Review: High Life (2018)

Claire Denis’s first English language film follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a death row inmate who signs up to be a human guinea pig, shot into space with eight others for an experiment involving childbirth. This is a film lost in time, starting with Monte alone with a baby girl before cycling back to explore what happened aboard the doomed vessel.

High Life is a film with the apparent goal to decontextualize to the point of disorientation. Bodies become mere objects – the word that kept popping into my head as I absorbed this overwhelming experience was ‘dehumanizing.’ This film does not play lightly with its central concept; these are people who were already pushed to the breaking point within polite society, now enclosed together with draconian orders and no one around to truly enforce them.

To drive the point home, this is a film loaded with sex but rarely pleasure. Our first such scene is perhaps the most positive, but shot in such a way to corrode any sense of joy. Instead, the scene exudes a horrific sense of desperation as Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist of questionable past with free reign over the others, goes wild within the literal sex machine inside the ship. She contorts with a violent elegance as the machine takes on new forms around her. The box leaks a milky fluid while in use – the one source of physical pleasure for the inmates is marked with a key visual source of disgust for the audience. Denis wants us at a distance from her characters, inflicting terrible fates upon those who likewise inflict terror upon others. In High Life, pleasure is a zero-sum game.

High Life speaks more through visual language than with words – in fact, the little bit of expository dialogue largely detracts from the experience. There are shots ingrained in my mind, from bodies floating in space as the title drops to the almost incomprehensible finale. ‘Viscera’ defines this film, from the raw emotional experience it will breed within anyone who fully engages to the seemingly endless stream of fluids that permeate the screen.

I have honed in on the violence, the cold treatment of bodies, but what I don’t want lost in all this is how revelatory this was as an experience. High Life drew out a deep sense of wonder in me, bordering on awe. It’s a familiar tool used well here, to start off with confirmation that most characters are already dead. Our focus is guided to look past the deaths of characters to question what it all means – there’s a powerful rhythm to how everything falls into place. This sense of wonder isn’t lost as we trudge into the unknown future, following Monte and the child as she grows, an innocent born into a doomed world.

This film borders on fantastic – but the dialogue really blunts the impact. One particularly out of place scene finds a man being interviewed about the prison experiments, a conversation between two characters that we’ll never see again. This is a film carried by a fervent, almost undefinable energy; why bog it down with a scene that serves no purpose beyond unnecessary narrative exposition?

I could easily forget that one moment (really, I did forget until reflecting on the film), but I had similar trouble with the daughter’s dialogue. High Life is dense to the point of abstraction, but the treatment of this character instead comes off as shallow. Even unrelated to what’s being said, a lot of lines simply seemed to be mumbled.

Despite these grievances, Claire Denis created what I would consider an essential film for art house lovers – few films this year have lifted me to such an emotional height, and its overwhelming atmosphere is a rare gift. High Life forcibly denies itself a wider appeal, but for those who are open to what it has to offer, I’m certain it will become a new favorite.

4 Stars Out of 5

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