The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.
I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.
Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.
I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.
The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.
This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?
High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.
High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C
The idea of remaking Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria seems like movie heresy. How could any filmmaker attempt to come close to the Italian master’s original? Though that has not stopped Hollywood from remaking other horror classics of yore. Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) tempts the unwise with a new version of Suspiria, this time following the exploits of Susie (Dakota Johnson) in Cold War Germany as she is seduced by a private dance company lead by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) that’s really a front for the occult. The new Suspiria is a worthy, splashy artistic endeavor but it suffers from too much airy meandering in the name of redundant atmosphere, vague and arbitrary plotting, and poor characters.
We’re told up front this is a story in six acts and a resolution but frankly the first two acts could have been completely eliminated. Their bearing on the overall story is minimal, but then I could say the same thing about much of the characters. Chloe Grace Moritz’s role could have been entirely cut. The majority of the story is strange things happening very slowly in the background of a dance school. The characters that do investigate aren’t our protagonists, which then traps us with people who know too much and won’t share, people who don’t know anything, and people who don’t want to know anything. It gets frustrating spending that much time with them, especially when the end destination (coven conspiracy sacrifice) is obvious even if you haven’t watched the 1977 original. I was told that Guadagnino edited an hour out of the final movie. How? What in the world was left out? It feels like everything they could have shot found its way into the finished film, whether it needed to be there or not. There’s an ongoing subplot about the Red Army Faction (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Gang) that we keep returning to as if there’s supposed to be larger relevancy. It’s a left-wing conspiracy that translated post-war anger into violence against the government. If I work really hard I can make a larger thematic connection to witches and women, but I won’t. With Suspiria 2018, it’s really just historical atmosphere that adds little but yet is returned to again and again. There is even a post-credit scene of a character doing something unclear while looking toward the camera. Why include any of that? It’s arbitrary and superfluous to the very end.
The new Suspiria toggles through three tepid lead characters: 1) Johnson’s new dance recruit, 2) Swinton’s artistic director at the school, and 3) Swinton in old-age makeup as a grieving psychiatrist trying to make sense of his life (yes, “his,” as she plays a man). Two of these characters matter in strict plot terms and only one of them are granted some degree of characterization. Susie is essentially an empty vessel who is extremely passive, going along with whatever she’s told (there is a reason for this but it falls under the category of contrived dues ex machina). There are hints of the connection she has to some occult force at play, but we don’t really see any transformation on her part because she’s so opaque to start with. Madame Blanc is the most interesting character, somewhat by default, but she only becomes that in the last third of the film when her personal feelings for Susie make her doubt how far she’s willing to go to achieve the coven’s goal. It’s the only character with a direct internal conflict that seems to matter to the story. The old man has no reason to be in this movie. By the end, it feels like the film has found a significant story reason for his inclusion, one that will actually produce some thematic relevance for Swinton also playing this role, but nope. He serves no purpose other than exposition and to hammer home a tangential historical context of generational guilt. There is a nice character moment between two characters in the resolution but by then it’s too little too late. Even this nice moment doesn’t really need to happen. I think the reason the film toggles between these three characters is even it knows you will get bored with them.
When the horror hits, that’s when Suspiria is at its most rattling. Watching a woman’s body betray her, one excruciating limb convulsion after another, culminating in her own jaw seeming to rotate out of her head, is wince-inducing and terrifying. The sudden jolts of violence made me gasp and squirm every time. This culminates in a third act that is heavy on blood and lunacy, so much so that it feels like the finale to another movie. If the proceeding two hours was understated, atmospheric horror, the last thirty minutes feels like the splatterific Sam Raimi Evil Dead 2. There’s an explicit campiness that feels at odds with the self-serious meanderings of earlier. There are also moments that cannot be described as any other word than “goofy.” There’s an ongoing shot of characters being dispatched in a very exaggerated and theatrical manner, and the fact that we watch thirty of these in a row just invites some degree of laughter. I know I laughed. The final act and confrontation is my favorite part of the film, delivering some long-sought vengeance, but it feels like a different movie. It’s also where Guadagnino’s “put the camera anywhere” stylistic approach betrays him. It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening on a literal level, let alone understanding it, and that’s not even taking into account the muffled sound design of several characters when they hoarsely whisper aloud whatever.
I would be more forgiving if the new Suspiria had not been as exasperatingly long, a full hour longer than the 1977 original. Long movies only feel long when they haven’t fully engaged you, and there are generally only so many ways to keep an audience’s sustained attention and investment. I understand wanting to allow a movie to breathe or wanting to create an uncertain atmosphere of intoxicating dread, but there has to be more than that. There’s also what I’ll affectionately coin the Nicolas Refn Trap, meaning where all of that breathing space ultimately exposes a lot of empty indulgences and vamping. Suspiria 2018 falls into this trap too often; there simply isn’t enough of anything to spread over those 150 minutes. The odd comparison I would make is to the notorious 1980 Western disaster, Heaven’s Gate, a movie I watched for the first time two years ago and actually appreciated. Let me be more specific: I appreciated the 100-minute very good movie somewhere inside there suffocated by the artistic excesses and peculiar and mercurial artistic demands from its uncompromising director (the man refused to shoot anything for ten hours until he got a cloud positioned exactly where he wanted). I’m convinced there’s a potentially great movie in Suspiria but it’s going to require a lot of excavation to allow it to see the outside.
I was interested in re-watching Argento’s 1977 original for the first time in years, and some things have aged better and some things have aged worse. Argento is a first-class visual stylist and his famous use of color makes the cinematography often beautifully horrific as young women are terrorized. There is even less plot than I remembered, a series of surreal murders finally leading to the obvious reveal of the dance company being a coven of witches. The characterization is even thinner than the thin 2018 film, which means that Guadagnino and company had a lot of room to roam when it came to their grandly grotesque remake. Argento’s film is a remarkable example of the immersive power of the screen, with his gorgeous use of light and color, production design, and a pulsating score that is perhaps a bit too omnipresent and anxious. There is one reoccurring musical sting that sounded precisely like the beginning of “Footloose” and it made me laugh every time, imagining Kevin Bacon dancing through the hallways. It’s a testament to the transcendent power of style when done by a first-rate stylist, and it works so far as to create a nightmarish, oppressive atmosphere. However, that eerie atmosphere and technical craft are about all the original Suspiria has to offer since there is a gnawing scarcity when it comes to characters, structure, and story. That makes the 2018 Suspiria a little more confounding. While it clearly works as an homage to Argento it’s also radically different, and yet it still manages to also have underwritten characters and bad storytelling choices even when it could have ditched the original’s original sins. At least Argento’s version is only 90 minutes and a lot easier to watch in one sitting.
The Suspiria remake was clearly a labor of love and not a soulless paycheck for all those involved. The technical craft is accomplished, and even though it lacks the vibrant colors of Argento’s original the cinematography is still highly evocative and unsettling. Guadagnino has put a concerted effort into making his movie operatic, lavish, and radically different from the source material. I think it’s different yet reverent enough that fans of the original will find something to enjoy as the film asserts its own identity. And yet the moody atmosphere is undercut by the shortcomings of the characters and the contrived nature of the overly padded and meandering plot. The more I think back on the movie the more it falls apart under further scrutiny. Suspiria is a tonally confused movie that doesn’t have enough substantial material to fill out its gargantuan 150-minute running time. There will be blood but what there needed to be was a more judicious editor.
Nate’s Grade: C
When Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.
The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.
In many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.
The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.
One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.
The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.
That’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.
I’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.
Volume 1: B-
Volume 2: C+
The Ending: F
Nate’s Grade Overall: B