I first saw High Life last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. It made no impact on me. How much so? Am I so jaded a thoughtful study about human nature doesn’t even register? I had to see it again because I couldn’t remember a thing about it. I wasn’t sure if it was the movie to blame or the fact I was sleep-deprived after a week of watching three to four features a day (plus a couple of parties).
Surprise. It was the movie.
I would be the first one to advocate for more 2001 or Solaris-type films, but High Life is somehow more unwilling to explain itself.
On a Roger Corman-type spaceship, we encounter Monte (Robert Pattinson, the best special effect in this movie) as he struggles to care for a toddler. We learn his backstory via flashbacks: He was part of a mission to study reproduction in space, an undertaking filled with convicts because of the less-than-humane characteristics of the endeavour.
The fact we only see Monte and the baby indicates something went horribly wrong at some point. It’s as if a spacecraft filled with outcasts to harvest their genetic material was a bad idea.
Certain filmmakers get a free pass from critics, some because of their previous work (Terrence Malick) or out of political correctness (Ana Lily Amirpour). Claire Denis belongs among the former. Her films are correct but hardly the masterpieces we’ve been led to believe.
High Life has a very strange obsession with sex. There is not a single healthy relationship in sight, yet all the characters crave it, all but Monte, who has adopted a monk-like lifestyle. There is a room for masturbation (“the box”) that adapts to the characters’ needs, leading to some unintended comedy by Juliette Binoche.
The purpose of the experiments is never clear, although a black hole in the vicinity hints at a destination. The film is deliberate obtuse to the point of being frustrating. Any good will towards Denis or the actors doing their best with underwritten parts vanishes after a while. Still, many have found nourishment in High Life. Proceed at your own risk. Two prairie dogs facing a pitiless void (out of five).
High Life opens today at the Rainbow Cinemas.