Brooding And Intense;
Shall Not Be Contained.
This is the kind of film that is hard to describe and grade, for various reasons. It plays with your head, making it difficult to gather your thoughts, let alone quantify. This is the first film by Claire Denis that I have seen, and it certainly left its mark on me and has me intrigued to see more work that she has helmed.
It is part brooding, sci-fi space exploration, part prison story, with a whole heap of other elements layered throughout. A crew of convicts have been sent on a mission to a black hole, in search of an alternate energy source, as punishment for their terrible crimes. One of those convicts plays the role of obsessive, aggressive fertility doctor, sedating the others, recycling their waste and forcing them into artificial insemination experiments in deep space. It’s quite the trip of a premise, and we are just getting started. Denis and Fargeau’s narrative is fractured but not hard to follow once it gets going, and while it doesn’t lose any momentum that is built up, it does miss the chance to capitalize on the most interesting relationship in its pages.
Let’s start with the technical aspects. Denis and her cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk frame some absolutely mind-bending shots and sequences that creep you out while drawing you in, creating an atmosphere that is absolutely captivating. The production design is impeccable, giving us a deep space story that still feels rooted to Earth, giving us much to think about in terms of prisons and the true meaning of freedom. The ship’s basic, shoebox-like design is the exact opposite of what we would expect in this type of story, perhaps hinting at the type of human regression you might expect from prisoners locked in confines for years with no hope of escape. Shots of the black hole, event horizon and the deep, inky blacks of space are simply mesmerizing. Guy Lecorne’s editing is measured and deliberate, and the jumps in time put you in a shared space of disorientation with the characters. The haunting, eerie score from Stuart Staples is one of a sweeping quality, beautifully sparse but always nailing the right notes to perfectly accentuate the mood. From a technical standpoint, this is a top-notch science fiction thriller.
The experiments on board the ship take on a life of their own and add a lot of layers to the discussion. You could go so far as to question what it means to truly be human as it pertains to Willow and the circumstances of her birth. There is a lot to unpack throughout the story, and the pool of thought only gets deeper once the breathtaking climax is reached. I’m going to need to see this more than once to get a grip on the film as well as my thoughts, much like last year with Annihilation.
Robert Pattinson is incredible as Monte, one of the criminals on the mission. His stoicism and refusal to partake in the insemination experiments (and refusal to enter the amazingly-named “Fuck Box”) make him the perfect foil for Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs and the two’s quiet war rages on just underneath the surface of each of them. Pattinson is tender, but capable of viciousness. His face hints at a generally callous and hateful nature, but we see plenty of evidence to the contrary, a wonderful display of not only the dichotomy of Monte’s personality, but also a great way of playing with our perceptions. His nature represents humanity’s best and worst at different times. When looking out at the stars and surrounding space while traveling at nearly light speed, he remarks on the changing patterns of light and how it appears that we are moving farther away from what we draw closer to. It’s easy to think that he means this in a metaphorical way, referencing human behavior that he is a perfect example of. Pattison should be commended here, with a command of the role that is fierce and bold. Binoche takes a very dark turn from previous roles, playing her character with a quiet intensity that masks dark intentions under a guise of scientific curiosity and determination. She is neither what we expect nor who we hope she is, and she is unapologetic about it.
Any way you look at this film, it is bold. The choices are striking and it will not be for everyone, but it will reward those with the patience and interest in a deep thinker that welcomes every chance to make them uncomfortable. It is exactly the kind of movie that demands multiple viewings. While the script certainly isn’t perfect (I needed more with Monte and Willow, whose scenes together were very strong and evoked the highest degree of emotion), it is a very admirable film in every respect. The release is limited but if this is in your area and you consider yourself a cinephile, this is appointment viewing.
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