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To make an honest attempt at explaining Claire Denis’ new film, I should first say none of its ostensible plot or genre descriptors represent the movie all that well.
High Life is the piecemeal-told saga of nine death-row inmates confined to a flying object, but if you’re thinking anything resembling Con Air (even though there will be some sweaty bods), that’s not it. Then, there’s a mad scientist, but she’s not much of a scientist nor is her madness driven by any coherent belief system. Here’s another: the inmates are conscripted into an intergalactic mission, but every passenger of the floating shoebox simply labeled ‘7’ melancholically acknowledges at some point that this quest doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And finally, High Life is a story about raising a child that doesn’t take much interest in parental or childhood identity.
So what is the latest in a 30-year career from Denis that’s spanned horror (Trouble Every Day), war epics (Beau Travail) and realist romantic comedies (Let The Sunshine In)? Now, she’s making her first film in English, positioning it in a genre space when, as she’s stated unequivocally, the result is not really a genre film. It’s an art piece of sexual expression meeting body horror and black-hole philosophy meeting humanity’s existential crisis on earth. Denis says she’s had the premise rolling around in her head for more than 15 years, something moody and imagistic.
That backstory makes sense. High Life is Interstellar without the rapturous answers and 2001: A Space Odyssey without the pain-staking questions. Though the circumstances are extraordinary — crew physician Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is harvesting reproductive material from the inmates, and they’re ostensibly heading toward a black hole for the “glory” of harnessing its energy — this cast of characters featuring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin is more or less just sitting out there, living and dying quite slowly. Perhaps the most life-like thing about all this madness is that it slumps so inevitably toward the tedious. Just look at our lives.
Continuing a fascinating run of post-Twilight acting that’s seen him work with James Gray, David Cronenberg, and the Safdie Brothers, Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, our way into this puzzler. Of late, Pattinson has proven himself able to disappear into roles (Lost City of Z) or turn his movie-star wattage into blinding fool’s gold (Good Time). In High Life, he’s somewhere in between, revealing a tender desperation through interactions with an infant in one of the film’s timelines. Monte is trying his best to be a father, but never shakes off the nerves of a babysitter. Around the other inmates, he’s more resolute, not their leader, just good at finding small reasons to keep moving forward and his body to himself.
The acting across the board is fascinatingly understated for a movie that also contains some violent and perverse outbursts. Mangled sexuality abounds — for real, Binoche writhing is High Life’s version of a setpiece — but our passengers are mostly withholding from each other emotionally. We’re only reminded these men and women have previously taken lives by the way they don’t hesitate when something needs to be done, or when they want something so badly they can’t tell the difference. Therein lies some metaphor for human existence, one of many densely layered throughout. Our anti-heroes are utterly trapped on this ship and yet curiously in control of their own destiny, the way any band of explorers 100 years from home would be. But growing awareness around their self-determination does nothing but tighten the vice grip.
Let’s try and put a finer point on this: I appreciate much of High Life but find evangelizing for it difficult. It’s a difficult movie, after all: thematically rich; so sickeningly carnal you can imagine Denis chuckling that her film is actually walking backward into melodramatic bawdiness; it’s acted very well; captivating for the suggestion of a puzzle. But I’d be remiss not to point out occasional clumsiness in the script where the movie feels it must reset — for example, Pattinson suddenly explaining the ship’s passengers are “scum” and “refuse,” or Binoche insisting aloud on the almost fascist “perfection” of her experiment. These moments feel a bit like Denis not only making her first film in a second language but also making sure a studio like A24 understands this artful curio enough to sell it.
But maybe I’m responding more to the fact that High Life hinges on revelations that creep up on you like the hum of an idling engine. And whether they actually even register as revelations is in question. This movie’s version of a climactic spoiler may be your read on it and yours alone, tipped off only by a camera lingering in one place for a bit longer than necessary. The fact that High Life isn’t programmatic inside its dystopic, celestial rectangle is great. The fact that its structure feels programmed for plot payoff, though, is less than deft. Much like the physical illusion of the ship’s speed — accelerating by the millisecond to maintain the effects of gravity and ultimately bend time itself — High Life makes it hard to feel any one sensation too acutely. Was that a twist you sensed, or a bend in a ceaseless highway?