An incisive eye and an original outlook: French filmmaker Claire Denis needs no introduction. Once again, she surprises and challenges audiences with her English-language debut High Life, a mediation on what it means to be human in a visceral search for pleasure whilst blurring the lines between good and evil.
We’re first introduced to Monte (Robert Pattinson) as he takes care of a crying baby within the confinement of what looks like a place reminiscent of Earth, but not quite. The room is bathed in a bizarrely suffocating orange light and Monte repeatedly tries to make the infant learn just this one word: ‘taboo’. We thus understand that within the film, there will be none.
Flying into the darkest sides of the vast universe, High Life follows a team of the most incongruous explorers, formerly sentenced to death, as they serve their time within an infinite cell: space. Officially, their search mission for a new form of energy is laudable, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redeem themselves. Until they all finally grasp the real price of heroism, as their beings slowly become an experimental field for Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, a witchy, obsessive, Greek-like goddess of fertility. In the alliance of men and women, she sees nothing but a potential viable embryo and intends, at all costs, to bring life out of this odyssey, even though she has to violate bodies and souls in the process.
High Life defends a shocking yet fascinating take on how, within space, the human body is distorted, but not in the ways expected. The ‘science’ part is approached via biology and has little to do with physics. The film is about understanding and modelling human flesh to space rather than the contrary, about what happens to said flesh when it loses touch with Mother Earth. Classical tropes may suggest Human’s innards are made of stardust, but in High Life, there is no shying away from bodily fluids, be it blood, semen or spit. The film purposely drifts between body horror and eroticism, making the audience walk on a thin and unsettling tightrope. And when isolation strikes, the brain ceases to function, the bodies are left uncontrolled and the chaos within reigns. Denis depicts an everyday battle for sanity while being confronted to the most disturbing schemes.
Robert Pattinson is fabulous as Monte. Few words are exchanged in this minimalist yet precise script, but Pattinson succeeds in conveying more emotions than ever with a glance to little baby Willow. The sensibility given to his character impresses. Monte may be a criminal, but his vision, surprisingly tender, differs from his merciless reality.
Retro production design refocuses the story around its protagonists. No big technological interfaces nor preponderant aggressive sirens will put your attention in orbit. There is nothing but Humankind and what it truly seeks, at the heart of the film.
High Life is a truly hypnotic journey within the human body rather than the void of space. The way the body contorts itself, the spasms that fills it with life, the sounds that it produces are central to Denis’ frame, from the baby’s cries in the very first sequence to a victim’s screams later on. All High Life does is leak through its pores with a new found twisted definition of human nature.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.