Movie Review: High Life
Robert Pattinson in Claire Denis's slow-going sci-fi exercise.
High Life is the sort of Euro art movie that susceptible critics are inclined to describe as "challenging," intending both a compliment and a recommendation. Your mileage may vary.
The picture is a maiden voyage into science-fiction and English-language dialogue by the revered French director Claire Denis, whose 45-year career has produced such esteemed films as Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum and who has also worked on movies by Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and—relevant here—Andrei Tarkovsky, another sci-fi outsider who took a shot at the genre (in Tarkovsky's case, memorably, with Solaris).
High Life is also another confident post-Twilight career move by Robert Pattinson, who shares with his former costar Kristen Stewart a determination to venture beyond the confines of conventional movies and their now presumably irrelevant mega-paydays. Here he plays Monte, a prisoner confined with a crew of other criminals to a spaceship headed toward a faraway black hole on a vague experimental mission. ("Someone had the bright idea of recycling us, to serve science," he says, puzzlingly.) Monte and his fellow losers have been lured out of death rows and life sentences by the promise of freedom after these experiments are successfully completed; some of them may even believe that's going to happen.
As the movie begins, Monte is alone on the ship with his baby daughter Willow (played with infant expertise by tiny Scarlett Lindsey). Since no babysitters are available, Monte uses a video link to keep an eye and an ear on the tot while he's outside clambering around on the ship's exterior, making his maintenance rounds. This is the movie's first major implausibility—what if the baby needed immediate attention?—and it's accompanied by a second one: when Monte drops a tool he's using to make a repair out there, instead of floating in front of him, as it might in any other space movie, it plunges down into the inky blackness, as if there were some sort of gravity going on. This is annoyingly obtuse. But then it's clear throughout the film that commonplace realism is something in which Denis has only a passing interest. (The nameless spaceship she has devised looks like an interstellar refrigerator.)
The story soon switches into flashback, and we meet the rest of the crew when they were still around. Among others, there's Tcherny (onetime Outkast member André Benjamin), who tends the ship's dewy garden (a hand-waving symbol of life's indefatigable persistence); a nasty young creep named Ettore (Ewan Mitchell); and a sleepy-eyed waif by the name of Boyse (Mia Goth), who is reviled as a "filthy little crackhead" by the ship's resident medico, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who's far from a model citizen herself (she's also a prisoner).
Dibs keeps the crew malleable by drugging the onboard water supply. She also oversees a chamber called the "fuckbox," to which male crew members pay regular visits in order to masturbate into plastic cups, which they then turn over to Dibs, who injects the cups' contents into the female crew members. (Only Monte abstains from this activity, stubbornly dedicated, for some reason, to conserving his precious bodily fluids.) All of this might have been something like edgy fun if the movie had a little more energy—although there is one really off-the-hook scene in which Dibs herself enters the fuckbox and climbs aboard a dildo-chair for a spectacular explosion of dark, writhing imagery.
But most of the picture is hobbled by its shuffling pace, and by the ship's dim soundstage corridors and hazy colors (brick reds, teals and tans, a cold mortuary blue). Denis's theme, set amid various markers of propagation—blood, semen, breast milk—is of course the iron endurance of the life drive. In a scene set several years further on in the story, we find Monte waking up to discover the now-pubescent Willow in his bed. After she returns to her own, we see that she has left behind a bloodstain on the sheet. Is it menstrual blood, or a sign of first-time sex—and if the latter, how are we to feel about it? Denis also salutes the inexhaustibility of human hope. With the black hole ever nearer at hand, Monte is prepared for oblivion; but Willow, lone member of a new generation, views it with excitement. If only the movie itself stirred that feeling.