Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin,
Aside from the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters that give you something familiar every time, really great cinema should always deliver the unexpected. French filmmaker Claire Denis has a knack for surprising her audience. She never guarantees you leave the theater content, and you are likely to leave full of unanswered questions. “High Life” is her first English language film, and as with her previous work, explores sexuality– only this time it’s set in space. Some people walked out of this experimental picture when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018. Pattinson, post-“Twilight,” has leaned into challenging roles, staying far away from the type of roles is known for on TV. Though not Denis’ first choice (that was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), she came to understand that she needed someone like Pattinson and his experience appealing to American audiences.
“Break the laws of nature, and you will pay for it.” Monte (Pattinson) is one of a handful of prison inmates sent into space as experimental Guinea pigs. Most don’t even know why they are on this ship that is hurtling towards a black hole. Along with them is the pilot (Agata Buzek ) and Dr. Dibs (Binoche), who works adamantly to create new life from her subjects. The prisoners have two things to occupy their confined existence in space; a garden which bears their food and an interactive sex machine box, where everyone gets their fix. Dibs curiosity is provoked when Monte refuses to give her his sperm to experiment with saying, “I keep my fluids to myself.” After years of confinement the violent, mentally unstable criminals begin to turn on each other as the madness of space infects them all.
"High Life" is more curious than it is compelling.
“High Life” is more curious than it is compelling. Pattinson portrays Monte like many of his previous characters; withdrawn, solemn and detached from the pack. It’s the actor’s convictions, shown through expression that makes this performance work as well as it does. The same goes for Binoche who collaborated the previous year with Denis on “Let the Sunshine In.” It’s another highly sexual role, the kind this Oscar-winning French actress has built her career on. It’s Binoche who commands the audience attention more than anything else, and when she’s off screen, “High Life” suffers. “The film is about sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. Sexuality is about fluids,” Denis says. Most American viewers might not accept her distinction, but there in lies part of the film’s ultimate mystery, the taboo subject matter.
If you are not sure what to think of feel after “High Life,” Denis says that’s part of the appeal. Just like the convicts in the film are unsure of their purpose for being on the spaceship, each viewer must derive their own personal connection with this story. Original to be sure, but “High Life” just isn’t something that begs the viewer to return. It’s a complicated story with few answers. Denis’ editing style is a push-and-pull from present to past to explain some of the characters motivations and backstory. There is a claustrophobia element to the film, portrayed well enough to keep checking your watch. Denis has even referred to her own work as a “weird space movie” and that’s exactly what you get.
Always curious, haphazardly compelling, Denis creates something to discuss more than something to enjoy.