Claire Denis has worked in genres before, most notably her vampire film Trouble Every Day. In her new film she tackles the sci-fi genre and as before, in a way that is entirely her own. High Life is a unique take on space travel that owes more to Tarkovsky‘s Solaris and Scott’s Alien than something more commercial. This is a film for those who like their sci-fi from the art house.
The film marks another masterpiece from Denis that stands alongside her best such as Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum. The film also marks another fine turn from Robert Pattinson, who is hopefully past being referred to only from the Twilight films.
The plot is complex but rare the focus. High Life makes sense more emotionally than it does as a straightforward story. Monte (Pattinson) is living alone on a space craft with his young daughter Willow when the film opens. Denis paints small scenes of their routine, allowing us to bound with Monte before we learn the details of his past and his mission. Those details, told in flashbacks, shift the film into disturbing territory. We learn of Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who was experimenting on the crew, largely made of death row criminals. Denis and her co-writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox explore themes of fertility, sex and parenting alongside a familiar plot point of extending the human race.
High Life is narratively fragmented, creating a surreal experience. The film can be erotic, scary, heady, disturbing and emotionally resonant, often all at once. The set design is minimal and effective, creating a realistic view of space travel. The story does come to a satisfying conclusion but the journey to the end allows for so much to be explored. The film features several of the best sequences in film so far this year including an extended and bold sequence of a crew-member masturbating using a sex machine known as a "fuck box."
High Life is not going to be for everyone. It is psychedelic and mysterious. It follows the emotional logic that David Lynch uses often. It is thrilling and sad and beautiful and it is one of the year's best films.