HIGH LIFE is an enigmatic new space odyssey [review]

Commentary, Film and Television

Claire Denis’s High Life is a confounding sci-fi psychodrama starring Robert Pattinson as the last surviving inmate of an outer space prison.

The tale takes place on a space shuttle populated entirely by condemned criminals: life sentence and death row inmates sent on a suicide mission to capture energy from a black hole. Cut off from their homes and histories, the prisoners face an uncertain future, heading steadily towards a target that could just as easily grant them eternal life as immediate destruction.

By the start of the film, the ship is so far out that it’s unreachable by any means of earthly communication. It’s an incredibly claustrophobic set-up, the futility of the situation underscored by the cramped quarters and dreary colours of the setting. The prison, sometimes a power-keg of pent-up emotion and sexual frustration, occasionally falls into a sense of communal futility.

The most magnetic of the inmates is Monte, who’s been locked up since the day he killed a childhood friend to avenge his dead dog. Though still capable of viciousness, Monte is somewhat of a stoic. He’s considered monkish by the other prisoners, but there’s no serenity in his self-restraint; it’s hard to tell if his self-imposed isolation is penance or something else entirely.

Pattinson is an ambiguous, haunted presence as the austere young murderer, who becomes the reluctant focus of his crewmates’ fascination and lust. The former heartthrob-turned-indie darling delivers a performance that’s both soulful and infuriatingly enigmatic, drawing from a deep well of pain while giving away very little. Denis’s sparse, awkward dialogue (appropriate for a character subjected to years of isolation) could have fell flat in other hands, but Pattinson’s assured performance never feels less than natural.

Though largely detached from the world around him, Monte clings stubbornly to his bodily autonomy, and his ability to abstain from the more degrading rituals of the prison-ship is admired and resented by his peers.

The ship’s secondary purpose involves a  series of invasive fertility experiments conducted on the infertile inmates. (The parallel goals, though seemingly contradictory, actually dovetail quite nicely, juxtaposing a dystopian society’s struggles to sustain its existing population with the innate human urge to procreate). The task is pursued with a single-minded mania by the ship’s doctor, a murderess who killed her own children and is desperate to create new life. A child is eventually produced, but only after a series of disturbing violations on non-consenting participants.

The baby, a girl, is named Willow. The father is Monte, who is eventually left to raise the child alone after the untimely deaths of the rest of the crew.

Caring for the baby turns out to be the easy part. and for the first time, Monte seems to be at peace. But his old guardedness returns as Willow grows from a dependent child, who loves non-judgmentally, into a restless teenager who can judge but never understand. Their father/daughter relationship complicates further as the girl ages, taking on a vaguely unsettling edge.

The miraculous outcome of the experiments is a chilling contrast to the complete inhumanity of the whole operation. After all, what is the purpose of creating a child destined to drift aimlessly through space with no hope of escape?

For Willow, hope lies within the black hole – but it’s unclear if she truly believes there’s something worthwhile on the other side, or if she;s just desperate for an ending.

In Justin Chang’s LA Times review, he notes that High Life “briefly references, and deranges, the Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.” I would suggest that the whole film subverts Kubrick’s opus, replacing his surreal revelations with enigmas of a different sort. Denis refrains from showing us wonders, and provides no resolution to the questions she poses; in fact, even the questions themselves aren’t clear.

For instance, I left the theatre with no idea what was supposed to happen after Monte and Willow’s final brush with the unknown. And I suspect that’s the point. High Life is not the kind of sci-fi film that invites its viewers to speculate endlessly or search for clues to the “true” ending. High Life is a riddle without a solution – anything else would be too easy.

Title: High Life

Director: Claire Denis

Screenwriter: Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau

Year: 2018/2019

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