Film Reviews: High Life & Lazzaro Felice
Updated: Nov 17
I have a confession to make; ever since I moved to the citycenter I have developed a mild addiction to the Lumiere.
If you don’t know what the Lumiere is, it’s Maastricht’s very own Arthouse Cinema or “Filmhuis” situated at the shore of the Bassin close to the Markt. To take advantage of my strange obsession of paying to sit in a dark room for a few hours, I wanted to share which obscure foreign films have tickled my retinas. So I will present my critique on Claire Denis’ High Life and Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice to give you an idea of the wonderful world of arthouse cinema.
When I went to the viewings of these movies, I had no idea that both of these films were the product of alternative upcoming female directors, which is refreshing considering the male-dominated industry, but that is pretty much all these two movies have in common. The first one is the story of death row prisoners who are sent into deep space in order to experiment the effects of black holes on human reproduction. Sounds sick, right?
The lingering mystery and the Stanley-Kubrick aesthetic portrayed in the trailer intrigued me .For me, this film was set out to be something phenomenal, raising questions about ethics, psychology and the human condition. Finally, a film to contrast Hollywood’s growing number of CGI space movies, a story focusing on what happens inside one’s head during such a voyage and illustrates humanity’s eternal struggle against nature.
I was disappointed.
High Life’s story hinted at a lot of interesting elements such as the violence and tension of having criminals together on a spaceship for years, the notion of sexuality and instrumentalizing sexuality for science as well as the idea of raising a child on a doomed spaceship… but the narrative didn’t pursue these ideas, leaving the audience profoundly confused.
Don’t get me wrong, confusion is a key element of a good cinematographic experience, it’s what is supposed to keep you on the edge of your seat. But Claire Denis’ film lacked the intrigue to involve her viewers. The first scene which reveals that the protagonist Monte lives alone in a spaceship with his toddler, shatters any dramatique buildup the movie could have had. The plot is presented in a non chronological way, but the choice of what scenes the audience gets to see didn’t make sense to me. It conveyed a feeling of inescapable predictability as well as presenting a multitude of seemingly unrelated microevents, and flat characters that don’t represent the psychological complexity the story aims to express.
To me, Claire Denis has bitten off more than she could chew, creating a very ambitious but uncompleted work.
I did enjoy the cinematographic aspect of the film, the use of color and lighting was particularly gorgeous. Different lighting was used to accentuate the moods in every scene, generally warm colors for happy scenes and cold colors for the unselleting ones which was an interesting way of taking advantage of the spaceship decor. Despite everything, each frame was crafted with care and intention and you can decide for yourself if you think Claire Denis’ bold project succeeded in conveying all these things for you .
Lazzaro Felice or Happy as Lazzaro is a widely different kind of film. It takes place in the Italian countryside at the end of the 20th century in a village of tobacco farmers and follows the story of a very kind but simple young man called Lazzaro. Initially, I was attracted to this film’s picturesque vintage aesthetic because as a pretentious cinephile I like nothing better than an movie shot on warm 16mm film .
The movie starts of with the soothing charm of what first appeared to be a coming-of-age story with the wide-eyed, good hearted protagonist growing into himself and leaving his rustic mediterranean village encouraged by his rebel friend from the city.
But what differentiates this movie from High Life and loads of arthouse films, is that Rohrwatcher’s film was more than a pretty film. It was a good film, with a solid and rounded story, which is probably why it won the Best Scenario prize in the Festival de Cannes last year. Indeed, more or less halfway into the movie the plot took me by surprize. A single silent shot transcended the framework that had previously been set. Shifting from a predictable tale about friendship and adolescence into something more fantastic and more political at the same time.
I have to admit, I wasn’t as hopeful before watching this movie, since I remembered seeing Rohrwacher’s previous work, The Wonders, at 3am on Arte one time, and not being particularly impressed . But this movie has such a fascinating combination of the poetic rendering of rural life she is known for, as well as hints of fabulism, a style that I now learned is called “magic realism” . But also painfully realistic depictions of poverty, corruption and decline were added in the mix in the second part of the movie .The plot inspired by a real case of modern slavery in 20th century Southern Italy is as beautiful and mysteriously colorful as it is sad.
It is a movie where the meaning seeps through the fabric of the story and doesn’t require an analytic investigation to understand it. Even if it might feel less exciting, less “edgy”, less cinematographically gripping and intellectually disturbing as alternative cinema usually can be , Lazzaro Felice was for me a refreshing find. And these type of movies, the confusing ones and the ones full of soul, are the reason I still have a Lumiere addiction.
Mowgli studies Arts & Culture at FASoS, and writes for the MD.