For all the assumptions about what might an art house director like Claire Denis be doing making a science fiction movie, the genre actually fits the enigmatic French filmmaker quite well. What better setting than an interstellar journey to a black hole for her obtuse style of filmmaking? High Life slips into the mess that is space and time with a subtle vigor wearing the cloak of the even messier garb of life and death, in particular the drives of Eros and Thanatos.
A group of convicts sentenced to a lifetime of space travel kill each other — or themselves — leaving only one to tend to a baby aboard a space ship. Denis, a hero of bending time in her films, is not one to consider or present definitive endings, so it’s no spoiler to sum up the film’s plot as such. It’s where the film starts, after all. Denis, who also wrote the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox and Nick Laird as a consultant, opens the film with the one survivor, Monte (Robert Pattinson) and the infant, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). It is through flashbacks that slowly take over the narrative that you soon learn of the carnage that is Monte’s and Willow’s past. By the time we are solely in that past you miss the mundane future, where Willow (Jessie Ross) has grown up the only person to know a space ship as her home. It’s a poetic illusion that speaks to how we perceive our existence: fleeting moments that linger and scar us in our present (the images of crooked scars on various characters stand as manifestation of this) and an urgency to move forward beyond them to an unseeable future.
High Life is that thinking person’s sci-fi movie. It’s for fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey (2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years later on 70mm still transcendent), and even though it also includes a black hole, maybe not Interstellar (Interstellar is an enthralling experience … when emo astronauts stop weeping — a film review). Denis likes representing the truth, not explaining it. She does try to follow the laws of physics in space, but only when it adds to the narrative. There’s a scene featuring Monte on the precipice of the infinite blackness surrounding their vessel disposing of the bodies of his crew where the only sound is his breathing below his airtight space helmet, creating an unnerving sense of claustrophobia. However, more so, Denis is interested in the fragility of human minds wrung through the space-time continuum and what might happen to all that we dream, hope and fear under such stress. Needless to say, insanity is a good part of it, but so is the urgency for sex, represented in the film with both humor and horror.
High Life takes its time to arrive at its more thrilling sequences and never lingers on them. This is not the chattiness of Let the Sunshine In (Let the Sunshine In illustrates the importance of self-love in loving others), but the moments characters speak it is often weighted by the heaviness of existence and the one knowable thing about life: it ends in death. Editor Guy Lecorne has been one of Denis’ better collaborators. Denis’s narratives are easier to follow with him at the deck. The director still seems to prefer jump cuts from scene to scene, but High Life is an easy enough narrative to follow, once you realize there is a rather transgressive experiment aboard the ship beyond the space trip to harness the power of a black hole. Somehow one convict, the ironically named Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has made Guinea pigs of the crew to fulfill a demented fantasy to create a baby on board the ship using only clinical techniques. The filmmaker demands the audience go to places of discomfort and enter a world where private things like masturbation happen in shared spaces. Beautifully shot by Yorick Le Saux and featuring a grim, humming score by frequent Denis score composer Stuart Staples, frontman of Tindersticks, High Life is certainly an absorbing film … once you succumb to it.
High Life runs 113 minutes and is rated R.
Updated screening information: High Life opens at both Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood on Friday, May 31.
It is now playing at the following South Florida theaters:
The Landmark invited us to a screening for the purpose of this review.