By Jack Dignan
Claire Denis doesn’t like to mess around, and with her latest, an epic psychosexual exploration of humanity’s primal needs, she refuses to pull any punches. This is, at its core, a vile movie, and yet it’s also a cinematic experience beyond comprehension. High Life is a chilling deconstruction of humanity and their sexual desires, delving into its strong sexual themes through a unique sci-fi setting, all culminating in an unnerving finale that’ll make or break the movie for you. Mainstream audiences are going to hate this. But for those after a little edge, it’s one of the best experiences of the year.
High Life begins with two characters. Robert Pattinson plays Monte, the soul survivor of a secretive space exploration that’s lasted years. He lives in total isolation with his infant daughter, and as their journey continues with no foreseeable end in sight, we return to a reflection of a past gone by; a time before Monte’s daughter’s birth, where the ship was brimming with life. This crew, which is made up of young inmates sent into space for a second chance, hurtles through the edge of the universe in search of a black hole.
Or at least, that’s all you really should know about this film. For as the film progresses, and these characters are flung further and further away from the life they once knew, unable to receive signals or messages sent to them until years are their delivery, their true selves are unleashed and a mirage of sexual exploitation is explored. It’s a devious, maddening narrative that sets out to discover the bare bones of human desire in the most uncompromising and unsettling of ways.
Initial reactions had me ready for a totally different, far more fucked up experience than the one we got, so tread carefully when listening to those rather spoiler-filled tweets and reviews, but the final product far exceeded my every expectation. This is slow, elusive cinema at its finest; a tale of humans at their most primal that utilises its sci-fi elements in ways other science fiction stories could only dream of. High Life shares more in common with Blade Runner or Solaris than it does Star Wars, but also more in common with Nymphomaniac than it does any of those.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a space bound narrative featuring a dildo chair named “The Fuckbox” then this film is for you. It’s utterly deranged chaos that pushes through its scenes of rape, pedophilia and characters carrying semen in their bare hands to tell a tender and nurturing story, even with sequences of sheer depravity and existential nightmares. The cinematography is off the charts good, but it doesn’t quite have the budget to make everything work. A lot of the visual effects fail to meet Denis’ huge ambitions. However, it’s the writing and the performances that make you almost want to forgive it.
Pattinson is sensational as our central link. He embraces some very Good Time-esque characteristics, but leans more into the empathy and humanistic nature of that character, especially once he becomes a father. They’re all bad people, but in life’s ethereal prison he’s deemed one of the good guys, creating a distinct contrast against Juliette Binoche’s maddened doctor performing sexual experiments on her prisoner’s usually unconscious bodies. Her character is fascinating, yet unrelenting, and Binoche absolutely kills it, stealing the show at every opportunity.
Also admirable is Mia Goth, who gets to add yet another chilling and wholly original experimental film to a filmography that seems to only include movies under that rather specific sub-genre. But the real surprise knockout performance was that of young Jessie Ross, whose role I’d rather remain hushed about, but when she’s introduced in the third act she proves to be an incredibly promising young actor in what’s going to be a film that cinephiles and art scholars will go absolutely crazy over. High Life isn’t quite as revolting as some may lead you to believe, but there’s no way you can prepare for what this film has up its sleeve.
4 1/2 Stars
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