sat 25/05/2019

High Life review - Claire Denis boldly goes where she hasn't gone before | reviews, news & interviews

High Life review - Claire Denis boldly goes where she hasn't gone before

High Life review - Claire Denis boldly goes where she hasn't gone before

Lust in space: the veteran French director takes on existential science fiction

Father and daughter adrift with Robert Pattinson as Monte,


Claire Denis's High Life is science fiction as a fever dream rather than a frenzy of ray guns and aliens. Our first contact is Monte (played by a gaunt Robert Pattinson); he’s alone on a rickety space ship, fixing the leaks in the hull, nurturing both the crops in the biosphere and his baby daughter, Willow. Pattinson is a mesmerising screen presence with his close-cropped skull and sharp-angled jaw; there’s real tenderness in the opening scenes where he interacts with the infant as her sole parent. 

But that idyll doesn’t last; Monte is the last survivor of a crew of murderers, who chose a one-way space mission in preference to the death penalty. In long flashback sequences we meet the other prisoners, a discordant company of violent men and women, made uniform only by their mutual suspicion. We learn what brought them to this prison ship and their fate once on board.

Is High Life a meditation on the nature of space and time? If so, it’s a mystery why Monte doesn’t age at all while his daughter reaches maturity on their long, lonely voyage. There may well have been consultations with philosophical scientists about string theory and black holes in crafting the script but anyone looking for expository dialogue will be disappointed. Claire Denis has spoken about having the idea for High Life in her mind for some 15 years. Certainly there’s been time to watch and reference other filmmakers’ interstellar explorations - High Life conjures up memories of the eco-fable Silent Running and the underrated Alien 3 as well as Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Although it’s French director Denis’s first film in the English language, her familiar themes are all present: female sexual desire, the shifting power play between overseers and servants, colonialism, enclosed communities moulded by their physical environment.  She’s well served by Robert Pattinson, working hard as he did in last year’s Good Time, to shrug off his teen-idol Twilight image. He’s a celibate Prospero left alone with a ripening Miranda; it’s no accident that the first word he teaches her is "taboo". 

Juliette Binoche gives a performance striking for its lack of vanity as prisoner-scientist Dr Dibbs (below). On earth, she murdered not only her husband but also her children. In space she’s Medea extracting and inserting sperm from her fellow prisoners for experiments in reproduction. Denis is unflinching in her focus on bodily fluids – rarely has a movie paid so much attention to corporal secretions.  In one already notoriously grim scene, Dibbs performs alone in the space ship’s "sex box".  With her swirling mane of dark hair, she resembles one of Edward Munch’s hollow-eyed Eves, tortured by insatiable desire. It’s certainly no replay of Jane Fonda having fun with the orgasmatron in Barbarella.

The slow pace and pretensions of High Life make it hard to love and it’s distinctly challenging for the squeamish. But it’s quite possible to admire its bravura performances and the director’s design choices. Denis rebuffs CGI for dilapidated sets and in-camera effects. She chooses her collaborators well - an epiphanous final illumination was inspired by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s light installations while Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples provides an atmospheric score.

The slow pace and pretensions of High Life make it hard to love

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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