High Life unravels like a Catherine wheel caught in slow-motion; it’s hypnotic when glanced at but dare to stare and it’ll singe something ultimately devoid of meaning onto your eyeballs.
In High Life, Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsay), are the last survivors aboard a cubic spaceship hurtling away from earth. Monte attends to all the menial tasks aboard a dilapidated ship to make sure his daughter is kept safe and able to scream and saunter as a toddler must. Through fractured flashbacks, the ship’s previous crew are revealed and questions raised as to how Monte and Willow’s journey began.
Director Claire Denis attempts to convey deep themes of humanity, community, and parenthood in the sterility of space, but the execution doesn’t strike true. Rather, it botches the job, hacking at the head and shoulders rather than the soft tissue of the neck. Within the phantom of a story and through hallucinatory editing, much of the dialogue that would offer context or character is whispered or mumbled. Part of me thinks this is due to it being so mechanical that we would hear the cogs grinding, or so lofty (in attempt) that our cringe reflexes give us whiplash.
There is an air of madness amidst the crew when the fragmentary editing (at times it feels like a linear story was shot, printed, cut up and thrown into the air – the finished film being the order it landed on the editing suite) shows the ship’s purpose, and their burden. Like another altitudinally titled film, High Rise, but where the isolation-induced insanity of Wheatley’s film did frustrate, also did it infect. High Life’s jars, perpetually keeping the viewer at stratospheric length in an attempt to convey morose mystery where in fact, it has all the mystery of an autonomous fortune teller at the carnival. Arthouse Sci-Fi (La Jetee) is usually an elusive beast in terms of narrative and structure, but High Life negates our innate human desire for narrative so much that when violently sexual set-pieces hit, it’s hard to feel or care. The impression is that Denis is endeavoring to be controversial for the sake of it, rather than the controversy flowing from a believably doomed space mission.
Amidst the misfit crew, Juliette Binoche’s delectable Doctor Dibs is the most interesting apart from Monte on his touching paternal quest. Her amoral precision and starved sexual predilections sometimes offer a repose from the monotony but ultimately, she’s only a little denser than Mia Goth’s volatile Boyse and Andre Benjamin’s repentant Tcherny. The acting, though exuded by great talent, still feels subject to Denis’ experimental direction. Whilst this experiment had tantalizing prospects, the components combusted and ended up burning a hole through the hull, which only makes me want to return to Alien – whose lived-in minimalist set design is one of the many influencers of High Life.
High Life is destined to go down as a divisive piece of art, as maligned as it will be revered. It’s analog Sci-Fi set design and unpleasant color pallet are bold choices. Its score pays homage to the canon of films that inspired it. The vision of a scathing critique of humanity is felt at its margins. But for me, I don’t think it achieved the promise of a superbly atmospheric trailer nor answered the questions presented in the film with any degree of authority. This is fine in a surrealist picture actively subverting expectation (which this offers an appetizer for) but when physics aren’t obeyed, people don’t age and sex and sense mingle with stupidity in a space-set soliloquy, it’d be appreciated if we could have a coda for deciphering the shallow debauchery. I wanted to love it but expectations lead to disappointment. Any film fan should watch High Life and see which camp they sit in because this could be as nourishing as mother’s milk to some as it was a sour shot of placebo medication for me.
Aaron studies Creative and Professional Writing at Bangor University and is Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut and Nation. He is also a Young Critic for the Arts Council of Wales.