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Toronto: Correspondences #6 – Barry Jenkins and Claire Denis

The humanism of “If Beale Street Could Talk” collides with the anti-humanism of Robert Pattinson’s sci-fi film, “High Life.”
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Dear Danny,
I must admit that I have not been knocked over nearly enough at this year’s festival, save for some unexpected exceptions. We've discussed the efficacy of issue-oriented programming that begets rash and shoddily constructed filmmaking that boasts responsiveness over formal precision—fiery punches with bad aim. Sometimes these ambitions stem from an eagerness to cope with the fear of the future by forcefully proposing easy answers to the why and how our present came to be. Other times, this paranoia is instead assuaged with reassurance of what we already know to be true, values that last across generations.
In a non-chronological sequence of events, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk—an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel—does not revise the past so much as skip across time in a syncopated arrangement. The film is organized with far-reaching ambitions that surpass those of Jenkins’s last film, Moonlight—the three-part structure is replaced with multiple decades as flashbacks, scattered about. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” reads an epigraph by James Baldwin. On Jenkins’s Beale Street, there is irreversible change, like the burgeoning love affair between 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James), boyfriend of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), and there is turbulence, as in the rape accusation made against Fonny by a woman who he’d never seen before (Emily Rios). After learning that she is pregnant, Tish becomes determined to prove Fonny’s innocence so that the soon-to-be father can return home. Tish, her family, and Fonny’s father work tirelessly to raise money for an attorney, while also attempting to find the runaway victim so that she may provide an honest testimony at trial.  
As Tish’s mother (played by Regina King) tells her in the novel: “You got to hold on to that baby... And the rest of us, […] we going to hold on to you.” So above the crime that serves as its foundation—an allegation that is as justified and respected by the film as it is also narrowly avoided—If Beale Street Could Talk is about love’s role in the everyday survival of black communities. Not as a feeling, but as a tangible daily action. Between Tish’s visits to the jail, the film waltzes through her and Fonny’s first days of flirtation, then passion, culminating in their search for a loft, somewhere for Fonny to make his wood sculptures and for the couple to eventually have children. In warm orange and brilliant blue lighting—a sweet mirror to Moonlight’s humid greens, pinks, and purples—their story unfolds, largely without the backstory Baldwin provided of the two as childhood friends. But Jenkins has intentionally omitted such details, instead filling the gap left behind with images of black Americans in fields and in the city, in prisons and in churches—an unavoidably straightforward statement that even this singular work of fiction is imbued with the tale of a people. These, according to Tish, are manifestations of a world where “the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it.”
Despite the possible similarities between Beale Street and the films of Wong Kar-wai (though to name one obvious difference, Christopher Doyle and Wong preferred the milky quality of pro-mist filters; James Laxton’s framing is comparatively sharper around the edges, with higher contrasts to hammer in that we are not dreaming), Jenkins's cinephilia functions more as a formal compass than a rubric. For instance, the film shares, albeit very subtly, the same conceit as Claire Denis, specifically her 1994 I Can't Sleep, about a gay black serial killer in Paris: A crime drama with barely any images of the crime scene, of police brutality, of the loneliness of prison cells. Yet even while withholding violence, Jenkins has constructed an atmosphere of palpable, visceral danger that hovers even as Fonny and Tish go out on dates, even as Tish’s parents hold each other and dance. And though Denis sees the lost souls of Paris as repelling magnets, pushing one another further away the closer they get, an odd sense of belonging permeates Jenkins’s New York, persisting despite an open recognition of America’s hatred for black people. Maybe it is that Beale Street looks so far ahead—for not only Fonny and Tish, but also for the generations that Jenkins knows are watching, and forever will be—that its forward movements seem brisk, its vision fantastical and starry-eyed. Already envisioning a lifetime together, Fonny and Tish mime carrying furniture into an empty loft; and whenever babies appear, they emerge from deep waters to the smiling faces of family and friends.
It is ironic and morbidly delightful that the birth-oriented humanism—a restored hope in the human spirit ushered in by a child—of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk professes the same hopes (and the same world premiere date) as the birth-oriented anti-humanism of Denis’s High Life, since the former is a vocal admirer and studious fan of the latter. Some period beyond our time in a cubic spaceship, a crew of inmates (Mia Goth, André 3000, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo) live out miserable, monotonous routines not as fellow comrades but cellmates, who have been sentenced to a lifetime of entering black holes in search of extractable resources. Or is it that their warden, the diabolical Dibbs (Juliette Binoche), has gathered these incarcerated “losers” solely for her biological research study on artificial insemination in space? Could it perhaps be that she, too, being a prisoner, is repurposing the involuntary passengers to make meaning out of her confinement?
Denis directs her English-language debut from a script that she wrote with Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, and Nick Laird. An earlier idea for the film was conceived by Laird and his partner, novelist Zadie Smith, who was once attached to the project. (Denis states that even before a draft was written, Smith's vision was "so different" and "unsexy," so the collaboration fizzled out as a "nightmare.") Though the details of Zadie Smith's contributions and suggestions remain unknown, it is well-established that her writing is known for its keen observation of people and their distinct peculiarities, which are ambiguously bound to the greater social order. Denis, on the other hand, is pre-occupied with her astronauts' outlines, their bodily imprint in space. She obscures their personalities and thereby accentuates their physical diversity—Asian, black, white, women and man. The ascetic Monte (Robert Pattinson) narrates their story: Each day consists of only one mandatory task—report back to a base about the state of the black hole investigation—and numerous optional tasks, but these only appear to be choices. Numbing playthings, like the dubiously named "Fuck Box" or a detoxifying indoor garden, provide easy distraction from the true terror aboard: Dibbs's research, being so dependent on copulation and so denigrating towards a human identity outside of bodily function, is beginning to enable psychosexual delirium.
This madness infects some more than others, all except for Monte, who has chosen to abstain from participating in the study, the "Fuck Box," and sex itself. Denis intermixes three categories of footage throughout High Life, each linked to the body of Monte: sex is the flashback, reproduction is the present, and family is the future. Like her 2001 erotic vampire-cannibal film Trouble Every Day, Denis oscillates between tenderness and cruelty, a sadism of mind and body in a space where lawlessness reigns supreme. Though that earlier work continues to eat at itself until nothing remains, High Life holds tight to the unusually warm notion that there is still one ruling law that lives on, even after the ship becomes emptier and emptier: that a family is not defined by the genetic ties of its members, but by their decision to hold onto each other. But Denis carves out enough room for even the vice versa, and other variations of it, to be true. The multiplicity of High Life is the fruit of her thoughtfulness, even though it progresses so swiftly, as if weightless. One gets the sense that Denis herself is hitting walls of ideas, sitting in a lab with test tubes, scratching her head as she stirs and mixes, asking questions and altering them in real-time. But this experiment of hers, however lofty, is an undeniable masterpiece.
What have you been thinking about and asking lately, Danny? Are there any films you have seen that have not only reckoned with today, but also with tomorrow?
Best,
Kelley

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