THE STORY – A father and his daughter struggle to survive in deep space where they live in isolation.
THE CAST – Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche & Mia Goth
THE TEAM – Claire Denis (Director/Writer), Jean-Pol Fargeau & Geoff Cox
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
By Beatrice Loayza
Not since the erotic vampire drama, “Trouble Every Day,” has the inimitable Claire Denis directed so baffling, so emotionally impenetrable a film as “High Life.” It’s difficult to set up expectations for a film that has no clear reference point, though the philosophical dimensions of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and the radical alienation of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin” make suitable distant cousins. “High Life,” Denis’ first English-language film, will surely divide audiences– though, the iconic French director would have it no other way.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, the sole survivor of a mission to investigate black holes. Present alongside him at the start of the film is a baby girl, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), who is not necessarily Monte’s biological daughter, but rightfully so considering the circumstances. To ensure their continued existence, Monte performs several rote tasks on a daily basis– like tending to exterior repairs and telling the spacecraft’s computer system to provide them with another 24 hours of life support. Existence for Monte and Willow presumably continues along this trajectory until roughly the back end of the film, in which the infant takes the more companionable form of a teenage girl (Jessie Ross). Here, shades of taboo between daughter and celibate, sullen father-figure are apparent, in spite of (or indebted to) Pattinson’s tender performance. The bulk of the film’s temporally schizophrenic narrative, however, details the events precluding Monte’s isolation, elucidating the conditions of the “mission” and the reasons for its fatal denouement. The initial crew of curiously-named prisoners, juvenile delinquents offered this lifelong experimental alternative as a penalty for their crimes, is comprised of eight members, two of which are played by Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin a.k.a. Andre 3000. Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is their medical officer cum space-witch keeper. A harrowing, invasive presence, Dibs is vested with the power to conduct personal reproduction experiments, though she, too, is one of the condemned. Her authority and manipulation of the others cast Binoche’s character as a villain of sorts, but she is also tragically, the most virile and by extension, the most human. Her experiments– focused on the insemination of embryos– come across as expressions of despair, merely something to do as everyone hurtles through the void.
On the one hand, it’s easy to underscore the film’s eccentricities, the infamous “fuckbox” is already shorthand for what some feel “High Life” has to offer– a big mind-fuck, a heavy flow of semen– and yet to say this film is pure provocation is misleading. “High Life” is not a midnight screening or a soon-to-be cult classic. Not really. At least not in the way that audiences, myself included, sadistically and salaciously indulge in the latest Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier film. There’s a fuckbox, there’s rape, bodily explosions, and a lot of cum, but those expecting a titillating shit-show will be turned off, perhaps even bored by Denis’ radical anti-humanism, which privileges conceptual play over a conventionally engaging chain of events. There is a difficulty to the experience, and an unpleasant one is almost certain should you expect a linear narrative, deep characterization, or a sense of closure. “High Life” will seem like a jilted product, full of bizarre, alien performances, and apparently irreconcilable thematic elements, but I am of the opinion that this is merely the sacrifice Denis is willing to make in the service of puncturing through the mainstream and creating something wholly unusual and one-of-a-kind. “High Life” is Denis’ bold, dramatic signature at the corner of her entry into the auteur pantheon of science fiction movies.
Almost nothing about “High Life” resembles the modern Hollywood space movie, which conceives of its spectacular setting as vast, full of potential life, potentially joyous, as in the Marvel movies, or as the frontier of humankind’s greatest achievements, as in something like “First Man,” “Gravity” or “Interstellar.” Significant is Denis’ singular concern with only one space marvel– the black hole– the cosmos’ expression of existential despair. For a film set in space, this rendition is visually low-key, refusing to offer audiences any glimpse of magic, any sign of existence, or even a conciliatory friendly neighborhood space rock, outside of the spacecraft, which drifts aimlessly in apparent purgatory. Aboard the vessel– each room color-blocked yellow, red, or blue– is a space uninterested in discovery, and better described merely as a prison, meant to contain and to wear down with an insistent neutrality. Naturally, these claustrophobic conditions collapse any sense of order, distilling the crew members into their most primitive human impulses, or reducing them to a grotesque assembly of bodily functions and failures.
Like Dr. Dibs’ test tubes of semen, certain individual scenes scattered throughout could make standalone films; the expository ones, namely an interview back on earth with the mission’s mastermind, feel clunky. The most delirious and enigmatic of these asides, however, are some of the most productive for Denis’ meditative concerns– and I am of course thinking of Dr. Dibs visceral, nightmarish dance with the fuckbox, visual material that belongs in an art museum.
The density of “High Life” will thwart any satisfying interpretation, and as a result, easy identification with the rather heady, uncomfortable scenarios on display. Denis’ latest is an art-house film for the ages, and for better or for worse, I don’t believe we’ll be quite certain of the nature of its achievements or failures for years to come. For now, “High Life” will remain a perplexing, unfamiliar film– definitely not inviting– but arousing for those it manages to penetrate.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A profound, brutal meditation on a liminal state of being, ambitiously executed as a risky, conceptually difficult science fiction story.
THE BAD – Provocative and ambitious as it may be, the heady concerns might prove impenetrable to viewers, who will likewise be baffled or turned off by the jilted non-linear narrative and bizarre characterizations.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10