Thursday, May 2, 2019

Movie Review: High Life

High Life **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Claire Denis.
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau & Geoff Cox and Nick Laird.
Starring: Robert Pattinson (Monte), Juliette Binoche (Dibs), André Benjamin (Tcherny), Mia Goth (Boyse), Agata Buzek (Nansen), Lars Eidinger (Chandra), Claire Tran (Mink), Ewan Mitchell (Ettore), Gloria Obianyo (Elektra), Scarlett Lindsey (Willow Baby), Jessie Ross (Willow). 
I’m not sure I ever asked myself the question of what a space movie directed by Claire Denis would look like, but if I had, the answer would undeniably be High Life – the French auteur’s latest film in which she is deliberately playing with time and space, and narrative constructs – and putting a host of images into your mind that you will not soon forget, some because they are haunting and beautiful, and some because they are revolting and vile. This is what you expect from Denis when she takes on more genre fare – like her vampire film (Trouble Every Day) or her noir-esque detective story (Bastards). She will give you some of what you think you want, and a whole lot else you never knew you needed.
High Life is a film about a doomed space mission. It opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl named Willow – who he feeds, rocks to sleep, comforts, talks to, etc. – much like any parent would, except he’s on a big, bulky, square spaceship floating through space, and there is no one else around. As in common with Denis’ film, the narrative here is fractured – so we will flash back and forth in time to a time when there was no baby on board, but there were more people alongside Monte. Eventually the basics will become clear – that this is a group of convicts, who are being used as scientific guinea pigs, and although we know there is no way for them to ever get back to earth, they don’t – at least not at first. There seems to be a very loose leadership structure on board – but basically Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is running things. She’s conducting experiments on the rest of them – trying to get the women pregnant, and able to carry to term in space. Boyse (Mia Goth) is one of those women – and doesn’t much like it – but doesn’t have much of a choice. There are others on board – like Tcherny (Andre Benjamin) who really only bonds with the plants on board that help keep them all alive.
On a basic plot level, yes, High Life does describe everything – it describes how that baby got there, and why no one else but that baby and Monte are there by the time we see them at the beginning of the film. Along the way, there will be haunting images you will not forget – the beauty and horror of dead bodies floating in their space suits. There will be moments that may well shock you – as any movie that contains a room called the Fuck Box is bound to. It is not a movie that is afraid of bodily fluids – any of them – as they all pretty much get their opportunity for a close-up here.
But it is the larger meanings of High Life that will haunt you long after you’ve left the movie. This isn’t a simple sci-fi film – there are great special effects, sure, but this isn’t a space opera or a Star Wars film. You will likely be reminded of perhaps Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris rather than typical Hollywood film. Denis has made a film full of ideas, and doesn’t really feel the need to explain them to you. This is true right up until the end of the film which is perhaps hopeful or terribly sad depending on how you want to see it, and more than likely both.
Denis is aided by the performances from her cast. Pattinson has become one of the most interesting around since Twilight made him a star (and likely, enough money for him to live on forever). Since then he’s concentrated on working with interesting filmmakers – James Gray, David Cronenberg (twice), David Michod, the Safdie brothers (where he delivered one of the best performances of the decade in Good Time), Werner Herzog, Brady Corbet – and upcoming films by Christopher Nolan, Antonio Campos. Robert Eggers, Ciro Guerra and Joanna Hogg. He is best in High Life when he is quiet – and he’s quiet most of the time. It’s an interior performance as much physical as anything. Binoche once again proves that she up for just about anything (she gets the most memorably sequence in the aforementioned Fuck Box), and it’s not even her most memorable sequence in the film. Mia Goth continues her run of really strange, interesting work (Suspira, A Cure for Wellness, Nymphomaniac) – and has become one of those strange screen presences I light up when I see on screen.
Denis’ film is probably best seen with people who like to talk about and argue about a film after seeing it – or, as in my case, when you have a while to at least sit with it in your own head. If you see it in the theater (and you should) there will be walkouts – and more than likely someone will say – loud enough for everyone to hear when the credits start to play – “What the fuck was that?” as they did at the screening I attended. Love it or hate it, you may well ask yourself the same question when the film ends.

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