6.5 out of 10
Robert Pattinson as Monte
Directed by Claire Denis
High Life Review:
High Life is a high minded, far reaching, ambitious piece of work supported by the skill and talent of the creatives behind the camera, but frequently doomed by the same. Expounding on the depths of inhumanity close quarters and no release create which she delved into in Beau Travail, writer-director Claire Denis pushes the concept into the stars and beyond. But in the process she is derailed by her own ambitions, not content on following one man and his crimes into isolation but instead pushing in wide-ranging subjects from infanticide to sexual congestion and self-hatred and the needs of parenthood. It’s a lot to take on and a lot to take in and for all parties involved it probably needed some more gestating.
The central portion of High Life is fantastic though, following unwilling astronaut Monte (Pattinson) on a multi-decade voyage to a black hole. He is stuck on a box of a ship devoid of creature comforts or contact with the outside world except for odd images occasionally sent back from Earth and regular reports he must send out to the ether in order to keep the lights and air on. It’s enough to make a person question why keep going, why not just jump into the abyss of space and end it all? Monte probably would except that he’s not alone on the ship, he has an infant daughter to raise and care for in the most inhospitable surroundings imaginable. It’s less spaceship and more psychological test and it’s fantastic to watch.
But. What happened to the crew before we join Monte and child, what got him into the situation he is in? We don’t need necessarily need the specifics of that so much as context to understand how the outcome has changed him and what that says about Denis’ box. It’s a prologue, at best. Except it’s not. After a sparkling introduction to Monte’s world and his attempts to keep young Willow alive High Life diverts backwards in time to show off how Willow came to be, explaining Monte and his crewmates were all convicted criminals given a chance at freedom if they would man the probe. Stuck in close proximity and few responsibilities beyond tending the garden which provides oxygen and food the inmates do nothing but exercise and masturbate and are occasionally impregnated by ships doctor Dibs (Binoche) who is desperate to find out if babies can be birthed in the depths of space. The humans, none of whom were ever completely in control of themselves or able to explain why they did the horrible things they did, become less so as they spiral out into the void, devolving into something like animals only missing the instinct for self-preservation.
Maybe this would all mean something if Monte was a radically different person in the earlier days of the voyage, but he’s not. In fact he’s barely present at all, stoically observing his fellow inmate-astronauts going mad but not partaking. Denis attention is much more clearly focused on Binoche’s deranged Dr. Dibs (one of the juiciest roles she’s ever had) who is obsessed with creating life and thrusting it onto Monte for reasons that it would be generous to call obscure. The entire premise, in fact, falls apart if it’s even gently poked at, not that that matters much. High Life is thematically rich and beautiful enough it’s enough to say one just has to go with it … except the muddle of ideas behind it don’t offer enough to make that worthwhile either. When it returns to Monte and his child and their strange solo adventures – such as encountering a sister ship filled with nothing but dogs – it perks up immediately and unfortunately shows just how rudderless the early material was.
Similar to Darren Aronofsky’s recent mother! the virtuosity and artistry at play runs smack into a lack of authorial control. It feels like a crime to throw out a formally and thematically daring work just because the author’s reach exceeds their grasp. On the other hand, what other test for success is there? Vision doesn’t just mean having a wide or deep field of view, it also means being able to hone in on the most important element. There’s a part of High Life which is legitimately unsettling and brilliant, and part which is hopelessly muddled and the dichotomy is deadly.