HIGH LIFE, France. Director: Claire Denis. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth. Language, English. Runtime, 113 minutes. A NYFF premiere. Released April 5, 2019. Home release date: June 11, 2019. Rating A+
The irony of the title — a constant in Claire Denis’ body of work — refers to something luxurious, grandiose, epicurean. Life is grand and expansive. In her most ambitious work to date, which premiered at the 56th New York Film Festival to great acclaim, humanity, and life itself has been reduced to a perversion of itself. It is as artificial as the garden that Andre Benjamin’s thoughtful Tscherny tends to and which an innocent baby, itself a creation of an act of horror and abuse, plays in, as hopeless as the mission that is in store for the crew, and as heartless as the scientist Juliette Binoche plays.
Claire Denis entry into the sci-fi genre makes her one of the few directors whose work defies a style. Her 2016 film — a slight misstep that perhaps demands a second view — Let the Sunshine In was a very warm, French comedy that told the story of an older woman trying to find love but not finding herself. The noir-ish Bastards (2013) portrays a family, and innocence, torn apart by pure decadence. White Material (2009) tackled the atrocities of European colonialism in Africa and its aftermath of chaos. Beau Travail (1999), the movie that put Denis on the international map, could be called the queerest war drama made.
It’s the latter that I kept thinking about while viewing Denis’ High Life, at Music Box in Chicago. The references, while indirect, but like pentimento, came through the narrative. Under the guise of sci-fi, Denis paints a picture that is as cold as it is brutal: humans at the end of time and existence, hurtle towards the unknown, and even then still engage in the monstrous, perhaps sensing that they have no escape to their situation. They are convicts who have been promised a clever ruse, or given the ultimate punishment, a fate worse than death by execution: go into space, harvest the energy from a black hole, and bring back to Earth.
From the start it’s clear this is a doomed mission. Something awful has happened. There’s no mystery. Almost echoing Ridley’s Scott Alien, or John Carpenter’s The Thing, we know this cannot bode well for anyone. Monte, a young astronaut (Robert Pattinson, the ships moral center), goes about his business disposing the bodies of dead inmates while a baby wails. It’s a shocking beginning that demands attention, and Pattinson is here to provide a clarification through his voice over as to how we got here, in media res, and see if there is any possile solution even now in the depths of space.
It seems, under the control of a scientist (Juliette Binoche, in a role that could be her darkest yet), herself an ex convict, the hapless crew gets subjected to tests against their will. Motherless for reasons that she herself will disclose, she now seems determined to play Mother Earth and create new life, an ambition that overrides the original. Like a malevolent ghost, Binoche stalks the halls and rooms of the spaceship like a jail matron, her white clothes betraying her bottomless, sick depravity. It is this depravity that dominates the entire film with iron brutality of a chokehold. Indeed, it leads to one unbelievable scene after another (one involving a special room, and a queasy scene involving two of the ship’s occupants) which I will not disclose here. What she does to herself, and to the entire crew, veers into Croneberg territory, circa Dead Ringers.
This is not your typical sci-fi movie. High Life will demand at least a second view, not because it’s hard to understand, but because it’s that haunting in its sheer willingness to flaunt its sustained repugnance onto the viewer’s eyes. There were times when I wondered if such brutality was even necessary, but in a story about living in an environment that fosters sheer survival over affection and connection, it seems only appropriate. I highly recommend this movie not just because of its sci-fi presentation but because of its talbeau of ourselves and the unspeakale things we do to each other as a whole. This is by far, Denis’ most accomplished work to date.