Just as Claire Denis’s “Trouble Every Day” was unlike any horror movie you’d likely ever seen, her “High Life” is similarly unique in the science fiction genre. This is not to say that the film is one of my favorite in Denis’s oeuvre, but it’s a good film and certainly different from most of the other pictures of its type.
Fractured in narrative and often visually stunning, “High Life” relays a somewhat disjointed chronicle about some prisoners who are being used as guinea pigs in a deep space mission that has something to do with utilizing the energy of a black hole. It’s also a film abound in bodily fluids – blood, spit, semen, sweat and pretty much every other type you can imagine. It’s a strange film that is often trance-like, even if its narrative is often too cryptic to decode.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, a convict turned astronaut who is seemingly one of the most sane of the bunch on the spaceship. He spends much of his time tending to an infant, who at the film’s beginning is the only other passenger on his ship. Juliette Binoche is Dr. Dibs, who appears to be the mission’s commander. She experiments on the other passengers, and although her intentions are slightly unclear, her work appears to have to do with fertility. Mia Goth is a troubled woman who captures the interest of both Monte and Dibs, while Andre Benjamin (of Outkast) is a tranquil prisoner who tends to the ship’s garden. Several other, more volatile shipmates also figure in the story.
For those unfamiliar with her work – and I’d highly suggest you familiarize yourself with it – Denis is one of Europe’s most acclaimed directors of the past 20 years. Her work includes the cerebral colonialist dramas “White Material” and “Chocolat” (the 1988 one, not the Binoche film) as well as the arty Euro-shocker “Trouble Every Day” and the beautifully strange “Billy Budd” adaptation “Beau Travail.”
“High Life” is full of the strange and gorgeous sequences you’d expect in a Denis film. One character steals a ship and dies a seemingly awful death while traveling too close to the black hole. In the film’s most provocative scene, another character indulges in the pleasures of the, ahem, “fuck room,” a space where humans can, well, get randy with a literal sex machine.
Little is known about the characters outside of the smallest details – Monte killed a friend on Earth over a dog, Dibs might have murdered her children and Benjamin’s character finds peace by tending to the garden. There are long pauses in which characters stop to admire the cosmos. There are shocking bursts of violence amid the crew members.
Like I said, “High Life” is certainly of a piece with Denis’s previous work. I greatly admired it and definitely liked it, even if it didn’t reach the heights of “Beau Travail” or “Trouble Every Day.” It’s a science fiction movie in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Silent Running” and “Solaris,” but much more sordid and occasionally more violent. It’s a strange movie that casts a spell. For moviegoers who enjoy dark, cerebral sci-fi movies, I’d highly recommend it.
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