I have to admit that prior to seeing HIGH LIFE, I hadn’t previously watched a Claire Denis film, and for that, I’m embarrassed, and I plan on making up for it post-haste. HIGH LIFE is the best kind of “science fiction” film, because it’s not really about the futuristic aspects of the plot. The Sci-Fi is all in the setting and the action is about the emotion that the setting provokes.
Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson were present at the screening of HIGH LIFE I attended as part of the 56th New York Film Festival. Denis said that to her the film was more about the concept of space as a whole..both outer space, and the space between people, and most importantly the lack of physical and the expanse of emotional space one experiences when incarcerated.
The basic plot of HIGH LIFE is that in the not-so-distant future, criminals are sent on speed-of-light space missions because scientifically, it would be impossible for humans to travel that far into space and return in the lifetimes of anyone who sent them. The passengers on the spacecraft are out there for some kind of research purposes but what they were originally intended to be was unclear.
What ends up happening is that the doctor onboard, Dr. Dibs (played to a sweetly malevolent perfection by the one and only Juliette Binoche) is desperate to grow the perfect baby with the combinations of sperm and eggs of the criminals/passengers on board. When you find out why Dibs has this obsession, the film becomes all the more unsettling.
The film’s story is mostly told through flashbacks, with the present being mostly Monte (Robert Pattinson, killing it as usual) alone on the ship, with a baby girl. Over the course of HIGH LIFE, we find out how it came to be that only these two remain on the ship. In the flashbacks is where we meet the rest of the cast, which includes Binoche and a short but wonderful performance by Andre (3000) Benjamin as Tcherny. Mia Goth is Boyse, probably the most unruly criminal on the ship and an integral part of the subplot of the film, which isn’t going to be given away in this review.
This is one of the only films that Claire Denis has made in English. She said that she couldn’t imagine French astronauts, so the film either had to be in English or in Russian. I’m glad she chose English because this is one of Pattinson’s most effective performances. He seems to always hit paydirt in his post-Twilight career, and the reason why is that he contacts directors he wants to work with directly, says he has no idea what he’s doing but that he wants to work with them if they’ll just tell him what to do. It’s a very humble and surprising tactic that has seemed to do Pattinson very well, because all of his roles in the past five years or so have been incredible. This, I dare say, may indeed be his best performance to date. He’s the person who has the most screen-time, a lot of it with a baby who can’t talk yet, but HIGH LIFE is always engaging.
Everything about this film is beautiful, from the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk, to the set design by Susan Gohsman, and the soundtrack by Stuart Staples is impeccable. The song during the credits with Tindersticks and Robert Pattinson singing is a perfect ending to a beautifully sad meditation on time, space, and all kinds of imprisonment. This is a film you’ll absolutely want to see in the theater so be on the look out for a theatrical release.