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Film review: ‘High Life,’ dir. Claire Denis

In space, no one can hear you screw

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Given its content, it is initially tempting to call Claire Denis’ “High Life” a sci-fi sex thriller, but I’d be resented by anyone who went to see the film based on that disingenuous description of it because “High Life” is neither sexy nor thrilling. That’s not a knock against it, but this is a film whose first of many disturbing, overtly sexual scenes evokes satanic ritualism. In short, it is not a fun watch.

Robert Pattinson — now several years removed from his days as a vampire having interspecies intercourse — is still involved in all sorts of cinematic kinkiness. In this film, he stars as Monte, an astronaut stranded in a space vessel with no hope of returning to Earth and no one for company but his toddler daughter, Willow. He spends his days farming aboard the ship, repairing its malfunctions, keeping its life-support systems online, and disposing the cadavers of his expired former crewmates.

Pattinson’s nuanced performance is a highlight, and though — despite the visual evocations of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in this film’s sterile, sharply geometric production design, he never has to ask Hal, a computer, to open the pod bay doors — his performance does recall some of the calm-on-the-brink-of-collapse of Keir Dullea in Stanley Kubrick’s classic.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Monte found himself in such a predicament. Among the first of these sequences — and this might be considered a minor spoiler, but it comes about 15 minutes into the film in a blatant expositional insert — is one that reveals the original purpose of Monte’s expedition: his crew consisted of death row inmates on a voluntary, almost-certainly one-way mission. This sets up the narrative for a sort of reverse-“Alien” lead-up to Monte’s eventual solitude: Instead of getting picked off one-by-one by a nefarious outside force, the crew-members must grapple with their internal demons, deep loneliness, and regretful remembrance of what they left behind on Earth.

And, because they’re human, everyone’s also mad horny, unsatiated by the self-cleaning sex box that resides in the ship’s hull, and waiting to relieve them of their carnal urges. Because it’s difficult, within the constraints of a two-hour film, to explore all of the implications of the severe isolation that the crew members experience, “High Life” uses sexual repression to examine everyone’s deteriorating psyches. It’s an interesting method, and one that digs at some revealing, unpleasant territory, even if it doesn’t quite form a coherent thesis.

The fact that all those involved are (or were) on death row factors into the erratic behavior of some crew members and provides disturbing context for the actions of others. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t feel like an overdone gimmick, which it easily could have.

The most prominent supporting character is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the creepy, controlling ship doctor who embarks on what is possibly the least erotic fertility quest ever depicted on-screen (but, who’s keeping track?). Unfortunately, not all of Binoche’s ominous lines land gracefully, calling attention to the film’s most glaring flaw: its occasional unwillingness to just be quiet.

The film’s best bits by far are its silent ones — the times it chooses to nix dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and Monte-Willow interaction. When characters open their mouths, it too often feels like the writers, Denis as well as Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, couldn’t quite figure out how to elegantly deliver the expositional backbone to the film’s “2001”-esque hypnoticism. Perhaps they just didn’t need to.

Regardless, what we get is a film of extremes: “High Life” is a provocative fever dream during its best bits, and a wooden slog during its worst. Thankfully, the former sequences significantly outweigh the latter.

The verdict: If “High Life” leaned a little more into its quiet, poetic beauty, it might have been something truly special. As it stands, the film is still an uncommonly disconcerting viewing experience that evokes the emptiness of space and its slow creep inside the doomed individuals journeying where no one has before.

Reach writer Isaac Handelman at Twitter: @isaachandelman

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