High Life

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Claire Denis

Starring

Juliette Binoche Mia Goth Robert Pattinson

Anticipation.

So much anticipation that the anticipation-o-meter broke under the strain.

Enjoyment.

Good to know that Claire Denis’ genius is bilingual.

In Retrospect.

An(other) uncompromising work of art from the greatest living filmmaker.

Claire Denis contemplates existence, evolution and survival in deep space with Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.

Usually, when describing a film, writers have access to the vocabulary that has formed around cinema in the 100 plus years since the birth of this relatively young medium. Clichés exist within storytelling and genres, meaning that there is a sense of familiarity as you sit back and sometimes strain to see originality, scanning the screen and peering between the lines for hits of freshness. In most cases, we bear witness to standard-issue machinery clanking its gears.

High Life is the opposite of this, existing at such a cosmic remove from established cinematic grammar that one is almost aligned with the film’s baby character, Willow; confronted with a world of infinite strangeness, horror and beauty without recourse to a structure that gives a damn about guiding you through this strange place. And yet, as she has done many times before, director Claire Denis pulls off the inexplicable, anchoring multiple disparate elements by employing the gravity of profound mystique. If that sounds abstract to the point of madness then it is an accurate representation of the French auteur’s astonishing English language debut.

Robert Pattinson plays Monte, who along with a delightful baby (Scarlett Lindsey), is the last survivor on a spaceship that was at one time full of convicts. This crew has been “recycled” by the government back on Earth, which is to say taken from their jail cells and sent on a suicide mission to harvest energy from black holes. A pre-title credit sequence shows Monte heaving the dead bodies of his crew-mates out of an airlock where they proceed to float into the void.

The film unfolds across a dual timeline. Flashbacks depict camaraderie and confrontation before people began to die, while the present is eerily quiet. Stuart Staples’ score stretches across the entire opus – past, present and future. Denis’ kindred spirit and musical collaborator of 23 years has long known how to alchemise her visions into sound, and here he is at his haunting best. Instead of the fast-paced, electronic tunes we associate with typical science-fiction fare, Staples has composed notes that stretch out and leak into a sound design. They resonate like an unanswered question – a yearning call that seeps into infinity and never returns.

In the relative bustle of the past timeline, Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), sporting a white lab coat and long black hair, is obsessed with making babies. She is preoccupied with clinical procedure, handling fluids, syringes and pipettes, and taking semen samples from all the men, save Monte who is dubbed “the monk” for his abstinence. Sexual relief exists in the form of the “fuckbox” out of which steam circles and white fluid bubbles. Pride of place is a giant dildo mounted to a bucking bronco which Binoche (ever the all-in performer) rides for one mesmerising sequence.

The black-out-blind darkness of this space has drawn comparisons to Scarlett Johansson’s man-eating lair in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. However, Glazer’s film in its entirety calls back to Claire Denis’ 2001 vampire movie, Trouble Every Day – the ways that Béatrice Dalle and Johansson honey-trap their prey and images of men on motorcycles are interchangeable. Whichever your entry point to this feedback loop, gloopy expressions of sexuality within an uncanny and murderous world make Glazer and Denis mood twins.

Eruptions of violence are commonplace on the ship, with feral behaviour an instinct rather than a meaningful slight. As such, relationships are volatile. Monte has a semi-affectionate bond with Boyse (Mia Goth), whose wildcat energy is a survival strategy, and something like a chill buddy in Tcherny (André Benjamin), who loves to spend time in the ship’s overgrown garden where the pair talk movingly about the absurd situation in which they’ve found themselves.

We are clued into back stories via occasional fragments of information. How character, plot and theme coalesce is not easy to decipher. This is image-driven filmmaking, with little interest in linking everything together through exposition. Monte talks to the baby. Monte cares for the baby. Monte pilots the mission. Time passes. In the flashbacks the convicts are at each other’s throats.

Still, the way they look at each other is charged with emotions rarely shown existing side-by-side. Denis loves her actors, and with the help of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, she fills the frame with faces. Binoche exudes predatory lust. Goth is rosy and wild. Benjamin is a picture of amiable grace. Newcomer Ewan Mitchell has a dangerous sexual energy. It’s not safe for these people to be locked in captivity together, yet this is their destiny.

Desire is everywhere. It competes with violence to be the life-force of this suicide mission. “I guess my films are made out of tenderness and love for human beings, even when they are very brutal,” is how Denis introduced the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. Indeed, there is a rape scene presented in a way that confounds instinctive reactions. Hers is a body of work that defies common logic and embraces taboo in a way that 99 out of 100 filmmakers would mess up, but she pulls o with the sheer force of integrity.

Pattinson is amazing, delivering a sophisticated, emotionally discriminating performance that is rooted in small physical processes. Denis is a director who rewards collaborators that give themselves to her – mind, body and soul. She honours vulnerability by framing and magnifying it on screen. The tenderness Monte extends to baby Willow is all the more moving because it exists in contrast to the utter bleakness of the mission. One of the film’s central themes is an account of parenthood as the provision of a nurturing microcosm, staunch against external dangers.

I’ve seen this film three times. Why see a film three times? The lure of intense mystery that beguiles you into trying to solve it again and again; the transference of an intoxication that makes you feel physically different afterwards. It sounds hyperbolic to describe art as having such power, but surely the reason we care about art is a belief that such power exists. High Life is too layered, too ambiguous, too potent to be about any one thing.

My interpretation is unlikely to be the same as other interpretations. All I can say is that it’s a pleasure to have my reviewing faculties blown and my psyche splintered by this master filmmaker. The art we love works to expose our values, our tastes. My taste for Claire Denis leaves me feeling totally exposed, like a baby burbling to a benign authority while adult emotions twist in the darkness of the universe.

Published 5 May 2019

Tags: Claire Denis Juliette Binoche Mia Goth Robert Pattinson

Anticipation.

So much anticipation that the anticipation-o-meter broke under the strain.

Enjoyment.

Good to know that Claire Denis’ genius is bilingual.

In Retrospect.

An(other) uncompromising work of art from the greatest living filmmaker.

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