Claire Denis’ “High Life,” an intimate Asumaya show, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY, JUNE 27
A bleak, transcendent, mind-bending odyssey into deep space, Claire Denis’ latest creation proves to be light-years ahead of most contemporary science-fiction movies. With High Life, initially released in 2018, the visionary French filmmaker makes her English-language debut and first foray into the sci-fi genre. Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, a desultory astronaut who lives with his infant daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), in complete isolation aboard a deteriorating spacecraft. The film gradually reveals that they are the last survivors among a crew of social outcasts who had been recruited to participate in radical space experiments. The disposable passengers of the ship include the unhinged fertility specialist Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the impetuous Boyse (Mia Goth), and the acquiescent gardener Tcherny (André Benjamin, otherwise known as André 3000 of OutKast).
Denis’ nebulous, intimate drama unfolds in a series of impressionistic, striking, strangely lurid images as she crisscrosses space and time to probe the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Flashbacks provide clues as to the nature of the crew’s mission, which has something to do with the Earth’s imminent environmental catastrophe and extracting energy from a distant black hole. The enclosed world of the spaceship (designed by conceptual artist Ólafur Eliasson), at once luxuriant and sterile in the juxtaposition of its onboard greenhouse and smooth metallic textures, feels as tangible as the stark interior of a prison. Spare but luminous cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and an eerie musical score by Stuart Staples accentuate HighLife’s apocalyptic implications and startling flourishes of body horror. With its fractured, elliptical story, seductive visual style, cool intellectual precision, and retro-futuristic edge, Denis’ ineffable film boldly traces its own orbit. A fluid, singular evocation of interstellar travel and a compelling look at the near future of human existence, High Life ultimately offers a faint glimmer of hope, even as it plunges headfirst into the void. —Jason Fuhrman
FRIDAY, JUNE 28
Taking its name and inspiration from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s autobiographical account of undergoing a heart transplant, Claire Denis’ L’Intrus [The Intruder] (2004) remains the filmmaker’s most formally audacious and deliriously radical work to date. More a visual tone-poem than a coherent narrative, the film follows the adventures of Louis Trébor (Michel Subor), an enigmatic, brooding, and cold-hearted 68-year-old man who lives alone with his two canine companions in the snowy Jura Mountains of France.
After suffering a mild heart attack, Louis leaves his isolated woodland cabin and embarks on an international expedition to purchase an illegal organ transplant and reconnect with the illegitimate son he abandoned long ago. Traveling from a forest near the French-Swiss border to the bustling markets and shipyards of Pusan, South Korea, Louis then sails to his former home, a dilapidated shack on a remote island south of Tahiti.
L’Intrus shifts back and forth between geographical locations and moments in time, emphasizing atmosphere and vivid sensory detail over linear plot development. Employing minimal dialogue and a visual style that could be described as “hallucinatory clinical realism,” to borrow a phrase from film critic Pauline Kael, Denis conveys Louis’ experiences through a dizzying succession of powerful, transient images. While focusing on the fragile surfaces of Louis’ body with probing camera movements and extreme close-ups of his skin, Denis reveals little of her character’s psychological depths. As Louis struggles to begin a new life, his past, present, and future—real and imagined—coalesce into a haunting, elusive, dreamlike portrait of a selfish sensualist in search of physical and spiritual redemption.
Far from a faithful adaptation, Denis’ L’Intrus avoids any direct references to the specificity of the source material. Rather, she grafts Nancy’s broader reflections on identity, exposure, and intrusion into her own fractured, elliptical story of exile, loss, and regret, while using her lush, visceral textures to examine the porous borders between inner and outer worlds. Although the fundamental ambiguity of L’Intrus may alienate some viewers, Denis’ sensuous, assured editing rhythms and breathtaking compositions demand that we surrender to the film’s magnetic flow. In the director’s own evocative words, “L’Intrus is like a boat lost in the ocean drifting.” —Jason Fuhrman
MONDAY, JULY 1
This summer’s Lakeside Cinema series clearly has a coming-of-age focus, given that the calendar features films like Big (1988) and The Iron Giant (1999). But for those of us who experienced our childhoods racing down hills on BMX bikes, exploring uncharted territories with our besties, and just wishing the summer would never end, Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me (1986) stirs up an especially powerful longing. (Specifically for those summer days before kids were glued to their black mirrors sending drivel on Snapchat.)
Based upon the 1982 Stephen King novella The Body, the film boasts an ’80s heartthrob-to-be ensemble cast of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. The film artfully sets up the plot as flashback: an adult Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) recalls a story about his 12-year-old self and his friends. Before Labor Day weekend of 1959 in Castle Rock, Oregon, Gordie is still processing his grief over his brother’s death. He spends time socializing, even though he is the quiet one in his friend group. Vern (Jerry O’Connell) overhears his older brother say that he found the body of what may be a missing child several miles away. Vern tells the group, and they decide they want to embark upon a mission to find the body.
The next 24 hours they spend together not only test the boundaries of their friendship, but become a hallmark moment for these soon-to-be young-men that will bind them together for the rest of their lives. River Phoenix’s turn as Chris Chambers gave us a glimpse of what could have been prior to his tragic death in 1993. What still strikes me even now about this beautiful film is how it does not portray childhood with the fluff and bubblegum pop that can be standard in coming of age stories, but really grapples with such serious issues as physical abuse, bullying, childhood death, and what happens once the world has already made up its mind about you. —Edwanike Harbour
WEDNESDAY, JULY 3
The Madison Public Library’s free Cinesthesia series has become a strong presence among Madison’s film offerings, thanks to the diverse array of screenings curator (and Tone Madison contributor) Jason Fuhrman has programmed. Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole (1951) exemplifies what makes the series so valuable. While it’s not as popular as other noir classics of the time, like Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) or Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil (1958), Ace In The Hole has just as much taut storytelling and impeccable direction to offer.
I first saw Ace In The Hole during a Film Noir festival in San Francisco 10 years ago. My first introduction to Wilder’s work was Some Like It Hot (1959), a brilliant farce starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and the indomitable Marilyn Monroe. Wilder was a versatile filmmaker, but exceptionally talented at directing film noir edged with merciless social commentary, perhaps most famously in Sunset Boulevard (1950). I could easily see another director attempting a reboot of Ace In The Hole for the social media era, but this would do a disservice to Wilder, and to a film that’s already perfect.
Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a skilled but unscrupulous journalist whose penchant for drinking and selfishness leads him down an unsavory path, in a story that takes a rather dim view of humanity. While Tatum cruises through a New Mexico town, his car breaks down. He has been fired from yet another reporting gig back east. He talks his way into a job at a local newspaper. Things move a bit slower out west, and a year later, Chuck finds himself bored and hungry. When he catches wind that a local man has fallen down an abandoned silver mine and is pinned under a rock, he sees it as his big break and tries to milk the story for as long as he can for fame, fortune, and a shot at getting his old job back. He gets a tad more than he bargains for, and Wilder exposes the extent of human greed and selfishness. —Edwanike Harbour
Madison musician Luke Bassuener loops voice, percussion, bass, and thumb piano into the tense, resourceful songs of his solo project Asumaya. Bassuener often seems to be writing from the point of view of a character, often a privileged American traveller or power broker figuring out how to dispense with the vulnerable people and struggling societies he encounters around the globe. I always come back to one line on the song “And Lucky,” from Asumaya’s 2015 album The Euphemist: “When my fit hit the ground, everybody better talk like me.” It’s an incredibly pithy expression of white Americans’ arrogance and entitlement on the world stage, both cataclysmic and gruesomely comic.
Bassuener’s writing inhabits a great deal of cynicism without quite giving into it: Even when dissecting American exceptionalism on the song “Outsider,” from last year’s Omniphobic, he invests his work with a steely humanity and empathy for all those the West abuses and others. The music itself draws from two main sources of inspiration: the skewed rhythms of post-punk and the vast array of musical traditions Bassuener has encountered on his trips over the years to countries including Ghana and Ethiopia, where he’s worked as a teacher and volunteer, and even recorded and collaborated with local musicians, as documented in the ongoing Bawku West Collective series.
Omniphobic is definitely Asumaya’s darkest work so far. Bassuener laces these songs with fears both real and imagined, and examines how those fears have brought our American politics to this paranoid, dangerous moment. Bassuener recently celebrated the vinyl release of the album, and will perform his deftly executed one-person arrangements in this intimate show at Revolution Cycles on Atwood Avenue. —Scott Gordon
6/29: Spirits Having Fun, Hex House, William Z. Villain. Mickey’s Tavern, 10 p.m. (free) (Read more about this show in our story on Hex House’s new album and our interview with Spirits Having Fun.)