Review: High Life is troubling, beautiful, horrifying, and essential four-star cinema from Claire Denis – The Globe and Mail


Robert Pattinson stars in Claire Denis’s High Life.

Courtesy of Elevation

  • High Life
  • Directed by Claire Denis
  • Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox
  • Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche and Andre Benjamin
  • Classification R; 110 minutes

I don’t envy the marketing team tasked with promoting High Life. Claire Denis’s new film – which takes place in outer space but is defiantly not a sci-fi adventure; which focuses on the bond between a father and daughter, but is certainly not a family drama; which is fixated on sex, but is as repulsive as it is erotic – defies categorization. Which is why, I suppose, distributor A24 decided to go with a movie poster as seemingly preposterous as High Life is profound.

The image, which is easily Google-able if you happen to be reading this review in print (go ahead and put the newspaper down for a second, I don’t mind), features two hands interlocking: one belonging to a space-suited adult, the other to an adorably chubby infant. A lush forest serves as the backdrop, with the hint of a lens flare in the upper-right-hand corner. It is an overtly sentimental and even hopeful visual, only mildly subverted by the tiny tag line at the bottom: “Oblivion awaits.”

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I kept thinking about this surely insignificant PR misstep in the weeks leading up to High Life’s release, months after I caught its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. How could people hired to advertise this film, to ostensibly know it inside out, so blatantly misread it? I was experiencing a full-on Principal Skinner moment: Was I out of touch, or was it the children who were wrong? After a subsequent screening, it clicked. Watching High Life is such a brain-rearranging experience that, like the black hole it’s focused on, there is no one correct or guaranteed way to come out the other end of it. My first viewing left me emotionally gutted and sick to my stomach. My second delivered that very tinge of hope that the poster conveys. I’m not sure what my third, or fourth or fifth, might bring. But I do know that I cannot wait to find out.

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There is likely an easy, palatable way to summarize High Life’s plot, but I feel that would be a direct rebuke to Denis’s intentions, given how carefully she has assembled her film to reject any notions of linear narrative. The basics, then: At some point in the near-future, a crew of death-row inmates has been placed aboard a research vessel, tasked with proving the “Penrose process,” which theorizes that energy can be extracted from a rotating black hole. This group of criminals is led by Monte (Robert Pattinson), a childhood killer who has taken a vow of celibacy, earning him derision from everyone but fellow prisoner Tcherny (André Benjamin). Their only authority figure is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who possesses a criminal past of her own, and is treating the mission as an excuse to violate her wards with a grotesque fervour. At some point, a baby girl enters the picture.

And that’s it.

Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs treats the mission as ‘an excuse to violate her wards with a grotesque fervour,’ writes Barry Hertz.

Courtesy of Elevation

Or that’s what I feel comfortable sharing, as the success of Denis’s film relies so little on story and so much on ideas. Indeed, High Life is so bursting with arguments both thoughtful and messy, with philosophies complimentary and contradictory, that it acts as a treatise of Denis’s long and varied career, itself built to withstand simple through-line deciphering. There is its echo of the director’s Chocolat and White Material, which were focused on colonization, of expanding a dominion beyond what is moral. There is 35 Rhums’ fascination with the family unit, too, and its potential for emotional stagnation. There is Trouble Every Day’s obsession with desire and the horrors that come when we push past its limits. And there is Bastards’ exploration of what is natural and what is forbidden, this last theme underlined more than the rest thanks to Monte’s opening speech, in which he defines the word “taboo.”

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Pattinson has made a point of saying in interviews that he doesn’t fully understand his own movie, which makes me feel better about how High Life both excites and throws me at every turn. It is markedly beautiful, and at the same time it is overtly disgusting, with Denis pivoting from the pure physical allure of our bodies (Dr. Dibs treats Monte and his cohorts as soulless sexual vessels) to the raw squishiness of the fluids that keep them in motion (you will never again watch a film so concerned with sperm). And it is just as intensely dark and cynical in its view of humanity as it is crudely hilarious (Binoche has been working her whole career toward derisively uttering the phrase “big booty girl”).

There is always a question of what happens when a filmmaker works outside their own tongue for the first time, but you would never guess this is Denis’s English-language debut. Every filmmaking decision, from the dryly intense performance she wrings from Pattinson to her blink-and-miss-them decisions to shift aspect-ratios to create a false sense of reality, feels perfectly assembled. High Life may produce different reactions each time, but it is also a vision no other filmmaker could possibly replicate.

After exiting High Life’s original TIFF screening, I recall furiously tweeting something about how those who walked out of my screening – there were many – likely don’t understand why they go to the movies at all. That was, well, hyperbolic, and Denis’s film is not without frustrations. (A whole other essay, for instance, could be written about the ship’s female prisoners, and what Denis feels we should, and should not be, shocked about.) Yet there is also no reality in which a film this powerful, a work this engaged with its own world, might be considered somehow less than essential.

As that tricky poster states: Oblivion awaits. Experience High Life, and destroy yourself over and over again.

High Life opens April 19 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.




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