Broadly speaking, High Life continues Claire Denis’ exploration of the human condition, focusing on notions such as redemption, sacrifice, violence and compulsions. What makes it unique in her filmography is that this is the first time she’s tackled anything in English – or, for that matter, anything in outer space.
We meet Monte (Robert Pattinson) caring for a baby girl aboard a spaceship floating toward an unknown destination. He’s repairing some device on the outside of the ship while trying to keep the screaming infant company via closed circuit communication. This sets up a scenario that’s both deeply human and scientifically preposterous.
Superficially, the film has the acumen of a grade school production. The cardboard-like sets, the ridiculous space suits, and the complete abandonment of any attempts at scientific accuracy verge on the offensive, as if the film were overtly anti-intellectual. On the other hand, Denis is using the premise of a voyage to a black hole as metaphor. She finds an excuse to engage with these elements in order to gift a sense of exoticism while allowing her characters to truly be divorced from quotidian considerations.
Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin and Mia Goth make up the core of the doomed crew. They play a group of death row convicts sent off on some half-baked mission. Narratively, it’s all inane, but as a character piece exploring human behavior, and an excuse for Denis to revel in some of her more sadistic proclivities (including zero-G sexual assaults and other outré moments), it feels very much a part of a whole. Plus, she manages to work in a ship full of dogs, allowing fans of the director to bend over backwards trying to justify that inclusion.
On some level, Denis is having fun with her new canvas, adding in a dash of Tarkovskian flavor to her story that just as easily could have taken place in an earthbound bunker. Pattinson’s charisma goes a long way to charm, as does Binoche’s diabolical turn. Even if High Life doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t come across nearly as clever as it pretends to be, it’s still on its own terms a weird little film worthy of watching. Expect general audiences to ignore, Pattinson fans to be confounded, and Denis sycophants to contort themselves in gravity-free ways to find this strange little journey faultless.