In High Life, Claire Denis’s first film in English and one of the most anticipated films of 2018, Monte (Robert Pattinson) coddles, changes, and feeds a cooing baby, the only other human left on a spaceship hurtling toward a black hole. The rest of the crew, all convicted criminals serving as guinea pigs on a mission to explore alternative energy sources, have died. Monte has zipped their bodies into their space suits and tossed them out into the void. High Life is Denis’s first foray into science fiction, although, as Jonathan Romney points out in his review for Film Comment, “it’s no more strictly an exercise in that genre than her Trouble Every Day was regular horror, her Bastards a by-the-book thriller, or Beau Travail a docudrama about the pressures of life in the modern Foreign Legion.”
Writing for Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman draws a line from High Life to 35 Shots of Rum with its “disparate but linked visions of excessive paternal affection. Although if somebody were to suggest an entirely different read on this defiantly abstract, metaphorically spacious, and deliberately artificial-looking UFO of a movie, I’d gladly hear them out.” Like Nayman, critics who’ve so far seen High Life just once, either in Toronto, where it premiered, or in San Sebastián, where it won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award, readily admit that it will be some time before they’ll be able to deliver anything like a definitive reading. “After one viewing,” wrote Michael Koresky in a dispatch to Film Comment from Toronto, “I can’t presume to speak as an expert on this fragmentary, ellipsis-laden journey into the far reaches of inner and outer space, but, like many who were at once repelled and enraptured by it, I am fairly sure I will be engaging and wrestling with it for years to come.”
Denis introduces her eclectic cast—which includes Lars Eidinger, André Benjamin, Mia Goth—via flashbacks dominated by Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, who, in her own words, is “totally devoted to reproduction.” Dibs harvests sperm from the men who relieve their sexual frustration in a “fuckbox” and inseminates the women who, as Jordan Cronk notes at Reverse Shot, are “kept incubating in a locked chamber that eventually plays host to a few disturbing instances of sexual violence and abuse.” Dramatic tension in High Life is “a push and pull between extremes, lulling one minute only to erupt in lust or bloodshed the next; as one might expect, [Denis’s] weightless montage and elliptical approach to narrative prove especially conducive to the film’s deep space setting.”
Writing for Variety, Jessica Kiang finds in High Life both “a grand departure and the same film Denis has been making all her life,” one dealing “in a kind of metaphorical colonization, in the violence inherent in interpersonal relations between men and women, and in the perversity of (especially female) desire. But it also goes further in sorrowfulness than Denis has gone before, becoming, for the viewer who can bear it, a film orphaned by almost inexpressible loneliness and grief.”
At Slant, Steve Macfarlane emphasizes that, as with all science fiction, High Life is about the very real here and now. “The film asks down-and-dirty questions about what really resides beneath thousands of years of human progress,” he writes. High Life is “a savage and haunting antidote to the high-minded idealism of movies like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It ends on a single sustained chord as intimate and sweeping as anything Denis has ever done, which reverberates long after the screen has gone dark.”
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