Short Film Review: Contact.
This Kubrick-esque ultra short film from Director Claire Denis went on to become one of High Life’s best scenes.
In 2014, artist Olafur Eliasson and filmmaker Claire Denis connected for the first time to explore and discuss their common fascination with phenomena that have not yet been fully explained by science – such as black holes – and their shared interest in abstraction. This short film by Denis, contemplating tests for Eliasson’s work ‘Contact’, is one outcome of that conversation which would eventually lead to their collaboration on Denis’s film High Life (2018), in which Eliasson designed the light installations at the films end.
Well, that seemed promising! A subject I’m keen on, two experimental artists, and possible insight into the often opaque film I’d just reviewed. Win-win.
Having seen all 3 minutes of it, I can’t say that I gleaned a lot of insight into the meaning of the arresting final sequence of that film. I did however get a nice little exploration of a director adopting and adapting another art form to the realm of cinema. While it will likely be of limited interest for many, it is a cool little visual experiment worth experiencing if you like the aesthetic of films like 2001: A Space Odysessy or Solaris.
An eerie soundtrack plays as the camera traces the boundaries of Eliasson’s installation – a room in which a monochromatic ray of light is bent by mirrors around a room that slopes so as to give an unsettling experience of standing on the extreme curvature of some celestial body, just outside the reach of a black hole’s event horizon.
Field of View.
The short film does a nice job of guiding the eye along the installation in a manner that conveys its uncanny effect, while also managing to bring some of film’s powers to bear. Eliasson’s web page has a film of similar length, which contrasts nicely. You get a sense of the purpose and nature of the piece, but very little of the visceral feel for it. Denis’ piece uses music, pacing, perspective changes – and not a few creepy close-ups of human faces that appear out of the darkness as the light of the beam slowly intensifies upon them – to really situate you in the experience. By changing the perspective, it makes a subjective experience into, almost, a narrative one.
My first viewing of the film made me feel the power of Eliasson’s piece, but left me wondering how much of that effect was creditable to Denis. A second viewing really showed how much of the impact came from film techniques. It shows some of the transformative value of the medium, beyond just a simple capturing of the object in front of it.
Contact exists in a bit of a middle ground when it comes to recommending the experience. I think the possibilities of the piece are only fully realized in concert with having scene the final sequence in the full film, High Life. While it is an engaging visual experience, it doesn’t quite deepen into more than a passing mood. Often, Claire Denis’ work is both praised and damned for being more about atmosphere and mood than narrative story telling. Contact plants its flag firmly in that territory.
Contact is better than just a tech demo, though. There are arresting elements and rich evocation of sensations and movement that might not even be possible by physically walking the installation itself. At three minutes, it’s a fascinating experience, though it may feel like just the taste of that encounter instead of the full thing itself.