High Life – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Claire Denis
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin
The term ‘auteur’ gets thrown around a lot these days. Often, it means a filmmaker with a set of easily identifiable stylistic tics, the recognition of which confers a sense of connoisseurship to those who enjoy such a thing. More often again, it means any filmmaker whose work conforms to whatever set of aesthetic conventions are currently associated with ‘serious’ cinema. It’s a difficult term to apply, because it has got to the point where it doesn’t really mean anything. But how else to describe the French filmmaker Claire Denis, whose winding trajectory has recently taken in ‘horror’ (2001’s Trouble Every Day), ‘noir’ (2013’s Bastards) and even ‘romantic comedy’ (2017’s Let the Sunshine In), without ever seeming like the work of anybody else?
High Life is Denis’ version of a ‘science fiction’ film, and – while it has certain aesthetic ancestors in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) and even Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) – it generally feels as alien to the rest of the genre as it does to copy-paste ‘auteur’ convention. Indeed, the aesthetic of the film – cramped interiors occasionally alleviated by shots of boxy spacecraft travelling through a pitch-black void, or occasional cutaways to an autumnal Earth – seems to deliberately confound any expectations of sci-fi pleasures that audiences may be foolhardy enough to bring in with them. It’s clear from the outset that Denis is interested in space not as a fresh paint-box for visual flights, but as a metaphorical site that juxtaposes infinite expanse with extreme restriction. How the mind and body respond to this paradox appears to the one of the subjects under the microscope here – although much of the thrill of the film derives from the way in which it refuses to resolve into an easily unlocked metaphor or allegory, presenting instead as a kind of rigorously argued thesis, with some vital explanatory elements elided.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, who – along with a female infant of uncertain provenance – is the sole living inhabitant on a low-rent interstellar vessel. It emerges, in characteristically fragmented fashion, that the vessel was once occupied by death row convicts (also including a ferocious Mia Goth and an appealingly understated André Benjamin) whose sentences were commuted in exchange for their participation in a research project that involves being swallowed by a black hole. It’s possibly not the best deal, all told, particularly when their voyage is being overseen by one Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who has decided to while away the dreary voyage by experimenting with her charges reproductive capabilities.
A good deal of the film involves the play of attraction and repulsion between Monte and Dibs, the former abdicating physicality in the face of the void, while the latter obsesses on the carnal-corporeal to a consuming degree. Pattinson and Binoche are brilliantly cast (miraculously so, when one learns that the parts were originally intended for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patricia Arquette, respectively) – the former’s zombified interiority neatly complimenting a delightfully uninhibited turn from Binoche that catapults her into the pantheon of great mad professors, as well as giving her what must surely be legitimate cinema’s most delirious masturbation scene. One almost expects her to gobble Pattinson’s flesh, and if Denis hadn’t already broached psychosexual cannibalism in Trouble Every Day, perhaps she would have.
The latter stages of the film are best left undiscussed, although it would be fair to say that the conclusion is both expected and utterly confounding. The journey there is not perfect – some of the dialogue uncomfortably straddles the line between ‘intriguingly affectless’ and ‘Google translate’ – but it’s one this correspondent wouldn’t have missed for the world, or the void, or anything in between.