Revisiting the Career of Claire Denis as ‘High Life’ Turns 4

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the release of High Life, the English language debut of prolific French director Claire Denis. The 2018 film stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, a man fighting for the survival of both himself and his baby daughter on board a doomed space flight. The film’s themes of sexuality and existentialism, as well as its expert use of lighting and camera techniques (which lend both beauty and horror to each shot), fit perfectly into Claire’s oeuvre.

Claire Denis is a master auteur whose career stretches over three decades. Born in Paris in 1946, Claire was raised in colonial French Africa. Although she originally studied economics, Claire’s love for film eventually won out; she graduated from L’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (The Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Paris) in 1969. After graduating, she went on to work as an assistant director for distinguished film directors such as Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, and Wim Wenders.

When Claire started to direct her own films, her upbringing in West Africa emerged as a major source of inspiration. Much of her work includes themes centered on French colonialism. Indeed, Claire’s’ first feature film, Chocolat (1988), follows a French woman’s recollection of childhood memories of Cameroon. Result? She was rewarded with a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival!

Nevertheless, Claire is arguably best known for Beau Travail (her fifth feature film). The story—which draws inspiration from Herman Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd—follows the experiences of French Foreign Legion members stationed in Djibouti as they wrestle with masculinity under the blistering heat of East Africa. This entrancing, slow-paced film features visually-striking shots of seaside landscapes, packed night clubs, and the laboring bodies of its actors. Beau Travail remains a key part of not only Claire’s filmography, but of the entire film canon. In 2022, the Sight and Sound poll ranked Beau Travail as the seventh greatest film of all time!

On many of her films, Claire repeatedly collaborates with the same cast and crew members. Agnès Godard has served as the cinematographer on almost every one of her films. Additionally, Claire has also cast actors such as Juliette Binoche, Vincent Gallo, and Vincent Lindon multiple times. For example, Juliette Binoche played pivotal roles in both High Life and Both Sides of the Blade. She first appeared in Claire’s 2017 film Let the Sunshine In. In her review of Sunshine, FF2 contributor Amelie Lasker writes that “through a repetitive narrative cycle and an intimate arc portrayed by lead actress Juliette Binoche, Claire explores how depressing and isolating the search for love can be.” The film won the prestigious SACD award (Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques), which marked her first win at the Cannes film festival.

In 2022, Claire released two new films, Stars at Noon and Both Sides of the Blade. Stars at Noon—which stars Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn—is an elliptical love story featuring one of her favorite themes = westerners abroad. And this time, with Stars at Noon, Claire finally won the ultimate award at Cannes… Grand Prize of the Festival!

Despite decades of male dominance, Claire Denis has been consistently recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers of the last thirty years. Perhaps this is because her films are marked by a genuine desire to understand humanity and human behavior. Audiences see themselves reflected in the sensual rawness of Claire’s world and even the critics applaud.

© Reese Alexander (4/12/2023) Special for FF2 Media


Read Amelie Lasker’s tribute to Claire Denis here.

Read Dayna Hagewood’s Review of High Life here.

Read Amelie Lasker’s Review of Let the Sunshine In here.


Featured photo: Wild Bunch

Bottom photo: Wild Bunch

Tags: Both Sides of the Blade, Chocolat, Claire Denis, High Life, Let the Sunshine In, Reese Alexander, Stars at Noon

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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