High Life May 2, 2019
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
n High Life, the alienating new movie from Claire Denis, space again becomes as scary a thing as it was in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), movies which reminded both its characters and the audiences watching them that the outer limits are freakily unknowable, and that, if something is to go haywire, no one is around for a rescue.
It takes a few minutes for the movie’s premise to become clear. (Even then,
the film wears elusivity on its sleeve.) It begins with Robert Pattinson, playing a man with a buzzcut named Monte, completing banal everyday tasks on a spaceship that looks like a shoebox. His only company, apparently, is a baby (Scarlett Lindsey), presumably his daughter. We get a hint of the past toward the end of the first act, when Monte throws seemingly dead passengers out of the ship one by one, with the intention of “jettisoning,” as he puts it, needless weight.
Monte was once on death row. As we see through flashbacks, as were his fellow travelers. Years ago, he and his horde were given an offer. They could either spend the rest of their days fidgeting in a cell or become part of a space mission in which they’d be tasked with extracting energy from a black hole. Chances of freedom, at the end of the trip, might be a possibility. It’s evident, though, that Monte and his cohort are purely being used experimentally. There's no guarantee that everyone on board will survive, that the ship will ever return to Earth, or that extracting energy from a black hole is feasible.
Life on the ship before Monte and the baby became its only inhabitants is elliptical and joyless. The other residents, who include benign-to-aggressive criminals played by Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell, and others, are tasked with little, and, as such, are restless. It’s something of a No Exit (1944) scenario in here. Fundamentally commanding everyone is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a doctor who supplies the passengers with pills and tonics to either keep them steadied or bend them to her will. We eventually learn, though, that it isn’t exactly ship-wide serenity Dibs is seeking to preserve — more on the mind is artificial insemination.
Utilizing a machine that the travelers use to sate their sexual urges (referred to as “The Box” in the movie but conversely dubbed “The Fuck Box” by the media), Dibs regularly collects semen samples and attempts to impregnate the female occupants with them. Dibs is rendered something of a mad scientist. She has a witchy head of hair — her jet-black tresses going down to the smalls of her back — is undaunted by the unethical, and, we discover, murdered her children and husband.
Intriguing about High Life is how cunningly it manages to be both nihilistic and optimistic — polarities that rarely fuse together successfully. (The optimism is provided later in the movie when it’s just Monte and his now-teenage daughter, played by Jessie Ross, trying to survive together, always with their fingers crossed for a happy future.) Then again, this is the kind of ambitious and risky fare for which Denis has come to be venerated. She’s the type of filmmaker with the chutzpah to make not one but multiple movies concerned with colonialism, for instance — and, per usual, has the capacity to be divisive. High Life is also something of a 180 for her: it’s her first movie with a sci-fi tinge, and it’s her first in English. It’s a reversal of her last movie, 2018’s Let the Sunshine In, too: that film, one of last year’s most underrated, was a dialogue-heavy, moving comedy-drama about a middle-aged divorcée (played by Binoche) who is forever unlucky in love.
High Life is to be admired rather than adored. It’s visually splendid and rich in its ideas; in no doubt is this movie Denis’ way of dramatizing the injustices of the prison system, the palliative pleasures of sex, and the always-provocative idea that we’re forever hurtling toward the unknown, likely to never receive what we think we want. But the movie is uninvolving and dramatically parched, bristled with spare (and, when put into action, largely expositional) dialogue and vague character development. The ideas conjured by Denis and co-writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox are fascinating and astutely developed, but they have little to attach themselves to. It's not unheard of for movies to be more cerebrally stimulating than emotionally so. But in both areas, High Life proves difficult to grasp, as if it were a cinematic spaceship and we were an astronaut tethered to its exterior, holding on but just barely. C+