Published on May 31st, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Claire Denis’ new film High Life, starring Robert Pattison and Juliette Binoche, is a science fiction exploration that is alternately insane, disorienting, haunting, and thoughtful.
I believe that Claire Denis’ sensational new science fiction film gets its title from two sources. One is more literal than the other: High Life evokes, in a simplistic way, the idea of astronauts existing high up in space, beyond the plane of Earth-bound imagination. Yet, I also believe the title is a play on the classic aspersion: “low-life.” For that is what all of the characters in this daring and weird drama are—low-lifes, subjected to nothing other than themselves and the strange id that they embody. But what happens when you put a group of low-lifes, in this case death-row inmates, on a spaceship heading straight for a black-hole? Denis’ avant-garde experiment finds a strange beauty, a remarkable relatability in these characters, that we as an audience only see through the context of this cruel, human experiment. One of the film’s many questions asks, “Who really are the low lifes?” Are they the men and women forsaken not only by society, but by Planet Earth entirely? Are they the powers that be that sent them there? Or are we the low lifes, sitting rather uncomfortably in our seats, sipping our Pepsis, eating our popcorn, and gazing with pure detached fascination at the absurd cruelty that we are being presented on a big screen?
Denis has always taken a deep pleasure, I posit, in crafting a skewed, haunting voyeurism and then twisting audience’s stomach in a knot for participating. See, Trouble Every Day, Beau Travail, and White Material if you need convincing. However, High Life is like nothing I’ve seen from the French auteur. Unlike her previous films that I just mentioned, High Life does not slowly and meticulously build tension, but rather ebbs and flows with it in purposely jarring ways. It is intended less to enthrall and more-so to disorient, to nauseate. It’s her most fucked up and her most transcendent; that juxtaposition will have you walking out of the cinema perplexed but more than satisfied with the experience you have witnessed. At the end of the day, that is far more important than ‘making sense.’
The film, however, does have substance; it does have weight. It is thematic and poignant. But it achieves all these characteristics in strikingly vague and impressionistic ways. Imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey drenched in the cabin-fever dread of a Hitchcock and the existential, violent relentlessness of a Lars Von Trier. That’s the best I can do to describe this enigmatic flick, but it still feels derivative to invoke other artists. Denis is an original through and through and this film stands on its own two feet as much as any other masterpiece.
It opens on Robert Pattinson roaming the halls of a ransacked ship, caring for a baby whose origins are initially perplexing. We are presented the evidence before we flash back to the crime, which is every bit as nasty and haunting as the spectre Denis conjures in the first act. As I previously stated, an assortment of death-row inmates have been chosen to experiment with reproduction as they approach a black-hole; the radiation that grows ever present creates an obstacle that Dibs (Juliette Binoche) oversees with tremendous zeal.
There is a garden within the ship that provides oxygen—ostensibly life—to the travelers, and they must provide daily progress reports to a super-computer in order to re-up on their life-support. There is something called a “fuck box” which is about exactly what you’d imagine, even going as far as to secrete a bizarre, semen-like substance from its ventilation when its subject has “finished.” Monte (Pattinson) does not give himself to the machine, or to Dibs experiments with insemination; he “prefers to keep his fluids to himself.” Mia Goth plays Boise, a ravenous, violent young woman who is obsessed with becoming pregnant to a volatile extent, mostly because there is really nothing else to do but be subjugated in this way. Ettore is a young, male passenger who can only be described as an unfeeling psychopath and lavish hedonist. There are other characters, each with their own fucked up characteristics, but I think you get the idea.
The way it unravels is so insane, perplexing, disturbing, and downright disorienting that I could not spoil the film even if I wanted to. However, I will assert this: everything Denis depicts is exquisitely intentional and she only provokes for the purpose of philosophical salience. As a director who has made it her life’s work deconstructing the human condition, this film goes a step further; it hypothesizes a condition of humanity that exists in all of us, fictional characters and real-life viewers alike. Denis provokes, in part, to remind audiences of their own voyeurism in watching such anarchy unravel. And most importantly, she finds a striking beauty within disarray that ties a nice, alienating bow on this conflicting but uncompromising film. You may only admire it for its arresting cinematography or its occasionally comical absurdism, but I guarantee it will stick with you. And for those that are not turned off or frustrated by the film’s mixture of shock and coyness, you may, like me, find something so awe-inspiringly beautiful and pure and intellectual in it that it will shake your understanding of humanity to its core.