chocolat (1988), No Fear, No Die (1990), I Can’t Sleep (1994), and Nenette and Boni (1996)—all screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and variously at Cannes, Locarno, Rotterdam, and elsewhere, and all four found American distribution. Other projects of note, including her contribution to Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, the small masterpiece US Go Home (1994), and her documentary portrait of Jacques Rivette, Le veilleur (1994), aired on French television. And that summary only accounts for her career as a feature director, which didn’t begin until she was in her 40s. In an excellent 2009 essay for Reverse Shot, Leo Goldsmith traces Denis’s path from the prestigious film school, Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (now La Fémis), to the European film community of the 1970s, and speculates about how her career and style were shaped by fifteen years as an assistant director to the likes of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. 

Denis, then, is an interesting example of a filmmaker whose status as a leading auteur was confirmed quite suddenly, but only after nearly three decades of highly accomplished work: she was 53 when Beau travail bowed in Venice. Pedro Costa, whose debut feature, O Sangue (1989), premiered a year after Chocolat, had a similar experience in 2006, when Colossal Youth was presented in competition in Cannes. Retrospectives soon followed at the Cinematheque Ontario (again organized by Quandt), the Harvard Film Archive, and the Tate Modern, and his critical reputation in the States was finally secure enough in 2014 to land his first slot, at age 55, in the New York Film Festival. Angela Schanelec is having her well-deserved moment right now, at 57, after screening I Was Home, but... in competition at Berlin and securing American distribution for it, both firsts for her after more than two decades as a feature director.

Costa is a useful point of comparison as well because, along with festival exposure and critical accolades, his place in the contemporary canon was cemented by the release by The Criterion Collection of the DVD boxset Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa in 2010. Denis now has two films released by Criterion, too, but I mention the significance of home video because her post-Beau travail renaissance coincided with the boom in mail-order DVD services such as Netflix and GreenCine, the corresponding re-release of catalog titles by distributors of all sizes, and the growth of new online publishing and discussion platforms. As a cinephile in East Tennessee, with no access to eclectic repertory programming and little in-person film community, I was suddenly able to have copies of Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and Beau travail delivered to my door. The opportunity, finally, to see contemporary world cinema beyond the sparse selection at large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, combined with the rise of newsgroups, listservs, forums, and online film journals, gave me, and many others like me, new points of entry into the critical conversation. A decade-and-a-half before Claire Denis fans found their way to “Film Twitter,” she was a staple of the blogosphere. 

By one more significant measure, Denis’s critical reputation was secured in June 2004 with the publication of the first book-length study of her work, Martine Beugnet’s monograph for Manchester University Press’s French Film Directors series; Judith Mayne’s for the University of Illinois Press’s Contemporary Film Directors series followed a year later. They remain the only single-author studies of Denis in English. Mayne’s book ends with a July 2003 interview with Denis that includes a brief, vague description of The Intruder (2004)—“it’s inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s book . . . It’s based on the idea of intrusion”—otherwise, both monographs discuss her career up to and including her first two films of the 2000s, Trouble Every Day (2001) and Friday Night (2002). Our collective sense of Denis, then, coalesced during the roughly three-year period that followed the premiere of Beau travail and was formed around the seven narrative features that a majority of viewers were seeing then for the first time.


From the vantage of 2019, Friday Night is now the midpoint of Denis’s career as a feature director. However, what we talk about when we talk about “a Claire Denis film”—the language we use to describe her image-making, her staging of actors (or “bodies”; it’s always “bodies” with Denis), and her artistic preoccupations—hasn’t kept pace in the interim. I’d argue that, while that language remains useful and necessary, it is increasingly insufficient for a filmography that was never as uniform as the popular critical conversation suggested and has become even less so in recent years. What does it mean, for example, when long-time champions of Denis’s work suggest, as I’ve heard more than once, that had her name not been on Let the Sunshine In (2018), they would not have known it was a Claire Denis film? Implicit in that reaction is a certain bias, a predetermined sense of what each new film should be.

This situation owes somewhat to the oft-mentioned constancy of Denis’s creative collaborations. Jean-Pol Fargeau co-wrote ten of the thirteen features, Agnès Godard photographed or operated the camera on every film except White Material (2009) and High Life (2019), and Stuart Staples and Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks scored nine of them. Denis’s loyalty extends to other departments as well. Judy Shrewsbury has costumed every feature since Beau travail; Jean-Louis Ughetto and Jean-Christophe Winding recorded and edited sound for six films each. Nelly Quetier edited five of the six features between 1994 and 2004; Guy Lecorne edited four of the five since then. Denis is likewise famous for her fascination with certain actors, especially Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, and Nicolas Duvauchelle. To revisit her first seven narrative features, then, is to watch Denis gradually assembling that team and developing her signature way of working.

Indeed, the established idea of “a Claire Denis film” might be partly understood as a constellation of formal choices resulting from a particular mode of production. For another project, I broke down Denis’s and Fargeau’s scripts for I Can’t Sleep, Nenette and Boni, and 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and discovered nearly identical structures. I’m curious, also, about the influence of Arnaud de Moleron’s production design and art direction on our notions of her style. A long-time collaborator with François Ozon, Moleron designed all but one of Denis’s films between 1994 and 2008, and my sense is that a broad polling of viewers would result in a top 5 Denis canon made up entirely of Moleron-designed films: Beau travail, The Intruder, Trouble Every Day, US Go Home, and 35 Shots of Rum. (My personal canon would include I Can’t Sleep and Nenette and Boni, also Moleron films.) When critics describe the sensuality of Godard’s images and the subjectivity of Denis’s perspective, they are more often than not also referring to a hallmark formal expressionism that is especially heightened—occasionally to the point of camp—in their work with Moleron.

The colors of I Can’t Sleep

The relationship between film style and the practical realities of production is a thick and complicated subject. More to the point, there’s a book to be written about how the careers and styles of acclaimed auteurs who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s were reshaped by the combined forces of the 2007 economic recession, the broad adoption of new digital technologies, and the resulting shifts in global film markets. In hindsight, those years were a historical turning point on par with the end of the studio system and the rise of blockbusters. The most extreme example is David Lynch, who only recently returned to television after a decade without a major directing credit. Tsai Ming-liang, who made ten narrative features between 1991 and 2009, has released only one since. The Assassin is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s sole post-recession feature.

By those standards, Denis has had a remarkably productive twelve years, completing five features and a number of short films. However, she’s done so within a new economic reality. As one objective measure of the shift, Denis’s first eight features averaged five production/financing partnerships, while her five post-recession films have averaged twelve. Following the acclaim of Beau Travail, Denis has received consistent support from Centre National de la Cinématographie, Canal+, and ARTE France Cinema, which is a useful reminder of the benefits enjoyed by established filmmakers in France and other countries that offer robust state financing. The relatively small budgets of her post-recession films have otherwise been assembled from more than 40 different sources. The most glaring example of this industry trend is Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2018), which credits 31 producers and 21 production companies. Not coincidentally, Zama is the only narrative feature Martel has released since 2008—this after making three highly praised films over the previous seven years. 

This is all relevant to discussions of the second half of Denis’s career because the packaging of financing has determined not only what films she could make and when she could make them, but has also influenced certain creative decisions. When Louis Trebor visits Pusan, South Korea in The Intruder, we can assume he does so in part to appease the Pusan Film Commission, who helped to finance the film. Likewise, Lionel and Joséphine’s brief trip to Hamburg in 35 Shots of Rum and the Poland-shot flashback sequences in High Life exist, in part, to meet contractual obligations. In a recent interview with Paul Dallas for Filmmaker, Denis explains that she’d originally wanted to shoot those flashbacks in New Orleans and that one reason Godard left the project was because she would not have been allowed to use her own team: “Yorick [Le Saux] agreed to work with a German crew, and that was important for the coproduction.” If one notion of “a Claire Denis film” is that it should be concerned with borders and intrusion, then several of her films demonstrate that idea in their very form!


For her part, Denis claims to not care in the least about how we receive and theorize her films. While promoting Let the Sunshine In, she told Jonathan Romney

If there are theories about me, I’d rather not know. Astrophysics—now that’s fascinating. String theory, worm holes, the expanding universe, the Big Bang versus the Big Bounce—those are the kind of theories that make you feel like living and understanding the mystery of the world. Film theory is just a pain in the ass.

When I interviewed her in 2015, she laughed when I asked a variation on the “bodies” question. It was only after following up with a specific example that she would even entertain the idea.

DENIS: This is a mystery to me, I have to say, because I never thought that I was filming bodies. I’m filming characters, you know? And I always think, if I am not, like in No Fear, No Die, walking with them, if it’s a static shot, then I must have space to see the movement. I don’t see why I do more bodies than other directors.

HUGHES: There are definitely recurring shots. You’ve certainly filmed more shoulder blades than any other director I can think of.

DENIS: In Bastards, it was almost a caricature of a woman looking at a man. Certainly, Vincent [Lindon] also when he was in Friday Night naked, I was amazed by his shoulder. Nakedness I’m not interested in but the body is always very emotional.

And yet, despite her protests, Denis is actively engaged in conversations about her work—visiting festivals, giving masterclasses and public forums, sitting with critics, mentoring younger filmmakers. Her efforts go beyond the requisite work of promotion and advocacy; she is compelled, in her own words, by a “need.” My 2015 interview took place in Toronto, where she was participating in TIFF’s Talent Lab and screening her short film, Voilà l'enchaînement, but had no major projects to publicize. When I asked her why she agreed to my interview request when it would have been so easy to say no, she told me she feared “overlooking” her work:

I prefer to dig, to dig, to dig blindly, you know? It’s not pretentious what I want to say. I never could organize myself as a professional with a career. One film was finished and there was this sometimes painful feeling [afterwards], so the source of the next one was in this pain. There is a hope always of doing a better film, for sure, even the hope of being acclaimed as the best director in the whole world, but this hope is not as strong as it should be. Need is there, and need is driving me. At the Talent Lab, I told everyone that I feel like them, like a young filmmaker. My experience is not the experience of someone who has tamed filmmaking. No. Not at all. For me, it’s still a mustang or a wild horse. It’s true. Each time, I try. That’s all I can say. 

Still a mustang. If I’m too quick to take Denis at her word, it’s because, after watching and re-watching her films for nearly twenty years, I’m still thrilled by the feat. In one brief span, she premiered Beau travail, Trouble Every Day, Friday Night, and The Intruder—as wildly diverse, inventive, and psychologically complex a five-year run of films as any in decades. What we can say, at the very least, is that Denis is a fiercely independent artist, and one who has proven herself capable of realizing a vision within whatever restraints are posed by a particular production. (In thinking through this piece, I corresponded with a number of critics and programmers who have wrestled with Denis’s work for years, and this sense of her as a strong-willed creative force was a recurring theme.) To wit: twenty years after I Can’t Sleep, and working for the first and only time with Michel Barthélémy (production design), Ambroise Cheneau (art direction), and Claire Vaysse (set decoration), Denis and Godard still convinced us that a late-night visit to a hospital in Bastards (2013) should be bathed in rose-colored light—which I’ll admit isn’t nearly as memorable as the red naugahyde fuck-ottoman. 

The colors of Bastards 

I think we can begin to complicate our sense of “a Claire Denis film,” then, by acknowledging the shifts that took place in her career and the industry around the time of The Intruder and by foregrounding the effects those changes have had on her “late” films. We can treat her expanding roster of associates as creative collaborators—just as we do Godard, Fargeau, Descas, and Tindersticks—and try to identify and describe their contributions in an effort to better understand Denis as an auteur. And we can intentionally put aside some of the critical vocabulary that has become diminished from overuse.

In 2008, when Denis was promoting 35 Shots of Rum and in post-production on White Material, I asked her if working with Isabelle Huppert presented any new challenges as a director.

HUGHES: She’s one of the few actors or actresses who I think of as an auteur herself. She can command a film.

DENIS: She’s not commanding. She’s a very intelligent actress. She is guessing and she’s inventing a relation with each director that creates an addiction to her. She’s not commanding because that would be too easy. She creates a need for her, when she’s an addiction. Somehow the film becomes … her.

White Material marks a significant transition point for Denis in that it’s the first film made without Fargeau and Godard (cinematographer Yves Cape and editor Lecorne are both long-time associates of Bruno Dumont) and her first time directing an actor with international standing, who brings with her to the screen decades of memorable performances and strong associations for audiences. When Denis has spoken over the years of needing to hold and possess her actors, of jealously wanting them to work only with her, she is hinting at a new dynamic in her work with Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Robert Pattinson, and Mia Goth. Generally speaking, too little attention has been paid to the performances in Denis’s films (otherwise, Valérie Lemercier’s in Friday Night would be on every best of the 2000s list). That sense of White Material “becoming” Huppert—of celebrity personas and more traditionally psychological acting styles infecting Denis’s images and pacing—is an especially rich subject for study. 

Denis’s late films also expand her career-long and precise analysis of capital, from the colonial economies of White Material, to the working-class alienation of 35 Shots of Rum (René’s post-retirement death deserves an article of its own), to the blistering rage of Bastards, which I can now barely stomach in this age of Trumpian cruelty and kleptocracy. I’m eager for more people to see Voilà l'enchaînement when it’s included on Criterion’s release of Let the Sunshine In, both because Denis’s relationship with screenwriter Christine Angot has introduced a very different voice to her films and because the two-hander form of the short has much to teach us about Denis’s directing of actors. High Life also challenges simpler notions of “a Claire Denis film,” and I’m convinced it’s among her finest work. The remainder of this piece is my first attempt to better understand why. 


Near the end of High Life, after a key character jettisons herself into space, Monte (Pattinson), a man who has spent most of his life in prisons of one kind or another, chooses to continue living. Given the context, it is an absurd and heroic act. It’s also one of the purest philosophical expressions to be found in Denis’s work. Five years into a deep-space mission and with no hopes of returning, Monte decides, like Sisyphus, to once again push his rock up the mountain, or, in his case, to log a computer report that will keep the ship’s life support systems operating for another 24 hours. “Time to feed the dog,” he sighs when the daily alarm sounds, an act of will straight out of Camus:

By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide. I know, to be sure, the dull resonance that vibrates throughout these days. Yet I have but a word to say: that it is necessary. 

Over its long gestation period, High Life attracted the attention of several name actors, including Daniel Craig and Patricia Arquette, and Denis has mentioned several times that she imagined Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a middle-aged, more despairing version of Monte. “Then this great actor died,” she told Dallas. “He was a star, but he was someone I really thought I could work with, had he accepted the role. But the suicidal thing really frightened me.” She has also spoken often over the years, and always with great affection, about film producer Humbert Balsan, who committed suicide months after their collaboration on The Intruder. (Balsan is the inspiration for the main character in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children.) Which is to say that the question of suicide—what Camus famously called “the one truly serious philosophical problem”—is far from an academic exercise in High Life.

In a film already renowned for its sudden explosions of brutality, its flirtations with transgression and taboo, and its images of a nude Binoche writhing on a stainless steel dildo, Monte’s salvation is High Life’s true reason for being. I use that word, “salvation,” with only a hint of irony. While the film draws on any number of sci-fi and prison film conventions, High Life is classic speculative fiction in that all of the narrative mechanisms—cosmology, astrophysics, violence, reproduction, the ethics of crime and punishment—are interlocking pieces of an ontological/theological puzzle box.

“We invented rituals,” Monte says in voiceover while scraping shavings from his beard into a pile. When he and his shipmates prepare a crew member for cryogenic storage, one of them tosses a handful of dirt onto the dead woman’s chest. “It’s what she wanted!” her grieving friend cries. Tcherny (André Benjamin) sits with Monte in the Edenic garden where their food is grown, his bare toes touching the soil, and espouses a kind of vague, secular mindfulness: "This little garden is teaching me to enjoy the present. That's all that matters." Another character mimics the motions of Christian prayer that she glimpses in random transmissions from Earth because she wants “to know what they feel.” Monte is compared with a monk; Dr. Dibs (Binoche) is a witch and a shaman. The drive to understand the universe and humanity’s place in it, and the compulsion to ritualize that understanding and build tribal identities around it, is inescapable it seems, even beyond the edge of our solar system.

Monte’s salvation is precipitated by a child. The idea for High Life has been with Denis since the early-2000s, when she first envisioned Vincent Gallo traveling through space with only his infant daughter. This configuration of the family unit—a protective father figure and a dead or distant mother—is as foundational to Denis’s imagination as it is to fairy tales. The archetype runs from Chocolat through Bastards, but my favorite example is the “Tiny Tears” sequence in Nenette and Boni, when Boni’s onanistic fantasy about the boulangère morphs into an image of domestic bliss: a husband and wife happily holding their newborn child. He doesn’t want to fuck her so much as he needs a hug. High Life, in fact, opens with the word “daddy” and a seven-minute sequence that recalls the prologue of Denis’s “father and daughter” masterpiece, 35 Shots of Rum. In both, Denis crosscuts between the two characters before bringing them together in their shared domestic space, establishing a particular tenderness in their relationship, and then putting a button on the sequence with a killer music cue, Harry Belafonte’s “Merci, Bon Dieu” in 35 Shots of Rum, the first appearance of Tindersticks’ “Willow” in High Life.

Father figures

Monte’s moment of crisis isn’t quite like anything Denis has filmed before. She claims to have spoken very little to Pattinson about his character’s psychological makeup. Instead, she gives him room and trusts his decisions. There’s a highwire energy in his performance, especially when he’s sparring with Goth, another uncharacteristically spontaneous Denis collaborator. With a few notable exceptions—Denis Lavant in Beau travail, or perhaps Gallo and Béatrice Dalle in Trouble Every Day—performers in Denis’s early films, as a general rule, are composed and self-contained. Alex Descas, in particular, is a constant, immovable moral force, absorbing slaps from Dalle in I Can’t Sleep and quietly internalizing every indignity in No Fear, No Die. Monte adopts a similarly stoic pose during most of High Life, but Pattinson is a different kind of actor, and at the turning point for his character, standing alone near the airlock, he punches himself repeatedly and violently in the face. Denis watches it all from a distance before cutting to a close-up, where we see a bulging vein in Pattinson’s forehead and splotches on his skin. The existential battle has become written on his body (forgive my one use of the word). 

And so Monte makes his report, choosing to live for at least one more day, and then finds his way to Dibs’s lab, where his infant daughter is waiting. Denis composes them in a tight frame, with Pattinson leaning toward the incubator and her small hand gripping his finger. She holds the shot for nearly a minute and then cuts to Monte, who has made his decision. “I’ve got tears in my eyes,” Denis told an audience, as she described that moment. “Suddenly his life is changing forever.”

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