From Aliens to The Martian to Gravity and beyond, there is something about the concept of survival and existence in space that really floats my boat when it comes to cinema. I’m by no means a sci-fi aficionado, but the way that the vastness and oftentimes hopelessness of space strips characters down to their bare bones really interests and intrigues me. In her first English language feature at the age of 73, I had high hopes that legendary French filmmaker Claire Denis would be able to hit some of those science-fiction infused sweet spots.
Set in a deliberately ambiguous future with a deliberately ambiguous timeline, High Life tells the story of a group of people serving death sentences for various crimes who have been sent on an exploratory space mission to find an alternative energy source for Earth. Seen as disposable by the society that sent them, the characters are left to their own devices on board, establishing a micro society led by a Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a women obsessed with creating a child onboard through artificial insemination. All the other prisoners fall in line with her experiments except Monte (Robert Pattinson), but the audience soon comes to find in a non linear fashion that currently, only Monte and a young baby remain living on the ship.
The bulk of the film concerns itself with putting together the pieces for the audience of what led up to this, why only Monte and the child remain, and if you are going in expecting something other than a wrenching, challenging look at the human condition, then you are very much mistaken. High Life has a lot of things to say about humanity, but the unescapable fact is that is doesn’t make for an enjoyable watch. The large looming themes are those of sex, sexual autonomy and human connection.
There is no sugar coating here, none of those gravity free card games, fun and banter whilst outside fixing a ship, nostalgic conversations about the things you miss from back home. All of those familiar space mission tropes are completely absent in favour if something more rawer and much more desolate but realistic feeling. If you send a bunch of people in to space on essentially a suicide mission, what else can you really expect other than 90 plus minutes of bad vibes?
Aesthetically, the film is really striking an interesting. There is a sparse, minimalist nature to it that contrasts many of the busier spaceship designs and consoles we have seen before. There is almost a Kubrickian essence in the technical sharpness of the cinematography and the overall set design, and the aggressively sexual theming did evoke something like A Clockwork Orange for me at times as well. To be honest, I found that I couldn’t enjoy the film play out because multiple rape scenes, a baby in frequent partial distress and a few dead dogs thrown in for good measure just doesn’t make for nice viewing. High Life is absolutely in the category of one of those films that is technically strong and metaphorically interesting, but the anguish of having to watch certain themes play out on screen doesn’t prove to be enjoyable at all.
The film goes from being very quiet and pensive to being incredibly loud and bombastic in turn, and when it comes to quiet and pensive Robert Pattinson is just the sort of brooding presence to match the tone. He might not be everyone’s first choice, but he’s a more proficient actor than his heartthrob Twilight past suggests. Pattinson seems to be making deliberately unconventional and against type choices in terms of his roles, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
As Dr. Dibs, I have never seen Juliette Binoche more unhinged and uninhibited. She takes on the kind of mantel that one might more immediately associate with the likes of Isabelle Huppert, a crazy role that demands a lot both dramatically and physically, and there is always something really satisfying about seeing a really talented actor throw caution to the wind and just go a bit wild. In a film filled with disturbed concepts, Binoche gives the evocatively disturbed performance.
The rest of the film is fleshed out with affecting and memorable smaller performances from the likes of Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek and Lars Eidinger, all fellow prisoners with their own parts to play in the tragedy that unfolds. There is no denying that the picture possesses a seal of acting quality from top to bottom, it’s just up to each individual viewer to decide whether they are having a comfortable enough time with the narrative to really appreciate everything in the moment.
Overall, High Life is a really challenging one. It is a sci-fi space mission film that should certainly be celebrated for taking a completely different angle than any other that I can think of, but it’s absolutely not going to be for everyone. If you like a little bit of hope or light in your dystopia, then High Life isn’t going to tick those boxes. Is it a film I’m going to talk and think about for a long time? Yes. Is it a film that I want to put myself through the intensity of actually watching in full length again? Probably not.