After Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, the Science-Fiction Fertility Thriller is a sub-genre rarely seen in cinema. But leave it to the mistress of the cinema of the body, Claire Denis to tackle this head on with High Life, her most provocative and audacious filmmaking venture to date.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Claire Denis
Written By: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox and Claire Denis
Monte (Pattinson) and his infant daughter Willow are struggling to survive in the vast depths of space where they live in isolation. They are the sole survivors of a prison crew sent on a mission to harvest energy from a black hole.
Un Film De Claire Denis
It has taken over three decades, but 72-year-old Denis has finally made her first foray into English-language cinema with this story idea that she’s had for over 15 years. On the surface and from the film’s promotional material, one might ponder that High Life is a film that aspires to become the next timeless classic of thought-provoking, cerebral science fiction cinema and aims to be ranked amongst masterpieces like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
However, those unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Claire Denis going into High Life almost certainly will be in for a shock. This is unmistakably a Claire Denis Film. She brings her trademark evocative, slow-burn style of filmmaking to High Life with a non-linear story structure, elliptical editing, a lingering camera on faces and bodies of characters and themes of desire and sexuality that are present throughout her filmography.
A Sci-Fi Film (Sort of)
What sets High Life apart from the rest of Denis’ body of work is of course the science fiction setting. Denis has taken a genre of storytelling that has a large focus on the post-human to tell a story that is disturbingly all too human. She has used the sci-fi genre as a vessel to deliver her provocative study of human behaviour and existence effectively in both a straightforward and a metaphorical sense.
The science fiction elements of the film are incredibly well-realized. Denis truly makes the most out the film’s modest budget of just €8M (roughly US$9M) by creating a low-fi science fiction setting. The film does not bury itself in a deluge of overly complicated science, nonsense technobabble or unrealistically futuristic technology. Instead, High Life has very grimy, junky production design with minimal visual effects that keeps the story grounded and ensures the focus stays on the messy humanity of the characters.
The low-fi setting is juxtaposed perfectly with the stunning cinematography which uses lighting and color to such mind-blowing effect. While the set design creates a lived-in, down-to-earth environment (despite being in space), the rich and diverse color palette elicits an ethereal and other-worldly atmosphere. The alarm bell reds, icy cold blues, forest greens, muddy golds and the deep dark blacks of outer space all effortlessly emit certain moods at different stages of the film.
‘R-Patts’ Continues His Amazing Post-Twilight Career
If you had said at the start of this decade that the dead-eyed, sparkly vampire from the Twilight films would become one of the most interesting actors of the 2010s, no one would have believed you. But here we are. With each new role he takes, Robert Pattinson continues to deliver on every front and he keeps on keeping on in this film.
Pattinson gives a much quieter, tender performance while maintaining a stoic screen presence as a juvenile delinquent with a violent and troubled past. The early scenes with his infant daughter alone in the adrift spacecraft is where the film’s emotional core lies and was reminiscent of the film, Cargo with Martin Freeman in how Monte cares for his daughter in a hopeless situation. The love and care that Pattinson’s character has for his child in these early scenes is emotionally rich and very pure.
Another actor giving a great performance is Academy Award winner and goddess of French cinema, Juliette Binoche. She brings this methodical psychopathy to Dr. Dibs, the ship’s deranged fertility doctor shown in flashbacks. Her dangerous ambitions and wicked authoritarian nature has Monte and the rest of the ship’s crew of petty thugs, crackheads and derelicts all under her thumb. With a lesser actress, this role could’ve have been executed poorly and come off as an over the top, moustache-twirling antagonist, but Binoche is pitch-perfect and becomes a surprisingly menacing presence on screen.
It’s All About Taboos
Claire Denis is not one to hesitate in depicting explicit social and biological taboos in her films. After all, Monte repeatedly explains the concept of Taboos to his infant child early in the film (Ta-Boo).
While much of High Life is handled with a mature and meticulous sense of elegance and tenderness, it is equally brutal and cruel towards its characters. Full credit to the cast for fully embracing the overall weirdness of the project with their fearless performances (especially Binoche in one particular scene that will be a point of much discussion), but the way in which the script treats their characters, audiences may find to be problematic.
High Life features sequences of sexual violence used to further the plot along. While Denis stages and shoots these scenes in a way that is not exploitative and completely condemns the perpetrator’s actions, the fact that these sequences become crucial plot points is rather uncomfortable. Though the audience would expect such actions from dangerous criminals wishing to fulfill their violent, animalistic and immoral urges, it does not make these sequences any less shocking.
When the film does an abrupt time jump in the third act, Denis also hints at an extremely taboo relationship that has grown between Monte and the now adolescent Willow. While the film makes this concept highly ambiguous, it is sure to detract audiences from seeing the film or leave an unsavory impression for some who see the film.
Beyond these challenging sequences, High Life contains quite an interesting and unique perspective on intimacy and sexuality. Denis has stated that the film “speaks only of desire and fluids” and how these fluids are the product of our sexuality and the basis of human life. There is no full frontal nudity or shots of exposed genitalia present in High Life, but Denis focus on fluids, whether it be water, blood, breast milk or even semen creates an incredibly visceral and impactful exploration of these taboos.
High Life is a beautifully haunting piece of cinema that will linger in your thoughts long after you see it. A bold and daring effort from septuagenarian, Claire Denis proves she is showing no signs of slowing down with age. She excellently captures the duality of the human soul with an emotionally transcendent voyage into the cosmos that acts as a meditation on both the brutality and the tenderness of humanity.
Purposefully provocative and constantly captivating, High Life is an unflinching science fiction epic that begs for repeat viewings. Perhaps Denis’ sensual space odyssey will join the ranks of the cerebral, thought-provoking masterpieces of science fiction cinema in the years to come.
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