High Life, 2018.
Directed by Claire Denis.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Scarlett Lindsey, and Jessie Ross.
A father and his daughter struggle to survive in deep space where they live in isolation.
High Life adopts the nonlinear storytelling format in a confidently directed and masterfully edited manner that expands the gravity of each individual narrative act juxtaposed against one another. Directed by Claire Denis (the revered international auteur is making her English-language debut here, also pulling double duty as a co-writer alongside Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox), the highly unnerving and wildly ambitious (seriously, this is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar stripped of its budget and tripled down on pathos and abstract imagery) space drama takes a group of death row inmates placing them into a new setting to serve science, also coming across as a harrowing intergalactic Stanford Prison Experiment.
Also, by serving science, I mean the prisoners are NOT hurling through outer space (their spacecraft resembles a cargo container when seen floating) towards a black hole to harness whatever mysteries it holds for infinite Earth resources (as the mission is described to them), but a sort of vanity project of inexplicable reasons that sees a deranged child murderer doctor named Dibs (known Claire Denis collaborator and all-around celebrated performer Juliette Binoche, pulling off a perfectly measured helping of craziness that is too nuanced to feel hammy but far too unhinged to come across uncommitted) unhealthily fixated on finding a way to birth and raise a child from the male and female passengers aboard the vessel without it dying from radiation.
This is where High Life gets really bizarre, but thankfully it’s also a purposeful brand of insanity; the movie contains everything from routine semen gatherings from the crew to a designated “fuckbox” (there is an extended segment were Dr. Dibs rides a seemingly otherworldly massive dildo on an equally large chair, all set to haunting grunge style riffs and calibrated body gestures that suggest it’s all some kind of fucked up rock music video from the 90s or possibly some outtakes from Nine Inch Nails’ music video for Closer) to a central mystery of how just about everyone died and a baby came to be on board. Each image is also meticulously composed by Yorick Le Saux and strikingly says something of note, which is another way of saying this is visual storytelling that tells more than one viewing could ever beam into someone’s brain. On a more conventional note, the nonlinear approach also works to keep the tight pacing on track and because, obviously, the mission of making a baby will be achieved somehow.
High Life actually begins introducing audiences to Munte (Robert Pattinson continuing his string of excellent independent works, receiving what might be his most morally complex character yet this time around) as the sole survivor taking care of a baby named Willow that refers to him as “Dada” while simultaneously keeping the space vessel up and running. The mission itself is not monitored by humans per se, but a computer that does a daily check up on how the craft is running; if everything is in tip-top shape an algorithmic response shoots out signaling the ship to maintain its acceptable living conditions (which includes a beautiful garden allowing for parallels to Earth). Anyway, there’s something thought-provoking about watching a confirmed horrible human being (he is on death row for a nasty crime that becomes clear as more and more flashbacks are revealed) lovingly nurture a child. Maybe it’s a message about reform under extreme fictional circumstances, or maybe it says something about the varying ways loneliness and isolation can affect different people. The film may not spend enough time telling us about the rest of the prisoners before everything went to hell, but as mentioned, it does feel like a social experiment for the criminally insane, and a study that inevitably collapses on itself.
It’s important to note that High Life does not shy away from violence against women or sexual abuse; this is a raw and brutally bleak look at death row inmate behavior not just in a new environment functioning as a case study, but also a band of repulsive individuals given just a little bit more freedom. Unsurprisingly, Munte emerges as the closest thing to a hero of the group (but not without his own icky actions), but High Life goes to unexpected places in its closing 20 minutes that transcend the concept of trust, love, morality, and courage in the face of the unknown. It’s almost staggering a film this weird also finds a whopping amount of grounded character interactions that speak volumes about society. Admittedly, the ending scene might leave one with a “that’s it?” sensation and wanting more, but upon immediately reflecting on the entirety of the movie, it’s a searingly potent closing shot that encapsulates the majority of the film’s themes. I wanted to know more but at the same time I didn’t; High Life is edited by Guy Lecorne to perfection.
At the same time, it still just feels like there should be a little more to some intriguing supporting characters played by Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, and more. Some of the events unfold will most likely leave viewers feeling cold and indifferent, which is unfortunate as you can probably add more emotion without sacrificing the sharp direction and editing. Cinematography is also another highlight, basking in dark blues and flickering reds, consistently relying on color as a mood setter while framing every strange sequence memorably; you don’t need millions of dollars to make a film set in space brand images into the mind.
Nevertheless, High Life is an ambitious and intelligent work of art that genuinely feels as if it will mean something else to everyone that is up for the challenge of decoding it. The space vessel may be damned, the mission may be damned, anything resembling society aboard the craft may be damned, but there is always hope for humanity. That hope manifests itself in ways ranging from everything to reformed calmness, obsessive redemption further dooming one’s psyche, and the greatest virtue of all, the bond between parent and child.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com