'High Life' Is Better Felt Than Understood Directed by Claire Denis
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger
Published Apr 18, 2019No, the title isn't a weed joke, and you definitely don't want to see this stoned. High Life is about a futuristic version of death row, where criminals act as the crew on a spaceship bound for a black hole. Their mission is to extract energy from the black hole, although the science of how this is supposed to work isn't exactly clear — and that's just the first of many things in this strange, unsettling movie that don't make much sense and aren't worth thinking too hard about. This is a film that's better felt than understood.
The story begins with Monte (Robert Pattinson) as the ship's sole surviving criminal, who is tending for the mission as well as raising an infant daughter named Willow. That's a lot of work for a single parent; there's even a scene in which Monte performs maintenance work on the outside of the ship while cooing to his daughter over the radio, and her shrill cries cause him to drop his wrench into the black void of space. Never mind that a wrench wouldn't fall in zero gravity — again, don't think about it too hard.
This would be a cryptic movie even if the story happened in chronological order, but celebrated French director Claire Denis (making her English-language debut) doesn't keep things that straightforward. Instead, the drama that plays out amongst the ship's crew is intercut with Monte raising Willow as a baby, her as a teenager, and even a few scenes from Earth.
As you might expect from a spaceship full of criminals, the galactic mission is a hellish nightmare. Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is a cruel doctor who is obsessed with reproduction, while Boyse (Mia Goth) and Nansen (Lars Eidinger) are volatile and violent. There are two very disturbing rape scenes, and there's a masturbation machine literally called a "fuckbox" that emits a white goo after being used. The only respite from all the unpleasantness is Tcherny (André Benjamin, aka Outkast's André 3000), a calm dude who mostly wants to hang out in the ship's garden.
It's a bleak, lonely vision of space travel that's akin to Sunshine or Moon. There's very little exposition, leaving the audience to piece everything together from the barest scraps of details. For a movie with such a small cast of characters, we learn very little about their backstories and motivations. Is this a parable about the fundamentally destructive nature of humanity? Or just the inevitable chaos that unfolds when a bunch of violent criminals get locked up together in interstellar prison?
High Life's greatest strengths are aesthetic: Tindersticks frontman Stuart A. Staples provides an ominous score, the spaceship's garden is a lush utopia amidst the austere surroundings, and the glimpses of the black hole are vivid and vaguely psychedelic. And damn that baby is cute.
That makes High Life a sufficiently sinister space voyage, but one without all that much to say — either with its characters or its speculative sci-fi.