High Life: Erotic Space Madness
High Life is the first English-language feature from French writer/director Claire Denis, which she co-wrote with her long-time collaborators Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, and it’s no more accessible than her previous foreign-language features, but brilliant nonetheless. It’s a wonderfully stylized challenge that defies the traditional typifications of the genre, taking the viewer down a cerebral sci-fi path that has only been trampled on by contemplative cinema and art film mainstays like Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter, Willow, are the last survivors of a damned and dangerous mission to the outer reaches of the solar system. The crew death-row inmates led by a doctor (Juliette Binoche) with sinister motives has vanished. As the mystery of what happened onboard the ship is unraveled, father and daughter must rely on each other to survive as they hurtle toward the oblivion of a black hole.
High Life is languid, atmospheric, elusive, and more arrhythmic than most sci-fi fare, which is going to baffle many general moviegoers. Denis works within the genre, but she outright rejects all of its tried and true conventions and moves to the beat of her own drum. It’s comparable to 2001, Solaris, and Duncan Jones’ Moon only in the sense that they’re all set in space, take their time working a minimal narrative, and are equally uncompromising in their vision; however, High Life is its own beast entirely. Denis has always sought to push the boundaries of cinema, creating new ones along that way, which she pushes even further with each new endeavor. With that in mind, High Life is more geared toward true lovers of cinema, and less at the occasional weekend cineplex visitor, but anyone who sits all the way down with it will likely find it to be a highly rewarding experience.
The story is fairly straightforward and minimalist — convicts are launched into space to find an alternate energy source for humanity’s self-inflicted demise, while simultaneously serving as guinea pigs for the reproductive experimentations of Doctor Dibs (the wonderful Juliette Binoche) — but Denis and editor Guy Lecorne present it in a complex and intriguing way. Though the story is linear, it’s depicted with narrative time jumps that jumble the mission into one highly stylized blur. This puts us into the headspace of Monte (Robert Pattinson), who has been in space so long, he no longer seems to have a grasp on the concept of time. Most of the film takes place solely with Monte and an infant, which may not sound as compelling as it actually is, and while the film moves slowly, it’s paced at just the right tempo. In addition to putting the viewer in the character’s mindset, the jumps forward and backward in time also build intrigue. When the film opens, it is just Monte and his daughter Willow. Within the first 10 minutes, Monte is tossing out dead crew members that slowly rain down over the titles, causing the viewer to wonder what tragedy befell this crew of misfits.
Denis’ use of setting is one of the film’s many enticing elements. She's interested in very human themes, and her choice to explore them in the most cold, inhuman setting is pretty amazing. The film is all about humankind’s want to course correct and continue existence when the future is hopeless, which makes its metaphor a relevant one given that it parallels a lot of current issues with climate change and global unrest. This is something that could’ve easily been explored terrestrially if the setting was just a hundred years out, but Denis quietly and arrhythmically works the sci-fi genre in her own brutally uncompromising way to hammer home the message. Similar to First Reformed, it’s a film that begins after it ends, giving you much to chew on and mull over, and it’s open-ended conclusion denies any answer, pushing the weight on the viewer to determine their own interpretation and meaning.
The acting is incredible. Pattinson continues to prove that he’s an incendiary force to be reckoned with. He does wonders with mere glances and body language to show Monte’s mental and physical fatigue, and his interactions with the baby — who is absolutely adorable — are so heartwarming, which serves as brilliant contrast to the narrative’s setting and situation. As good as Pattinson is though, Juliette Binoche outshines him as the sensuously witchy “shaman of semen.” Binoche’s Doctor Dibs is an interesting counterpart to Monte, surfacing themes of gratification versus abstinence, in the sense that Dibs uses her sexuality to tease or distract herself from their futile existence; whereas, Monte has chosen to abstain from sex entirely, seeming to have accepted his extinction. The role requires Binoche to bare all — in a mesmerizing scene in the ship’s “fuck box” — and she fearlessly embraces it. Like much of the film, Binoche’s performance is oddly sexy, while being deeply haunting and unsettling.
When you factor in Stuart A. Staples’ fantastic score full of discordance and ethereal haunts, you have near perfection. The film’s only major misstep is one exposition heavy scene that occurs on a train on Earth where the viewer first learns that the crew is convicts in space. In comparison to the rest of the film, this scene is extremely clunky and sticks out noticeably as an outlier. I would’ve hoped that the expositional elements would have been handled with a bit more tact, but it’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of its subjective flaws, I think we can agree that High Life is a singular experience. If you’re anything like us, it will stick with you for a long time.
Recommendation: If you’re a true lover of cinema, or into singular experiences that challenge you and cause you to think about heavy existential dilemmas, then this is for you.
Rating: 4.5 cups of fluid outta 5.
What do you think? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and always, remember to viddy well!