DIRECTED BY: Claire Denis
FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth
PLOT: A scientist performs strange reproductive research on a crew on a mission to gather data about a black hole.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its mixture of weird sex with celestial mystery is compelling and disturbing. High Life won’t be easily forgotten.
COMMENTS: History is colored by the struggles surrounding the expression of human horniness. Cinema is no exception. As sexuality is emotionally subverted or converted in art, whether romantic or pornographic, the message remains clear: it ultimately finds a way to express itself, regardless of individual morality. Sexuality can be thought of as a separate, living entity within us.
In High Life, the new space thriller from Claire Denis, there is a lot of sex, especially masturbation, that feels alien. The mixture of organic sexuality (represented here by a focus on bodily fluids) with classic sci-fi ponderings (i.e. black holes) provides a powerful and thought-provoking punch in the groin. Filled with bleak procreative grotesqueries, it delivers an emotionally rich cosmonautic narrative without once mentioning time travel. High Life contains enough original and confounding content to render it quite bizarre. It certainly deserves a deeper look.
It cannot be overstated how uncomfortable it can be to watch High Life. There is one scene midway through the picture that’s close to unbearable, and it certainly won’t fit to everyone’s taste. The sudden brutality of the violence is appalling, but it does serve a purpose. The discomfort that comes from viewing the unpleasantries is contrasted with central character Monte’s (Pattinson) paternal relationship with an infant, Willow, who is seen cooing and crying her way through the ship’s combination of banal décor and retro-futurist digitalism. Willow, herself a manipulated product of human fluids, is a symbol of life’s purity, inspiring monkish Monte to care for her. While his character is chaste and heroic, a sense of his moral authority is established as the choices and experiences of the other characters reflect their sexual natures. Here is where the movie gets very weird.
In High Life, sexuality is a physical and spiritual entity that signifies moral authority, which becomes a force that determines the actions of the characters. While we see all manner of bodily fluids voluntarily and involuntarily issue forth from the characters—including breast milk, urine, blood, water and (of course) semen—the events of the plot are staged as a battle of wills. As the crew approaches a black hole, things spiral out of control, and Denis links the chaos to the sexual behaviors or non-behaviors of the characters. The crew’s power dynamics, expressed through masturbation and sexual longing—along with their attempted manipulations of each other’s bodily fluids—demonstrate the range of outcomes from drives that can either push humanity forward or lead to destruction. The lingering black hole excavation subplot ties these relationships together through a powerful combination of brooding celestial images and a dark ambient score suggesting the human void of violence and manipulation is inherent in time and space. The sounds and images of High Life, while grounded in the iconography of classics like 2001 and Solaris, are breathtaking and original, reimagining a bleak universe inhabited by a moral consciousness. A baby cries, alarms go off, dogs growl, multi-colored fluids are excreted, collected, and tampered with, as the central plot gives a shove and not a thrust.
The slowly-revealed plot concerns a group of convicts on a mission to gather data from the singularity of a black hole. As they proceed, an alpha-female scientist (a convict herself, played by Binoche) conducts experiments for the purpose of birthing the first child in space. It sounds simple, but the presentation of these events is a truly weird experience. Creepy masturbation, oozing fluids, violent outbursts, and that lingering shot of a pulsating black hole invoke a mixture of the nihilism of some unholy Lars von Trier/David Cronenberg hybrid with the mystifying obscurity of Tarkovsky. Anchoring the mayhem is Binoche and her sinister, witchy performance, her smirk belying pure deviltry with human frailty, while the black void of space accentuates the ensuing drama. High Life satisfies in spite of its unpleasantness, and the ending provides ambiguity for further discussion. It’s worth noting that the recent release of the first actual black hole image pairs nicely with the timing of this picture’s release. Ultimately, your ability to enjoy High Life will boil down to whether you enjoy being challenged and provoked—something a truly weird movie probably should do. By that token, this movie deserves recognition and further discussion.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… strange and wondrous, less a traditional sci-fi film than it is a seductive journey into the long, black night of death.”–Andrew Lapin, NPR (contemporaneous)