High Life

by Toby Woollaston

hlMovies from the enigmatic French director, Claire Denis (Beau Travail), are often described as elliptical in nature—a cinematic version of those three provocative dots at the end of a sentence prompting an “and?” response, where more is denoted by what isn’t said. High Life is one of those films—a smouldering question mark that casts a giant shadow over the film’s other concerns.

Set in an undefined future, Monte (played by a detached but oddly warm Robert Pattinson) is one of eight prisoners in a ship hurtling through space towards a black hole, all of whom have elected to give their lives to science rather than undergo an earth-bound sentence.  The ship’s resident scientist, a prisoner herself, is a femme-fatale styled matriarch (played by Juliet Binoche) whose motherly gaze cautiously watches over the crew with one eye and keeps tabs on her reproductive experiments with the other.

The film takes pleasure in showing us a cocktail of bodily fluids pumping through the film’s industrial retro-chic production design. Aesthetically, High Life owes much to films that have gone before; the plastic-wrapped grime of Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the damp biological machinations of Scott’s original Alien (along with Mother’s built-in DOS prompt), the syrupy darkness of Glazer’s Under the Skin and finally the the organic hope of Boyle’s Sunshine.  And while Denis doesn’t inject much originality into her production design, High Life is still an evocative sensory feast for the senses.

Although the dark and foreboding palette may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s the perfect companion to Denis’ angry take on humanity’s self-destructive nature. Make no mistake, High Life is cold, bitter, perverse and very violent in parts—unsurprising, I suppose, for a film about a bunch of violent criminals cooped up in a shoe-box.

However, my biggest reservation rests with High Life‘s seemingly impenetrable wall of final ambiguities. It leaves you floating in a seething broth of questions, tasking you to fill in the gaps—a rewarding process for some, but I suspect many will balk at the film’s final vagaries. Simply put, Denis’ deliberately obtuse and elliptical style keeps you at arm’s length for too long and offers an ending that feels about as complete as this senten…

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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