On Monday, September 10th, Claire Denis accepted the 5th Annual Ebert Tribute Award at a lunch organized by Chaz Ebert, and the team behind the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), including Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling. She joins the impressive lineage of the award, which has been given to Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Agnes Varda, and Wim Wenders in the last four years. At an event attended by collaborators like Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth, admirers like filmmakers Barry Jenkins, Atom Egoyan, Taika Waititi, Mira Nair, Olivier Assayas, Clement Virgo, Barry Avrich and Brigitte Berman, as well as journalists and people in the industry such as Michael Barker and Ivan Fecan, Claire Denis was the guest of honor. That her newest film, “High Life,” premiered the night before and instantly became the most divisive of TIFF18 seemed perfectly appropriate. The tribute took place at Akira Back in the Bisha Hotel, the latest, sleek, Michelin-starred restaurant in Toronto, with it's famed chef, Akira Back, looking after every gourmet detail.
Piers Handling, the Festival Director who is stepping down after 36 years with the festival, clearly had an emotional connection with Denis, whom he compared to Jean-Luc Godard in his introduction at the tribute lunch. Like Godard, she is uncompromising, unconcerned about holding the hand of the audience member, asking something of the viewer instead of just allowing them to be a passive observer. This is certainly the case with “High Life,” a film that ended up as the #1 of this year’s TIFF for a number of high-profile critics while also containing a number of walk-outs. It feels like that’s how Denis would want it—a movie that challenges viewers means that some viewers won’t be up for the challenge, doesn’t it?
“High Life” is certainly a challenge, starring Robert Pattinson as a space traveler aboard a giant ship headed to the distant reaches of space. We meet Pattinson’s character on a nearly-empty vessel—it’s just him and a baby. How he got here is filled in with flashbacks that include roles played by Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, and Andre Benjamin, but don’t expect any sort of traditional narrative. This is a film that owes a great deal more to Tarkovsky than Nolan, and further proof that Pattinson is one of the most daring actors of his generation, eschewing leading man roles to work with filmmakers like James Gray, the Safdies, and Claire Denis. “High Life” was bought by A24 shortly after its premiere.
Of course, the Ebert Tribute is never about only one film, and Claire Denis’ entire career was feted at the luncheon, with Chaz Ebert calling her an original, and thanking her for her willingness to boldly address female sexual desire in her films. Sony Pictures Classics co-president, Michael Barker, spoke about seeing “Chocolat” for the first time at Cannes 30 years ago, a colleague telling him “this is why we do what we do.” Calling Roger Ebert, “the conscious of the movie business,” Barker deftly laid out the symbiosis required between artist, producer, and critic. Filmmakers like Claire Denis are rare, and it takes people who appreciate their gifts to give them the right platform. As Barker said, “Our place in the business is to protect her and that humanity.”
Denis, being as humble as ever, spent the beginning of her very brief speech thanking Assayas for his friendship and support (and who wouldn’t love to see the two of them sit down for a filmed interview someday?) She thanked Piers, Cameron, Chaz, and she especially thanked Roger Ebert, expressing how honored she was to accept the award in his name. In all the speeches and conversations in that room, and the excellent tribute video which is embedded below, the word that kept resurfacing was “uncompromising.” Even at age 72, Denis refuses to make simple, unchallenging films. It’s clear now that she never will.
All photos credited to Shane Parent.