Rating: 3 out of 5
Claire Denis is 73 years old, with High Life not only has she made her English language debut and embarked on her first journey into the science fiction genre but she has also fashioned one of the most shocking works of her entire career. Her films are not strangers to darkness but the void of space seems to have inspired new insights into the abyss that is existence. Here she imagines a world without “taboo”, civilization, history or culture, it’s a bleak realization but Denis offers a sliver of redemption in the end while crafting a gripping and enthralling drama of the highest caliber. In the transition to an English audience, however, Denis seems to have trimmed back on her style, she has softened her ambiguities, eased on her vivid impressionistic filmmaking in favor of some cumbersome exposition and plodding background details. Despite this, High Life, is another bold, audacious statement from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, now three decades into her career, still exploring unknown territory.
The film follows a man named Monty (Robert Pattinson) traveling through space with his baby daughter, supposedly towards a black hole. Though the specifics of their mission are not revealed until much later in the film, Denis has an absolute joy unraveling the narrative; events, instances, memories, motivations, only begin to completely make sense towards the latter half of the movie. Occasionally though there are moments in the script where she and her screenwriters (Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox) seem to fear the audience not fully comprehending or understanding these connections, so things that are masterfully stated in subtext occasionally become fully stated either in dialogue or monologue. The film’s mysteries are its most marvelous strength, the unknown of space for mankind functioning as a metaphor for the audiences own assumptions, judgements and presuppositions about the characters. Monty and his crew are just as unknown to us as the endless night surrounding their space capsule, and perhaps just as cruel and unforgiving.
The opening sequence is arguably Denis’ most memorable introduction to a film (White Material and I Can’t Sleep are also prime contenders), the audio design is suffocating, claustrophobic, and the stakes are huge from the start. Robert Pattinson plays his typically mopey yet gruff persona, he lacks the enthusiasm he had in Good Time, but his reserved portrait of a man losing his mind amidst the cosmos is welcome considering he could’ve taken his performance to Brad Pitt Twelve Monkeys levels and had the public screaming for an obligatory Oscar for the annual unhinged performance. Juliette Binoche shines in the villain role, I’ve never been quite so fearful of one of her character’s before, she is sinister, plotting, and damned driven.
Some of the character’s can feel a bit hollow and vapid, especially given how easily Denis usually finds hidden depth in her subjects through subtle but insightful details. In High Life characters talk and talk, yet some only felt in service of the grander scheme of the plots movement rather than fully rounded beings. They are dispatched with a coldness that is appropriate to their lack of relevance to the proceedings of the film, but one can’t help leaving the theater wishing they had served a purpose for themselves rather than the overall story.
High Life, is an unsettling, existential and unforgiving science fiction film but the ride is consistently revelatory and exciting. I hesitate to use the word entertaining but from one scene to the next, there was a constant feeling of discovery, that stood the potential to disquiet, relieve and disturb. If nothing else this film is dynamic in its ability to confuse, convolute and profoundly shake our feelings about the narrative and it’s characters. The ending will perhaps frustrate, but for all the film’s stark savagery, much like Murnau’s Faust, despite any declarations of “Liebe” (Love), the hope feels drowned in the complete cynicism of the events leading to this final moment. A happy ending? Maybe…