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When it was announced that Claire Denis was making a sci-fi movie, and one starring Robert Pattinson, it was impossible to imagine what the outcome would be. But it’s certain that no matter what you could conjure up in your brain, you wouldn’t come up with anything close to High Life — a film both sensual and disturbing, strangely fascinating and slightly tedious, tender and off-putting, bold and also a bit stilted.
In other words, High Life is a mixed bag filled with contradictions and complexity. And in some ways, it’s not really a sci-fi movie, or at least a typical one, with Denis using the story of a spaceship populated by human guinea pigs merely as a pretext to explore themes present across her 30-year career: desire and its fatal consequences, the beauty of the body and the harm we sometimes inflict upon it, the lives of outcasts who exist on the margins of our world, the warm and tenuous relationship parents can have with their children — longing, violence, sex, death.
Set almost entirely aboard a floating penal colony that looks like a shipping container on the outside and a boiler room/urgent care clinic on the inside, the film eschews many classic science-fiction cliches while providing a few moments of space opera bliss. But mostly it’s a dark, carnal claustrophobic and at times bluntly violent chamber piece that takes place on a vessel racing toward its inevitable doom. As such, it’s hard to see High Life reaching a sizable public despite a fully engaging Pattinson and Denis’ art house renown. But the director’s ardent fans will likely find much to admire here — especially the fact that the 72-year-old French auteur remains a fearless filmmaker who, in her own way, has gone this time where no man (or woman) has gone before.
The only distant predecessors are probably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, which Denis calls her “good luck charms” in the press notes and whose influence you can feel in the way she cuts between the harsh surfaces of the spaceship (which have a very video-like HD look to them) and the grainier textures of Earth (which were shot on 16mm). And perhaps there’s also a sliver of Kubrick in High Life, whether in the moments we see space pods hurtling toward the abstraction of black holes, or else in the unlikely presence of a baby (Scarlett Lindsey) aboard the ship — except this one is no Star Baby but very much the real thing. Perhaps in space no one can hear you scream, but we definitely hear this baby scream quite a lot during the film’s opening reel.
The child’s father — or at least guardian, as the relationships between the different characters remain fairly opaque for a portion of the film — is Monte (Pattinson), a young man who seems to be stuck alone on the vessel, doing his best to keep himself and the baby alive. We soon find out that Monte is in fact accompanied by an inanimate crew whose bodies are piled up lifelessly in a storage room, until he summarily discards of them all.
After that extended opening sequence, the story — by Denis and regular co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau (Zadie Smith was apparently attached to the project at one point but is not credited here) — is told mostly through flashbacks, revealing how Monte came to be the last prisoner standing in a futuristic detention center where detainees are free to roam around but must abide by one rule: The men have to donate their sperm and the woman their eggs and their bodies, allowing their nefarious supervisor and fellow prisoner, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), to engage in procreation tests, the results of which are beamed back home.
If that sounds like a harsh setup, it certainly is, especially when Denis shows how things work in candid detail: the men (played by Andre Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell) masturbate into cups in exchange for sleeping pills, while the women (played by Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo) are impregnated and then left to give birth to babies who are quickly taken away from them. (A shot of one character covered with the breast milk she cannot feed to her own child is one of many provocative images on display here. Some of those images seemed to provoke a number of walkouts during the film’s world premiere in Toronto.)
The only prisoner who won’t take part in the process is Monte, who has gone celibate and lives pretty much as a loner among the others. But his attitude eventually results in what many will deem to be the film’s most troubling scene, involving rape and a highly invasive form of artificial insemination. The other scene likely to cause a stir is when Binoche’s character enters the spaceship’s “fuckbox,” which is basically a soundproof masturbation chamber replete with bondage pulleys and a silver dildo you can operate with a leather seat.
Denis gives us an extended sequence inside the box, with DP Yorick Le Saux (who has shot many Olivier Assayas movies) covering Binoche’s thrashing about in shaky handheld close-ups filled with a violent sensuality to them. There are a few other such visual highlights, although High Life doesn’t really have the look or feel of Denis’ other work, with the limited setting containing the action way too much. Also, video just doesn’t seem like the right medium for a director whose cinematography has always had a warm and fleeting quality to it, rather than some of the sharp imagery we get here.
Likewise, the space exteriors (and there are only a handful of them) can come across as slapdash and unoriginal, as if Denis were only doing the bare minimum in that department — although a shot of stars swirling around a black hole, like sperm swimming around an ovum, is memorable. Other elements work better, such as the haunting score by regular composer Stuart A. Staples (of the Tindersticks) and production design by Francois-Renaud Labarthe (Personal Shopper) that gives the ship a very dirty and dysfunctional sheen, mirroring the lives of its turbulent passengers, who can only remain in peace for so long.
But without Denis’ typically transfixing aesthetics and with a storyline that lumbers along in places, High Life is not always an easy sit, even if occasional outbursts of violence spice up the action in distressing ways. And despite a committed performance from a very watchable Pattinson — Denis definitely brings out the man’s beauty in certain shots, bathing him in floods of red light — the film also feels rather inert, taking us full circle toward a climax that seems inevitable but doesn’t necessarily register as powerfully as it should. The fact that some of the English-language dialogue sounds clumsy or unnatural doesn’t help matters, either.
It ultimately feels like Denis chose the sci-fi template to indulge in ideas that have graced some of her darker movies (especially Trouble Every Day and Bastards, whose blood and body count are equaled in this film), which means people who truly appreciate her work may find much to chew on here. But while her best films managed to bring us on board with their elliptical narratives and swooning visuals, High Life keeps us on board the ship the whole time, but also at bay. It shows how much the director remains a unique, subversive talent of world cinema, with the result being that perhaps only a chosen few will go along with her for this ride.
Production companies: Andrew Lauren Productions, Pandora Film Produktion, Alcatraz Films, The Apocalypse Film Company, Madants
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek
Director: Claire Denis
Screenwriters: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, in collaboration with Geoff Cox
Producers: Andrew Lauren, D.J. Gugenheim, Claudia Steffen, Christophe Friedel, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Thery Lapiney, Oliver Dungey, Klaudia Smieja
Executive producers: Julia Balaeskoul Nusseibeh, Isabel Davis
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Stuart A. Staples
Casting directors: Des Hamilton, Piotr Bartuszek
Sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
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