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High Life

Claire Denis offers one of the most horrifying depictions of space without ever being a particularly scary movie in itself.

This article predates the Odd Trilogies website. It was originally published on Film Yap.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of director Claire Denis’ work (I know, that probably makes me a fraudulent “movie buff”), so I was probably not as prepared for High Life as I should have been. It’s slow, aggressively nonlinear, and perverse—none of which are things that normally turn me off from a movie, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt so at the mercy of a director’s methodical patience to fully, intimately realize their vision on screen.

That’s not a knock in the slightest. Denis demonstrates full mastery of her craft and an intensity of perspective, and she does so with the full-bodied help of a committed, convincing cast.

From the opening minutes, it becomes clear that High Life will be something different for the sci-fi genre: astronaut Monte (Robert Pattinson, scrawny as ever) clings to the side of a spaceship, repairing a magnetic panel, talking to his baby daughter via baby monitor fed into his helmet. But his daughter’s signal isn’t being beamed from a safe and stable home back on Earth; she’s actually his only company on this desolate, dying vessel.

As it turns out, “astronaut” may be a bit of a misnomer—or at least an omissive descriptor. Monte is actually a death row inmate, as were the rest of his crewmates, given an alternative to his prison cell in the form of a one-way exploratory trip to the farthest reaches of space.

We’re first introduced to his crewmates as corpses, preserved in cryogenic bags but undoubtedly dead. In order to save power, Monte opts to deactivate the cryogenics systems and jettison the bodies—ceremoniously redressed in their space suits—out into the great beyond. What results is a haunting, silent shot of the lifeless crew afloat in the black void as the film’s title fades in and floats among them. It’s a perfect introduction for the isolated, otherwordly journey we’re about to endure with Monte.

From there, the film intermittently and ambiguously jumps back in time to detail daily life on the ship—given no name or designation besides “7”—before Monte’s crewmates kicked the bucket. By comparison to his colleagues, Monte seems impressively functional and put-together; the rest are probably more what one might immediately picture when imagining “death row inmates.” Supervising (or perhaps puppeteering) all of them is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who medicates, sedates, and when the opportunity arises, artificially inseminates her “subjects” in an obsessive effort to conceive a child in the depths of space—an endeavor that has apparently repeatedly failed due to the high levels of radiation the crew is subjected to on their journey.

Despite the majority of the movie taking place before Monte’s solitude, High Life is still a chillingly lonely movie. Denis and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux bathe each scene in dim oranges and eerie blues, patiently watching their characters succumb to their carnal desires. Stuart Staples’ low, smoldering score underlines the depraved exploration of these convicts’ psyches and the lengths to which they’ll go in order to “feel” something in the isolation of space. It’s a wholly unified and invested aesthetic that pervades High Lifefrom the visual to the aural, and it keeps the narrative compelling and intriguing even when things start to feel long.

Pattinson and Binoche, along with Mia Goth and André Benjamin, in smaller roles, bring raw physicality and agony to their performances, bolstering the dreadfulness of their characters’ ordeal. Binoche, more than the rest, is given the opportunity to explore Denis’ apparent fascination with the weirdness and barbarism of sexuality.

It’s Pattinson who makes the film, though, his gaunt face displaying a shocking range from visceral perseverance and soft, parental compassion. There’s something especially compelling about watching a parent try to help their infant child understand the world around them when you know they’re hurtling through deep space in a tin can on a path to nowhere.

Start to finish, High Life is perhaps one of the most horrifying visions of space ever put to screen, without ever being a particularly scary movie in itself. Many filmmakers have attempted to make space feel “lonely”—not a terribly difficult feat with regard to an infinite black void—but Denis paints a picture of paranoid isolation and the strange, scary hope of what lies on the other side of a black hole through intimate character interactions and quiet, pained closeups in dimly lit exam rooms. What it wants to say isn’t always clear, or necessarily always worthwhile, but there’s enough curiosity and uncertainty in each moment to keep you along for the slow, ceaseless ride into the dark.

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Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

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