High Life - Review

Visually gripping, emotional and terrifying, High Life makes a mockery of the modern Hollywood thriller.

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High Life is as close to a blockbuster as Claire Denis is likely to get: it’s her first film in English, stars a former teen-heartthrob, and has a downloadable soundtrack. The visionary French filmmaker has tackled romance, European colonialism, and now space, each with the ease of a genre master, and in her latest project, Denis explores sex, youth, gender and death, set to a backdrop of endless and silent space. It’s one of her most emotionally potent films, and carries with it the spark of a new collaboration between herself and Robert Pattinson. High Life is a small masterpiece, an art-house triumph with a big-budget lense.

In High Life, Denis tells the story of criminal Monte (Pattinson), and his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross, Scarlett Lindsey), alone in space. The first third of the film is dedicated to their relationship in a series of both low and high-stakes situations. She cries and he comes, she sleeps in his arms; simplified, this is the introduction to High Life, and though it takes some time before it becomes relevant, there’s no rushing Denis’s storytelling. Going into High Life expecting a fast-paced action-thriller would be like watching Let the Sunshine In and expecting 500 Days of Summer. High Life is slow when it wants to be, and intense when it needs to be, but it is never boring: like every film Denis has touched, there is an inherent watchability that makes it near-impossible to look away from. Imagine the incongruent sprawl of White Material confined to a space station, characters building resentment until an inevitable explosion.

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The dialogue of High Life is one of the more perplexing facets of its composition. Written with her frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, the delivery and order of words in High Life is something to be admired. Greatest in Pattinson, his slow and churned delivery is symbolic of his multi-decade journey to the final frame, showcasing his subtle strength and self-proclaimed ability to “be stronger” than the rest. But whether or not it’s billed as one, High Life is an ensemble film, in which Pattinson bookends. Mia Goth plays an inflammatory maniac with a high-pitched voice, someone the crew loathes, though we never learn why. Gorgeously grainy photography from Earth shows the cast before their journey into space, providing a look at their carefree selves, a time before there was so much claustrophobic, sex-crazed bitterness. Characters come and go in High Life, acting impulsively and being punished for it: the result is a lack of attachment, one that constantly reminds of the inseparable bond between Monte and Willow. After a certain stretch of time it becomes impossible not to think of them: is Willow alive? How did they become the only ones on the ship? The bulk of High Life answers this question, but always with a wink and a nod.

High Life is a fairly perceptible drama: characters live and die, timelines move linearly, and there is a concrete end that wraps up loose ends. Interest doesn’t come in how Denis explains hers story, but why. Context provided by the middle third of the film allows for a radical re-viewing of the first and last, with every hole filled and every person accounted for. It’s not a film to try and unspool; let it unravel you, take you by the hand and lead you down a rabbit hole of strange and disturbing activity. The blurry purpose of the mission is centered around reproduction and a mysterious “fuck box” where the crew can go to release their sexual drive. In a harrowing sequence, the pensive Dr. Dibbs (Juliette Binoche) enters for a blacked-out nightmare-sequence of sexual release, in the film’s first off-the-wall moment. The ability to reproduce is a major theme of High Life, with doctors testing sperm and patients acting on their violent sexual impulses, often to brutal degrees; this is in contrast to the non-sexual, father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film that takes shape in the film’s final half-hour. High Life shows human nature in a vacuum, and what it’s meant to prepare us for.

There are unexplainable moments in High Life, beats that seem entirely set apart (the fuck box) or otherwise anti-climactic (the first black hole). Special effects from BUF, whose work ranges from Twin Peaks: The Return to Blade Runner 2049, slip in as authentically and unnoticed as possible. Unlike the massive spectacles of Interstellar, High Life uses visual effects sparingly, always to emphasize a theme: the horizon coming into focus through the ship’s viewfinder, giving the sensation of moving backward though the ship is rocketing forward, ties directly into the song Monte sings for Willow as she falls asleep; the first black hole the crew encounters is made horrific with the reality of bending space, contorting and thinning objects in real time; the flight into it is the most terrifying scene in the film, and it’s earned. A massive set-piece would have killed the tension and stolen the show. Instead the scouting ship simply thins, and disappears. Moments like this are what make High Life a gripping thriller, providing an underlying momentum that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. It’s a moving emotional journey, but also a sexy murder-party.

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When High Life ends, it’s hard to leave. The emotional density of the world Denis creates is enveloping, convincing; a strangely enticing dream. With Robert Pattinson she has found a voice that can communicate her feelings as well as Huppert, Binoche, or any of her best stars. The relationship between Monte and Willow is gripping to the end, with a conclusion that somehow satisfies every idea and quandary High Life drums up; it is another in a line of character masterpieces from Denis, who, even into her third act, proves that genius does not degrade.