Seven people fled from the theater during my screening of Claire Denis’ High Life. I say this not to discourage anyone from seeing Denis’ most recent film but I feel like this an entirely mandatory warning: THIS. IS. NOT. FOR. EVERYONE.
Equal parts methodical sci-fi epic and promiscuous French horror, High Life is a confounding bridge between two distinctive genres that the public tends to dismiss instantaneously. It’s an alienating experience that intentionally shrouds a beautifully complex story about fatherhood and self-realization in the decrepit corners of a spacecraft headed towards almost certain death.
High Life is an imaginative retelling of the stationary, “we’re sending criminals to space on a death mission” story. While many will claim that Claire Denis simply refurbished an undoubtedly simplistic story, the execution here is utterly harrowing. Without relying on genre gimmicks or over-explaining, her precise sensibilities portrayed in previous works (Let The Sunshine In, Nanette and Boni) flow through the veins of this corpse of a story that many films have tried and failed to tell before.
I often hate the idea of describing a movie as “pure cinema.” It’s a pretentious ideology that suggests there’s only one way to make a movie and any other method is inherently beneath it (which is bullshit). But, to explain the plot to High Life without mentioning this methodology would be a great disservice.
The experience as a whole is less about the literal events or the fate of its characters than the visceral journey of getting there. It can feel like the literal events aren’t satisfying — at least, in the traditional sense. Things happen that may seem narratively strange but these events always convey the idea of if this situation were to actually happen this is how it would turn out.
For example, real life wouldn’t necessarily give the opportunity for a dying person to give some large speech that reveals something crucial to who they are or the expedition. Denis understands this and doesn’t let any of these often phony “Oscar moments” into the bizarre venture on display.
Wholly unlike the vast majority of sci-fi movies I’ve seen, High Life digs deep into humanity by refusing to sugar coat any of its upsetting and dissatisfying shortcomings. This isn’t an Interstellar where love solves everything; instead, Denis’ film aims to be brutally honest.
That’s not to say that it’s a film where the presentation constantly sucks the life out of its viewers with a carnival of despair. It also focuses on the stunning, more rewarding aspects of life but they’re handled in such a way that never feels overdone. It manages to find a sort of redemptive quality that allows Denis’ decidedly fleeting moments of happiness to feel all the more joyous — even if surrounded by an emotional black hole.
This, all that while also being masterfully helmed by Denis. She has a hypnotizing sense of control that’s unparalleled to anything she’s done before. There’s isn’t a single scene that’s anything short of vile in the most gorgeous and impressive way. Every aspect from the performances — especially Robert Pattinson’s character of a slowly maturing father — to the set design to the wrought score practically drips with immense care. So much so that I have almost no doubt that she has this entire map of the craft’s technology and what’s it’s capable of mapped out in her office.
Denis’ ability to capture the moments that are nothing short of feeling ultra real is also ever-present. Her keen and sensible eye over even the most absurd of scenes. There are scenes that take place within a thing called the “The Fuck Box” — a room for member of the ship to have sex with inanimate objects — where she directs Juliette Binoche having sex with what is basically a higher-tech version of George Clooney’s dildo chair from Ethan & Joel Coen’s Burn After Reading. While some directors may handle such a scene in a way where it becomes laughable, Denis’ confidence behind the camera makes it feel utterly human; resulting, in a massively disturbing sequence that mediates on the nature/need of human sexuality and how quickly vanity and pleasure can become grotesque and shame.
High Life isn’t for everyone but for those can appreciate what it’s going for will be gifted with a gauntlet of emotions. Horrific, sad, stunning, and perverse, this seemingly distant story will pull others like me in with the subtle magnitude of its gravitational force which in the end hit me on a such a level that, well, I just lost it. By the time the last frame faded away, I’d been left with a feeling that left me sobbing for what felt like hours.
All while an original song is sung by Pattinson guides the viewer into the bright oblivion of the credits like a father leading their child into the unknown. The two don’t know where they’re going but at least they’re going together, hand-in-hand. “Willow, do you feel the sun upon your back? A lover’s hand? A breath? An abyss.”