Author: Cameron Fairchild
(CW: discussions of sexual violence and rape)
A garden lives in the middle of a boxy, unglamorous space ship. A man sinks into the dirt, and in two cuts, he is vanished from it and then buried in it. A life cycle out of time, defying mechanistic cause-and-effect. This is High Life in short, a science-fiction film chiefly unconcerned with vacuous spectacle or puzzle-structure all-too common to its genre. Claire Denis, the great French filmmaker behind works like Beau Travail and last year’s Let the Sunshine In, has taken a monumental artistic risk making the film, as it marks her first English-language work and science-fiction film. Directed and written by Denis (with co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau), High Life is a testament to that daring, a bleak but beautiful tale of loss, memory, and society.
The film follows the convict Monte (Robert Pattinson), a man sent, as a means of alleviating his sentence, into space with a group of other former death-row inmates (Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin), targeting a black hole in the hopes of tapping its boundless energy. On board, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the de facto warden, forbids against sex as the increasingly volatile inmates struggle under her control. Framing this synecdoche of toxic societal imposition between the aging Monte’s interactions with his daughter, the film takes an elliptical approach to both chronological and nonchronological time—a hallmark of Denis’ filmography—weaving together a disorienting structure that compliments an increasingly morally complicated narrative.
It’s also a brutal one, a brutality that remains disquieting, and intimately of the body. Intimacy is warmth, but also, in proximities both wanted and unwanted, prickly and uncomfortable and difficult. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s camera snaps to the flesh; a particular instance: Binoche’s body is tightly lensed, chopped up in the edit and constructed piecemeal, alienated from itself; and to fluids: blood and water and sex. Tactile framing and sparse dialogue reinforce a constant reminder of the body first, of the way it looks and feels and acts without thought, and so when Denis begins to cut and scrape at her characters, it is viscerally felt. Similarly, orange and blue lighting are frequently balanced against each other; opposing and rejoining as the double-edged sword of knowing.
There are two instances of rape in the film, both disclosed with distressing focus on each victim’s face. These instances are moral, physical aberrations, but in knowing the characters who commit these acts, and knowing their bodies, demonstrated through the film’s rigid language, we become uncomfortably aware that these actions come as ordinarily to them as anything else. High Life’s discomfort never lets up, crawling into your skin and staying there even before the film tells you that it has all along been a subdued, ludicrously effective piece of body horror. It’s hard to watch, but never glib or crass. The form beautifully triggers an immediate, tactile empathy towards the film’s abused, and the violence that punctuates the film only enhances a feeling of remorse.
Implicit as well in High Life’s remorsefulness is Pattinson’s strikingly uncommanding performance. Subdued and gruff in a strong shift away from the live-wire act of his career-redefining Good Time performance, Pattinson continues to embrace his chameleonic potential. As Monte, Pattinson is almost non-verbal for much of the film, communicating instead in searching, empty expressions. He’s both audience surrogate and audience buffer; he seems to always be thinking turn back. The character is an almost-blank, yet Pattinson still finds a way to navigate the film’s ellipses—and the character’s subtle shifts—with remarkable consistency. Complimenting him is Juliette Binoche as Dibs, crafting a frighteningly complicated portrait of a scientist who is both master to her inmates and servant to the literal and existential void she is surrounded by. She is consumed in herself, petty and hypocritical. Neither performer means to overtake the film, and they don’t, but the two in conversation orbit each other in fascinating and uncomfortable ways. Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin, the other two major performers, do a lot with the little both are given, and the larger ensemble lives very naturally together.
High Life is not a perfect construction. While it at times achieves transcendent heights (the finale is breathtaking), beguiling compositions that contrast space with body, and a devastatingly effective sense of discomfort, it is at times plagued with frustrating mundanities. An early scene of earth-bound exposition deflates some of the tension in the set-up. Instances of voice-over add little and last so briefly that their inclusion feels unnecessary. Jessie Ross, who plays a character that shapes much of the film’s third act, can’t quite mesh with Pattinson as effectively as Binoche or Benjamin, and at least one material instance in that third act is a bit too metaphorically clean. These things are far less than enough to disqualify the film, but they do rattle against what is otherwise an immaculately drawn cage.
High Life is a moody, beguiling sci-fi horror, the kind of thing many recent filmmakers have attempted at—Alex Garland, Dennis Villeneuve, Charlie Booker, etc.—and resolutely fallen short of, if not outright failed at. Perhaps it’s Denis’ many years of experience, perhaps it’s that her jump to the English language and genre work is a bold and avenue-opening creative risk. Foremost, though, is High Life’s attention to detail- detail in its performances and tactility and use of space, which sets it apart. No character, lighting cue, or cut is made to fill a specific plot function or advance some grand political narrative – the utilitarianism of the genre has been stripped out almost entirely here. Good. There is a garden inside the box, a scientist who cannot know herself, a community that will not last: machines that don’t fix everything.
CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Space Puns | KXSU Arts Reporter