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‘High Life’ and ‘First Man’ Look to the Stars and See Very Different Galaxies

Claire Denis and Damien Chazelle’s new movies, both of which played at the Toronto International Film Festival, look at life and death in outer space

Universal/Thunderbird Releasing/Ringer illustration

Some of the scientists-slash-investors who are trying to make space travel possible for the common man (most famously, Elon Musk) argue that what motivates their risky and potentially futile efforts is the wish to save mankind from itself. Seeing our planet from high up, as a fragile, little blue ball, could remind people that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Movies have felt this interstellar pressure to sit down and be humble for generations: The astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey are as threatened by their onboard AI as they are by the darkness of deep space, and Matthew McConaughey cries when Skyping with his son back on Earth in Interstellar because he realizes the distance, in space and time, between him and his family. In cinema, the vastness of space, ironically, can make people feel more grounded as they reconsider what truly matters in life and in the universe. That is, when standing on top of the world doesn’t give you vertigo.

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, two acclaimed filmmakers presented their visions of the effects that unrooting oneself from Earth’s surface can have on the human psyche. Their perspectives, while similarly elevated, couldn’t be more different, however. Claire Denis is the highly esteemed, 72-year-old French art filmmaker behind such masterpieces as Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001). Damien Chazelle (who inherits his French name from his father) is, in case you missed it, the 33-year-old American director who ascended the Hollywood ranks at light speed from his second film Whiplash (2014) to his multiple-Oscar-winning musical La La Land two years ago.

After surprising cinephiles by adding her sensual and heartbreaking twist to the romantic comedy with this year’s wonderful Let the Sunshine In, Denis keeps exploring new genres, turning to another planet and tackling science-fiction with High Life. The film, which played in TIFF’s high-profile Gala section, is also Denis’s first English-language movie (a transition that often is challenging for foreign directors) with a stellar international cast including Juliette Binoche (star of Let the Sunshine In), Robert Pattinson, and André Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000 himself.

No one saw High Life coming—much less its splashy acquisition by indie hitmaker A24—but all eyes are on First Man, Chazelle’s account of Neil Armstrong’s preparation for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, which continues its director’s foraging into ever-safer Hollywood prestige filmmaking. His cast, unlike Denis’s, is of the conventional but beloved character-actor type: Ryan Gosling graduates from singing about stars to reaching for them; joining his team are such great movie dads as Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, and Ciarán Hinds. While Denis remains consistently inconsistent and beautifully weird, Chazelle departs from the mildly exciting transfiguration of genre that was La La Land to rejoin the orbit of classical and crowd-pleasing American cinema. It is little surprise, then, that High Life (as its title promises) better captures the mind-shattering dizziness of space travel than does First Man.

Denis is a filmmaker of the unspeakable, who uses her camera to communicate what cannot be said in words or at all: Trouble Every Day represented the carnivorous consequences of lust via cannibalism; Beau Travail let a frenzied nightclub dance routine speak for a man’s heartbreak and loneliness; and Let the Sunshine In translated Roland Barthes’s “figures” of a lover’s discourse into expressive performances and broken conversations. The emptiness of space in High Life, which mostly takes place aboard a spaceship in some not-so-distant future, is an opportunity for the impossible and the appalling to come true: In space, no one can hear you sin.

It is up to Monte (Pattinson) and his fellow travelers to uphold the rules and morals of the society that they left behind. Introducing the film in Toronto, Denis described its themes as “trust and fidelity,” and the weight of those notions lays heavily on the entire crew, and has caused damage. The film’s tricky reverse chronology reveals off the top that Monte is now alone in his vessel. Alone, that is, except for a baby girl who needs his care to survive and grow.

The first act of High Life is Denis at her most tender, recalling the loving embraces of the one-night-stand lovers from her 2002 film Friday Night, albeit in a familial context. Monte is an affectionate father (figure?) to infant Willow, cleaning, playing with, and feeding her with delicacy. This new life is unsettling, however, even more so because Denis makes it look so idyllic. How did such a young child end up here, and what will her future be? The film opens on the luxurious garden that helps the crew survive, and the green and yellow squashes recall the alien pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Perhaps not everything that grows in this Eden is as harmless as it seems.

As the events that took place prior to Willow’s birth become clearer, Monte suffers more and more from intergalactic vertigo. Never an ostentatious stylist, Denis adopts a minimalist approach to express, with simple shapes and borderline DIY stagecraft, the overwhelming expanse of space. An opening to the outside functions like a trapdoor, and if the dead bodies that Monte throws out defy the laws of gravity, the effect is suitably distressing: Just like that, they’re gone into the black.

Denis is just as straightforward (and graphic) when depicting the crew’s tight-knit conditions, which offer less comfort than the enveloping darkness of space. In this small floating box, people are not simply metaphorical prisoners but literal inmates, which makes High Life an even more direct and piercing critique of society’s pressures. The crimes that the passengers commit against each other are at once repugnant and inevitable—the result of people pressurized to live together in harmony until their deaths.

Monte becomes only more aware of this paradox between intimacy and aggression as time passes, inexorably and without change: His humanity is slowly slipping away from him, and he becomes a stranger to himself. Looking through a window at the stars that appear increasingly distant as the ship approaches them, one of Monte’s fellow lost souls declares, heartbreakingly, “Getting further from what is getting nearer. ... Sometimes I can’t stand it.” Willow will be a woman soon and, like the voracious black hole the mission has been searching for all these years, the implications of her maturation seem increasingly ominous: The first word spoken in the film is “taboo.” In previous Denis works like 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and Bastards (2013), an anxious feeling hangs over the father-daughter relationship. But in High Life, out in the void of space, far from civilization, life creates and destroys itself freely.

A baby girl is also at the emotional core of First Man, but it is her death rather than her birth that haunts Armstrong. Unlike Denis’s vision of human nature as self-annihilating, Chazelle aims for a life-affirming message by paralleling the intimacy of family life and the immensity of space. When NASA recruiters ask him why intergalactic travel is important, Armstrong explains that it lets us see how thin the atmosphere really is. It “allows us to see things maybe we should have seen a long time ago.” This is the first of many instances when Chazelle spells out what his film means. Armstrong’s comment is not only a basic sentiment—far from Denis’s complex, nihilistic celebration of life—but it also proves misleading. Throughout First Man, what becomes clear is that the man himself is of little importance to his own cosmic story, and isn’t changed by it.

A short-lived but frustrating controversy around First Man emerged on social media after the film’s Venice premiere over the supposed absence of the iconic American flag planted on the moon by the Apollo 11 team. Not only is the flag clearly visible, but the entire film is very much promoting the American dream. Armstrong and his colleagues are doing their job very well, following the motions like machines and never doubting their mission, despite the many deadly accidents and angry wives. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, underused here) complaining to this “bunch of boys” about “all these protocols to make it seem like you’ve got it under control” could be a critique of Chazelle’s directing itself. His attention to the literal nuts and bolts of the engines, with all their little lights and funny noises, is shooting for impressive professionalism but lands in mechanical boredom.

Janet’s arc is particularly baffling. She stays at home to take care of the kids and speaks up when Neil is playing the absent-father card too much. But this blatant attempt at feminist representation is disingenuous, since Janet is simply stating the obvious and helping Chazelle in his relentless literalization of every ounce of feeling the story painfully manages to create. It is as though Chazelle, anxious to seem overly sentimental, wanted to nip in the bud any natural, humane reaction his characters could have to create fake complexity. Janet’s frustration at her heartless husband is also ours, at the film.

If High Life is about the constant threat of death that is part of life, First Man is dead inside. Since his real-hero turn in Drive in 2011, the myth that Ryan Gosling is best when interpreting taciturn leading men bizarrely lives on. His natural charm, often on display in comedies, is again underutilized in favor of a macho blankness, and Chazelle’s style is just as uninspired and detached, to often distasteful and manipulative effect. The deaths of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee by asphyxiation is shot like a pressure cooker reaching tipping point, and a prepared statement in case Neil dies on his mission is read out in voice-over at the worst possible moment. By trying to show the unfairness with which death strikes, Chazelle comes off cold and pompous. Even Stanley Kubrick (who Chazelle is clearly inspired by), as much of a perfectionist and a stylist as he was, allowed emotions to seep in his space movie: The exchange between HAL and the astronaut in 2001 was moving and seemed spontaneous, even if only 50 percent human.

Denis would have made this story at least a little about masculinity and its performance (see: Beau Travail) but Chazelle takes those qualities for granted, never questioning them in any meaningful way. The only male character who seems the least bit self-aware is Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), because he’s the nastiest of the group. When he criticizes the lack of aggression on the part of a pilot at said pilot’s funeral, he answers the offended looks of his colleagues with, “I’m just saying what you’re thinking,” to which Armstrong replies, “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

Why would Chazelle try to smother the only sign of interiority from this crew? Just as he does away with any sustained feminist critique of the material by having Janet throw a tantrum to little effect, Chazelle offers lip service to the controversies of machismo and wasted taxpayers’ money that have historically been thrown against the space program.

Behind its majestic images, long silences, and seriousness, First Man is the work of an Oscar-winning director trying to dodge every possible criticism in advance. Denis, meanwhile, always pilots her work head-on into controversy and confrontation: High Life is a film from the outer reaches of the mainstream, confronting you with questions you hadn’t thought to ask and images you never knew you needed to see.