French filmmaker Claire Denis makes her English-language feature debut with the unusual High Life, a lovingly crafted and wonderfully acted art house take on school space odyssey’s. It’s also one of the most uncomfortable filmgoing experiences of the year.
Ever since his star-making turn as the sparkling bloodsucker Edward in the Twilight films, Robert Pattinson has consistently chosen projects which allow him to sink his fangs deep into the psychological meat of his characters. In turn, the actor has demonstrated serious A-list talent, which can also be said for High Life. Pattinson plays Monte, a convicted murderer struggling to keep both himself and newborn daughter alive as they drift through space aboard a vessel designed to house criminals who’ve volunteered to partake in some seriously questionable reproductive experiments.
Juliette Binoche is once again terrific. She plays Dibs, the eccentric scientist conducting said experiments who also acts as prison warden aboard the spacecraft. She’s maddeningly obsessed with procreation and wants more than anything to foster the birth of a healthy baby in outer space.
As you might have guessed, bodily functions abound in this film. We’re talking lactation, gestation, menstruation and ejaculation and given the vile nature of the people aboard the ship, most of it isn’t consensual. Neither is any of it subtle. I’m thinking of one scene in particular where Binoche’s character locks herself inside a metal cylinder referred to by the crew as the “Fuckbox.” Inside, Dibs repeatedly and furiously mounts and dismounts a mechanical bull-like dildo contraption rigged with elaborate trapeze attachments. The whole thing lasts five minutes and does nothing to further the character of Dibs. Sure, it all points towards Denis’ point about how humanity seeks meaning and freedom through sex, but at times I felt she needlessly overindulged her points and at the unfortunate expense of her characters.
Everyone in this film is a bad person, which is fine. You don’t need to admire the characters in a story for that story to work, you only need to feel compelled by them enough to justify your time with them. High Life did not justify the time spent with its crew of degenerates. Monte is the only person we get any background on, so when he does something remotely cringe-worthy, at least we have a larger context with which to help us understand him. Whenever anyone else lashes out, it’s tough not to see them simply as a jerk. Eventually, my interest in these people was resigned to a curiosity: How will they meet their demise?
As you can probably tell, my time with High Life was exhausting and largely unrewarding. Through to the end, I found myself squeamishly looking away, seeking my own freedom from all the unpleasantness unfolding on screen– all the while relenting that the characters did not live up to both the stellar performances and the film’s detailed craftsmanship– only to be let down by an unsatisfying open ending that left little much to be desired.
⭐️⭐️1/2 (out of five)
Have you seen High Life? If so, jump down to the comments below and let me know your thoughts on the film. If not, do you plan on seeing it?