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High Life

by Charles Nash
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Apr 5, 2019
'High Life'
'High Life'  

If you're condemned to a life of imprisonment on a prolonged path to execution, is it possible to maintain even a sliver of humanity? How can you hold onto hope when systems of power deem you incapable of being a fruitful member of society — someone who's physically unworthy of experiencing life's pleasures? Gazing into the void with utmost despair seems all but inevitable, and yet, if there were merely the dimmest of lights shining through, wouldn't basking in their glow be better than fully succumbing to darkness?

These questions lie at the heart of Claire Denis' new film, "High Life," a brilliantly provocative meditation on the prison industrial complex that also happens to be set in the reaches of deep space. By ingeniously framing this sociological commentary within a science fiction narrative and peppering it with Cronenbergian body horror, Denis has crafted a haunting, existential portrait of human nature when it's pushed to the brink in confined spaces. Like most of the French auteur's work, this is a film that requires a lot out of the viewer. It isn't always easy to watch, but it's as richly rewarding as anything I've seen so far this year.

Structurally, the film plays out in typical Denis style, via an elliptical, non-linear narrative. The opening shots stake out the interior of what initially appears to be an abandoned spaceship, until we hear a baby's voice echoing throughout the halls. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is raising an infant named Willow on the otherwise empty vessel; teaching her words such as "taboo," training her to walk, and feeding her mashed up vegetables from the garden (the only room that provides any form of natural serenity). Yet, as one would assume, it's clear that there were once many more inhabitants on board.

Flashing back, as if Monte's fragmented memories are being filtered through time, it's revealed that he, as well as several other former passengers, were inmates on death row who volunteered for a very particular (and likely suicidal) space program. In what was initially sold to them as "serving science" for the greater good, the crew is being steered towards a black hole with the hopes of garnering its rotational energy as a beneficial resource. Yet, under the supervision of Dr. Dibbs (Juliette Binoche), whom Monte refers to as the "shaman of sperm," the prisoners are also subjected to a series of experiments, stripping away any remaining autonomy they have left over their own bodies.

In fact, while the film's cyclical structure is reminiscent of the black hole's gravitational pull, that part of the proposal seems secondary to the notion of using said condemned individuals as guinea pigs for conception in space. Denis has always been fascinated by the human body, and the ways in which her camera scopes out various terrains of flesh (as well as its various fluids) hearkens back to how she framed her lovesick cannibals in "Trouble Every Day." Much like the characters in that film, the passengers of "High Life" are burdened by sexual impulses to the point of implosion, often eradicating any form of consent and transgressing into full-on assault.

This is a deeply disturbing piece of work, and the ways in which it intertwines sex and violence are, understandably, going to make it a tough sell. Yet, Denis always manages to incorporate these extremes into an existentially stimulating reflection on our often-contradictory and "taboo" desires as a biological species, without ever veering into pure exploitation. Perhaps even more shockingly, the fact that it all manages to conclude on a poignantly bittersweet note of paternal love — with impending doom on the horizon, no less — is the most subversively optimistic ending to embody our current times.

"High Life" is a dense, tricky film to wrap your head around, and I will admit that I'm still digesting certain aspects of it even after two viewings. But if you're willing to take this terrifying voyage into the cosmos, you're bound to witness an unforgettable tour de force from one of the world's greatest living filmmakers.

High Life

Monte and his baby daughter are the last survivors of a damned and dangerous mission to the outer reaches of the solar system. They must now rely on each other to survive as they hurtle toward the oblivion of a black hole.


Runtime :: 113 mins
Release Date :: May 30, 2019
Language :: Silent
Country :: Germany


Monte :: Robert Pattinson
Dr. Dibs :: Juliette Binoche
Tcherny :: André Benjamin
Boyse :: Mia Goth
Chandra :: Lars Eidinger
Nansen :: Agata Buzek
Ettore :: Ewan Mitchell
Willow -- Baby :: Scarlett Lindsey
Willow -- Teenager :: Jessie Ross


Director :: Claire Denis
Director :: Claire Denis
Screenwriter :: Geoff Cox
Screenwriter :: Jean-Pol Fargeau
Producer :: Oliver Dungey
Producer :: Laurence Clerc
Producer :: Olivier Thery-Lapiney
Producer :: Christoph Friedel
Producer :: D.J. Gugenheim
Producer :: Andrew Lauren
Producer :: Klaudia Smieja
Producer :: Claudia Steffen
Cinematographer :: Yorick Le Saux
Cinematographer :: Tomasz Naumiuk
Film Editor :: Guy Lecorne


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