Movie Review: High Life.
Visually engaging and brutally transgressive, High Life is bleak science fiction dystopia at its most obliquely artistic.
High Life is one of those low concept artistic films that defies the categorization of good or bad. It exists more as a mood, an aesthetic, and a set of implied questions. There are certainly plenty of good points to the film – Robert Pattinson continues to impress with his understated and tormented character acting, the sound work is as eerie and haunting as they come, and director Claire Denis sets a macabre and fraught tableau with her cinematography. The film also has bumps and flaws – an eclectic cast that sometimes feel at pains with delivering dialogue in English, ideas that veer from too blunt to too obscure, and some half baked science fiction. All in all, the film takes its lumps in stride, propelling you along on the atmosphere and the sights.
High Life (2019).
Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter Willow are the only surviving crew members on a doomed ship headed for a black hole. The vessel was conducting science experiments on death row felons, who were falsely promised their liberty at the end of the mission. The cruelest experiment was a series of fertility trials conducted by the steely Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), often against the wishes of the inmates. The only successful full-term pregnancy results in Willow, and a catastrophe that leaves the father and daughter as the sole occupants millions of light years from home.
High Flying, Low Concept.
High Life belongs to an oddly specific sub genre of science fiction that shares a shabby 70’s aesthetic and simmering social critique. Think High Rise or Space Station 76. The ship itself looks like an old Bose surround sound speaker, complete with wood paneling. The interior of the ship is a brutalist architectural fantasy. I’m not sure why artsy science fiction has decided on this look and era as the proper setting for bleak inspections of humanity’s darkest impulses (beyond the obvious milestone of 2001: A Space Odyssey making it chic.) Here, it serves its function, but feels like a pretense that is never really paid off.
The ideas smouldering under the surface of High Life are primal and visceral. Autonomy, survival, monotony and despair are the surface level aesthetic, while Denis specifically plumbs the depth of the concept of consent. Nearly every character has their consent brutally stripped away from them at most times. The prisoners were offered a false choice, any many of them took it with the belief that they really had no other options. The staff get the desired actions and data from the inmates through a coercive mix of tranquilizers and a drip feed of the drugs that make space travel less painful. The captain has a stroke and loses bodily autonomy, left to the whims of Dr. Dibs. Dibs carries out a monstrous regimen of enforced IVF for the female prisoners, who can only hope for the eventual miscarriages as a way to spite Dibs. The doctor herself was a victim of spousal domination, leading her to kill her husband and children – the crime for which she is sentenced to work aboard the ship.
The Child of Consent.
The exploration of consent comes to its nadir when Dibs creates Willow through a double rape of both Monte and Boyse (Mia Goth.) The result of that transgression is bloodshed and a slow crawl towards redemption. Throughout the narrative, the only person who actually gives consent is Willow – she becomes the de facto captain as she grows into a teen, with Monte careful to make sure she is consulted about almost every mission objective. She is aboard the ship against her will, and Monte is acutely aware that even his tender parenting is a crime against her. To redeem this, her agency is constantly respected. When they eventually find a black hole that fits the description of the mission, it is Willow who explicitly makes the decision to enter it. We are left in the dark about the outcome, but we see a clear contrast: Dibs constantly violates her crew’s consent and the mission ends in destruction; Monte respects his daughter’s autonomy and the mission has a flickering hope of success.
Under the Skin.
The strongest acting in the film comes from Pattinson. Monte, like the character Pattinson played in Good Time, is damaged goods, a young man shaped by a cruel upbringing who is quickly shuffled into the penal system after his violent tendency boiled over. He comes off as introverted and barely articulate, but his narration shows a self-aware and fatalistic penitent, who has guarded his mind and body by a monkish devotion to isolation. The only times his facade drops is when he is confronted with the need for violence, as when he prevents a rape by pummeling the other inmate, or when he is caught off guard by Willow’s utter reliance on him. Pattinson seems to thrive on these repressed, lower class wrecks, turning their damage into art.
Binoche is a masterful actress, but her Dr. Dibs flirts with being a villainous cliche. Dibs is one part nurse Ratchet and one part Snow White’s wicked queen. She calls herself a witch, and cavorts in the ship’s sexual release room, called the box, like a Salem witch worshiping naked by the fire. Wearing her long spidery black hair wrapped around her body like a cloak heightens the effect, taking on a greedy sentience that grasps and clings to her sexual victims. Binoche is hypnotically sensual, but her heavy accent and overblown dialogue make Dr. Dibs a thankless role.
Blood and Sex.
High Life is not for the squeamish. The ship is usually awash with blood and semen, or both. The violence borders on casual, and can feel unearned in places. Monte violently beats Boyse for scratching graffiti on the wall of the dorm, but not for any discernible reason. Afterwards, they seem almost to have been horsing around…until they are getting patched up in sick bay by Dr. Dibs and Boyse is barely restrained from murdering her. It’s out of character – for Monte, who seems to strenuously avoid using his strength; for Boyse…because she hardly has a character at all.
The sex is just as flagrant, with an extended scene of Binoche writhing on a sex machine, and the constant barely restrained rape scenes. While the blood and sex could offend as gratuitous, I think the director is too controlled to fall into that trap. The reducing of people to animals in order to remove the need to treat them justly is a central motif, and showing constant “animal” passions like lust and violence helps to drive the idea home.
One Long Strange Trip.
High Life is a niche, artsy science fiction flick that is not going to appeal to all viewers. It’s more like Annihilation than Arrival, and the resulting chasm between the box office for those two films show how much appetite US audiences have for abstract and brutal sci fi. The science isn’t fuzzy, but it’s just the frame the story hangs on. There’s some odd shots where gravity doesn’t seem to obey consistent laws early on that distract, and the mechanism for harvesting the black holes is never elaborated. Denis seems more keen to use the isolation of the setting to explore the human drama than to consider the edges of physics. That being said, there are some very beautiful shots of space and of warped space that dazzle in places.
I come back to the idea that High Life is a film that is more valuable for being darkly interesting than for being conventionally good. Certain lapses, both unintended and seemingly intentional, mar it in places. The elements that go into constructing a successful narrative seem to just cohere enough to survive the process. The gravity well of the ideas are not equally successful, as some images and ideas seem to just exist more as objet d’art than as sustained, meaningful metaphors. Much like Monte and Willow, I can’t say that we get to a definitive destination. We do however get quite a bit to see and think about on the journey.