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High Life: Mood over matter, Claire Denis’ sci-fi English speaking debut
May 9, 2019
In the opening shot of High Life, director Claire Denis juxtaposes a lush, green garden with the metallic interior glow of a spacecraft bound for a black hole – neatly foreshadowing the events that will unfold over the next two hours. The veteran French director’s English language debut follows a group of death row inmates sent into space under the false pretence that they will be freed upon their return when, in reality, they are the guinea pigs of a deranged experiment. Among the prisoners is Monte (Robert Pattinson), who is caring for a young child named Willow when we meet them as the vessel’s sole survivors at the start of the film. The promise of life is immediately at odds with the desolate setting; what follows is a twisted survival thriller that sometimes feels too atmospheric for its own good.
It’s easy to forget that Robert Pattinson was once so famous that even the President of the United States tweeted about him, especially as the events of High Life unravel on screen. Pattinson is either alone or acting opposite a baby for most of the first act, his vulnerable, intense performance light years away from the teen angst of Ed ward Cullen. Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau’s script is light on dialogue, so Pattinson and the rest of the cast, which includes Mia Goth (Suspiria) and André Benjamin of OutKast fame, are left to portray the claustrophobic anxiety of being stranded in space through body language and looks alone. The themes and performances at the core of High Lifeare so interesting that they beg to be explored further, rather than taking a backseat to the striking visuals and sinister atmosphere Denis and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux craft.
High Lifefeels like a more captivating film begging to be released from its arthouse exterior, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some brilliant moments of thought-provoking sci-fi drama throughout. A prison in space immediately removes any chance of escape, ramping-up the claustrophobia and removing any hope of freedom, creating an even more bleak reality for those onboard. Early on, it’s revealed that the ships life support system will only operate as long as Monte reports to the onboard computer, putting his and baby Willow’s life, or what they have left of one, in the hands of a machine. Still, Denis finds a way to end High Lifeon a hopeful note, where a lesser director may have become bogged down in the dourer aspects of the film.
Sex looms eerily over the characters in High Life: the inmates are forbidden from engaging in sexual activity by the mysterious Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), while she artificially impregnates the women with sperm received from the men in exchange for sedatives. Instead, the passengers are forced to use a specially designed room for masturbation – dubbed the ‘fuck box’ – putting the inmates’ pleasure in the hands of a machine in addition to their survival. Dibs is by far the most compelling character in High Life, her origin shrouded in mystery. It is never explicitly revealed if she was put on the ship in order to experiment on the passengers, but there are hints early on that her morbid fascination with pregnancy might come from somewhere altogether more perverse. As the ship’s only doctor, she gets to play god – upping the sedative dosage whenever she sees fit and getting away with crimes the inmates are punished for.
High Life straddles a precarious line between atmospheric and boring, with brilliant performances and unique storytelling decisions keeping the film on the right side of that dichotomy for most of the two-hour runtime. This is a film overflowing with subtext and deeper meaning in everything from the scenery to the editing to the dialogue that somehow feels subdued by its director’s dedication to mood and hesitation to make anything explicit. ‘Science-fact’ might be a better way to categorise High Life, especially considering astrophysicist Aurelien Barrau’s role as a consultant on the film, but throwing out all genre conventions begs the question: are they conventions for a reason?
High Life is released on the 9th May 2019.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Calrke @_ethanmc.
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