high life review

In High Life, Claire Denis heads to space, and brings Robert Pattinson with her. The result is a strange, surreal, often indecipherable trip into the darkest recess of the galaxy, and beyond. But what does it all mean?

Some movies are impossible to decipher. This can often be a feature, not a flaw. Not everything needs to be meticulously broken down and over-explained. Sometimes, there’s no easy answer. In fact, sometimes there’s no answer at all. Only French filmmaker Claire Denis can tell you just what the hell High Life is really about, and even then, you still might not like or even understand the answer.

But maybe that’s okay. High Life finds Denis heading into the world of science fiction to craft a very abnormal saga. Part Under the Skin, part Prometheus, part I don’t even know, this space oddity features enough sex and death and bodily fluids to satisfy nearly everyone, but good luck trying to penetrate its enigmatic nature. Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, the inhabitant of a rectangular craft drifting through space. Monte’s not alone – he has a baby daughter (who is constantly shrieking). And he also has a room loaded with corpses. Right away, we’re intrigued and confused.

From here, Denis goes back and forth in time, filling in the blanks. Monte’s on the ship because he was part of a team of death-row inmates shot into space all in the name of science. At least, that’s what the inmates are told. But in flashbacks on earth, we learn there’s more than meets the eye. Aboard the space station, however, the inmates struggle to cope with their new intergalactic lifestyle. A bunch of murderers locked up together in space? What could go wrong?

In the midst of all this, a doctor named Dibs (Juliette Binoche, letting her miles and miles of hair do a lot of the heavy lifting here) is conducting fertility experiments. Anytime a female inhabitant of the ship gets pregnant, the baby tends to die due to radiation poisoning. All of this sounds pretty straightforward when you write it down, but when you’re actually watching High Life, it’s a different story.

Moody and languid, and full of scenes featuring abundant bodily fluids, High Life is a bit of a tonal mess. There’s a stretch of the film where nearly every character (save Pattinson) is screaming and hollering at the top of their lungs, to the point where it grows incredibly tedious. And many of the performances – particularly Mia Goth, playing one of Pattinson’s fellow inmates – leave much to be desired. As for Pattinson, he’s fine. He’s mostly delegated to straight man here – the quiet observer surrounded by a sea of lunatics. As a result, he spends a large part of the movie silently watching everyone, occasionally offering not-so-helpful narration from time to time. In short, don’t go into High Life looking for groundbreaking performances.

And yet…High Life is hard to shake off. While watching the film, I kept coming back to the same question: “Just what is this movie?” I don’t have an answer for you, and I suspect that anyone who says they do is full of it. As far as plotting goes, High Life is a dud. But Denis brings such a unique aesthetic to the proceedings that it’s impossible to write the film off entirely. There’s a surreal nature to everything here – at one point, Monte opens a door out into space and just stands there, like someone opening a screen door and looking out into the yard. Later, bodies float unconvincingly through space, to the point where the phoniness of the image becomes deliberate. The laws of physics and gravity be damned.

And then there’s the Fuckbox – a chamber the ship’s inhabitants climb into for some sexual pleasure. An extended sequence finds Dibs fully engrossed in the Fuckbox’s offerings, and the way Denis’ camera lingers on Binoche’s bare back – her shoulder blades popping, strands of her long hair cutting across the white flesh – is hypnotic.

As visually stunning as High Life is – the film’s portrayal of a black hole is a highlight – and as dreamy as some of its plotting may seem, I grew weary of it all. But High Life still had some tricks up its sleeve, and another time-jump, revealing Monte’s baby grown into a young woman, brings the movie into sharper focus. I’m tempted to say that the movie should’ve jettisoned all the inmate stuff into space earlier and focused more on this story, but to do so would rob High Life of all its inherent weirdness – and said weirdness is what makes the movie special. Denis is a master of the craft, and she knows exactly what she’s doing with High Life. Whether or not she chooses to let us in on the secret is up to her.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net