High Life (2019) – Review

Bewildering, penetrative sci-fi.

Endless blackness, an infinite stretch of both everything and nothing, mesmerizing but (literally) suffocating in its incomprehensible scale; the existential terror of High Life’s surrounding twinkly cosmos looms like an unconquerable inevitability. But famed arthouse director Claire Denis, making her English-language movie debut, imbues her unlikely sci-fi effort with more than fear of the unknown.

Floating far, far away from Earth, a crew of Death Row inmates is sent on a near-suicide mission to extract energy from a whopping black hole. But the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has other ideas; battling her own demons, she wants to harvest the men’s semen and impregnate the women. But Monte (Robert Pattinson) isn’t game to make a deposit to the wank-bank.

Although, the film opens, presumably, after this gestation operation, with Monte looking after an adorable little baby; screaming for her dad as he works on the outside of the craft (the physics of Denis’ void are unique; bodies float over opening titles but a spanner drops like a pebble). The first half-hour is entrancing; dazzling cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk evokes the lucid neon of HAL’s brain and the lingering malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s haunted corridors (smoke pervades hallways like blood from the elevator).

© – A24

There are shades of other wonderful features here: a glorious green garden is reminiscent of the environmental isolation of Silent Running; the team’s objective is similar to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, although tonally disparate. But as the narrative opens up to the other inmates, Denis’ opaque trip turns extraordinarily carnal.

“It’s called a taboo,” Monte says at one point – High Life certainly falls into that challenging category. Taking us back to others onboard (a terrific ensemble, including Mia Goth and André Benjamin), we’re transferred into a sensually charged prison, where bloodlust is normal and the risk of rape (both male and female) is prevalent. While its mood is similar to that of Under the Skin and thematically in the same ballpark as Children of Men, it’s a mind-bending, unique experience – quite possibly the horniest space expedition to hit cinemas.

The composition of every frame is impeccable (the way Denis commands dread from a gaze is chilling), and the pace is calculated; stretches of ominous inactivity are punctuated with violent vignettes. For the cast, it’s not exactly breezy fare, but they manage to shine; Pattinson puts in an engrossingly fractured performance, navigating his way through with a natural gravity (particularly as the film heads towards its conclusion). Binoche makes the bigger impression though, terrifying throughout and stopping the show with a barnstorming, intensely visceral, almost-occult solo sex scene inside the facility’s “fuck box” (with a heart-thumping score from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples), akin spiritually to 2018’s Suspiria – indeed, “it’s a whole other rabbit hole”.

But like Guadagnino’s remake, High Life can be an easier film to admire than enjoy. The script allows itself to lean on exposition instead of letting mystique take the wheel; but at the other end of the spectrum, its frequent ambiguity doesn’t always inspire cohesion. Worst of all, towards the end there’s an abhorrent scene with dogs that is so overtly horrific, so difficult to stomach, it made me upset to the point of being physically ill.

But in a complex tapestry of ideas, Denis’ direction is quite remarkable. The content is troubling, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll likely be craving a cold shower. The filmmaker purposely tests your patience, drags you through the depths of morality; but it’s undoubtedly indelible. Plus, there’s a triumphant snippet of ‘Flower of Scotland’ that granted me merciful elation before the nausea took control.

Human nature and Mother Nature come to blows with uncomfortable consequences in this disturbing, mystifying sci-fi odyssey.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm