High Life is about love, in all its forms, as it takes us on a journey to its darkest depths and finds light in them all the same.
Full disclosure, this is my first Claire Denis feature, and well, is all of her work like this? If so, I need to get on that filmography because this dark and twisted story was mesmerizing from start to finish. Set on a deep space mission to a black hole, crewed by criminals of varying degrees, including a scientist trying to create life in the unknown regions of space, the film is ultimately about one man’s reformation.
Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, the seemingly last remaining member of his mission’s ship, besides the baby he is taking care of; fluxing between the terror, joy and exhaustion it takes to raise a child. Denis deliberately doles out the world building, alludes to the devastation on board, and builds our bond with Monte and the child’s (Willow) bond, before fully flashing back to what exactly happened on the ship.
The film trusts it’s audience to keep up, never stopping to spell out anything in exposition dumps, allowing you to just fall into the mood and misery of these troubled individuals as they hurtle across space at 99.9% the speed of light. The imagery is often unsettling, sometimes provocative, always surprising, and I was delighted with where the final act of this film goes. At it’s core, it’s a story about a father and daughter, but the sci-fi elements of the film are there if you want to start picking away at things. It’s grounded, down and dirty, extrapolation on the perils of space travel, without ever stopping to really explain it all to you. Why is everyone acting this way? Is it because of their past? Is it the radiation? Is it traveling at the speed of light? All valid questions you can dive into. Or, you can just sit back and watch Monte’s tough journey that leads to a possible new way of life.
Or a new life itself?
The film is full of mystery, intercut with flashes of the unexpected, and it is a tough film to talk about without getting spoilery. Regardless, I was hooked, but it takes 2/3 of the film for me to finally settle in and give myself over to the film wholeheartedly. The film is bound to challenge many audience members though, whether it is the content or the pacing, it’s not going to be for everyone.
The cast of the film is led by Robert Pattinson, who puts on his everyman routine with an edge to great effect. We believe his love for Willow, we wonder how a life in the criminal system could create this conflicted man, and we get how he got on this ship to travel across the galaxy. He’s an arresting actor, whether he’s play big or small. Mia Goth also gets under your skin, as she’s a raw nerve, waiting to shock. Her eyes are impossible to look away from, and she keeps impressing me every time out. Juliette Binoche also sucks you in as the aforementioned scientist, wildly running around and creating mischief among the mischief makers. Her scene in the “fuckbox” is also one for the ages. The rest of the crew is, sadly, a bit underdeveloped. André Benjamin is engaging as a laid back plant man, but I wish he had more to chef on. Same goes for just about everyone else in the picture, but Jessie Ross does draw you in when she finally arrives on screen.
High Life is engaging as a character study and as a sci-fi extrapolation. Denis might be new to many American audiences this is getting put in front of, but her work here definitely makes me want to check out her filmography. Consider one of our international masters, Denis’ High Life makes me understand why. A gripping and thought provoking journey, this one keeps improving as it bubbles in my brain.