There were two early images that struck me when watching Claire Denis’s new film, and English language debut, High Life. The first is its arresting, unforgettable title card sequence, in which the film’s moniker fades into view as the audience sees a tableau of bodies floating in the void of space, seemingly suspended in place for eternity. The second happens slightly earlier and features Robert Pattinson’s interstellar loner Monte tending to a verdant space garden that evokes clear memories of Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running.
Both of these images can be taken as mission statements for what lies ahead, but neither adequately prepares the viewer for the madness into which they are about to descend. High Life is utterly bonkers.
When we meet Monte, he’s caring for his infant child in complete isolation, with our only exposition delivered by Pattinson in what reads as voice-over, but could just as easily be an internal monologue. Flashbacks illuminate a little more of his predicament, with those floating bodies explained as the other members of a crew of Death Row inmates sent as expendable “guinea pigs” on a mission to harvest energy from a black hole. These include Boyse (Mia Goth) and Tcherny (Outkast frontman Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin), with the latter responsible for the aforementioned garden.
Things get weird, though, when it becomes clear that quasi-authority figure Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is using their isolation to experiment with artificial insemination by way of a bizarre masturbation room referred to, non-euphemistically, as “the Fuck Box”. She’s dead keen on the idea of playing midwife to a space baby and, based on the fact Pattinson is seen with an infant in the present day, it seems pretty clear she’s on the path to success, however much blood and semen is shed in the process. A lot, as it turns out.
Pattinson holds everything together with an unshowy performance that allows the likes of Juliette Binoche and Mia Goth to push their characters a little further. When Binoche refers to Pattinson as a “monk” for his refusal to engage in the escapades of the Fuck Box, it’s a description that suits him down to the ground. The relationship between the two of them is prickly and charged but, like just about everything else in this film, it struggles for a point.
High Life might be an English language film, but it’s a European arthouse piece in every other way. The sex is frank and lurid, while the violence is absurdly rough and difficult to witness – the effects of black hole spaghettification have never been portrayed in such grotesque and stomach-turning detail. But it’s difficult to locate the meaning of it all. There’s no doubt that Denis conjures a woozy, dreamlike nightmarescape here, but it doesn’t amount to all that much.
Reviews for this film have largely gushed with as much praise as the film gushes with bodily fluids, and many have located far more meaning amongst the madness than this reviewer. This is certainly a movie that leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, which is no bad thing, but rather than a thrilling journey, it often feels like a slightly aimless ramble through an infinite void of space.
It is a landmark for big screen jizz though. Is there an Oscar for Most Ejaculate-Filled Feature?
Dir: Claire Denis
Scr: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo
Prd: Laurence Clerc, Oliver Dungey, Christoph Friedel, D. J. Gugenheim, Andrew Lauren, Klaudia Smieja, Claudia Steffen, Olivier Thery Lapiney
DOP: Yorick Le Saux, Tomasz Naumiuk
Music: Stuart Staples, Tindersticks
Country: UK, France, Germany, Poland, USA
Run time: 113 mins
High Life is in UK cinemas from 10th May.