Throughout the 1960s and 70s, United States prisoners became the victim of scientific research the country over. A new golden age of scientific progress demanded countless scores of human lab rats to test medications, creams, deodorants, etc. on and who better to experiment with than a captive population with rock bottom demands for their participation. The new film from French filmmaker Claire Denis is a response to the age of the Stanford Prison Experiment as High Life blasts a vessel loaded with death row criminals into the stratosphere to see what happens. But even that minimalist description can’t set the stage for what is in store with this hairy meditation on humanity and scientific progress.
Just yesterday, scientists for the first time in recorded history obtained a photograph of a black hole. Five-thousand-someodd years of written human civilization and just yesterday was the first time we managed to glimpse the phenomenon. What perfect timing for High Life, which deals as much with the mystery of black holes as it does with sybian saddles (Google at your own risk) and packs of feral space dogs.
The film co-written by Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau and new talent Geoff Cox (Evolution) cycles through a series of spacey tableaus, all centered to some degree around Robert Pattinson’s Monte. We’re shown glimpses spanning Monte’s past, present, and future life, including grainy flashback sequences that shed light on his being aboard this craft o’ criminals, but mostly we’re stuck with him, suspended in monotony, imprisoned in ennui aboard a ship identified only with a large number ‘7’ sprawled across its bow.
Indebted to movies like Solaris and the bonkers floating baby part of 2001: Space Odyssey, High Life is a spaced out and surreal vision quest. It’s the kind of scholarly sci-fi that borders on pretense, one that is aggressively anti-mainstream – a frankly impossible sell for the general moviegoing population – that’s nonetheless bursting with suggestive passages, tantalizing imagery, and taboo psychosexual tension. You feel this movie more than anything and the experience of watching it can be blissfully enchanting when it’s not overtly labyrinthine.
Throughout High Life, one is given the impression that gains come as much from the act of puzzling through it as much as from taking the film as a purely visceral audio-visual experience. Denis’ creation boasts stunning sound and picture and some singularly haunting imagery that help capture its esoteric and otherworldly spirit. A stretching line of astronauts floating weightlessly; a baby’s mouth smushed with strawberry; a deep-red pleasure room – High Life is suggestive both visually and intellectually but there’s always something withheld, a plot point fast-forwarded through, a relationship left intentionally obscured, deaths left as mystery. High Life is a thousand piece puzzle with a few dozen pieces missing. Lots of blanks are left to fill, a reflection of the underlying sense of paranoia that’s central to Denis’ meditation on crime and punishment. And the sprawl of characters, performed with uneasy aplomb by a cast that includes Juliette Binoche and Mia Goth, is left needing more flesh and less reactive impulse. Taken as a generality, the production design, a mesmerizing lo-fi mash of blinking panels, DIY cribs, and bubbling vats of blackwater, has as much character as any of the human pieces and adds to the overall mystery of Denis’ somber chamber piece.
Taken as a visual poem, High Life is a movie about reform. About manifest destiny and spirituality transforming a man and Pattinson does most of the heavy lifting in the pole position. If one thing is for certain, it’s that Pattinson continues to make bold choices selecting roles, his troubled take as a once-violent criminal trying to turn a leaf through chastity and child-rearing is complex and new; at times chilling, at others masterfully serene. The kid is a bonafide star and a hell of an actor and it’s a treat seeing him perform in such challenging, intellectually compelling pictures with such dedication and dexterity of craft.
Attempting to justify the physics of their spacecraft, Monte suggests that in a state of constant acceleration, Earth-like gravity is maintained. Denis attempts to harness a similar sentiment in her storytelling – constantly driving forward, at times without consideration for what falls by the wayside and this can be to High Life’s detriment. Thin characterization, messy plotting, and seemingly incomplete arcs frustrate but I’d still rather see a movie like this that demands rumination and deeper reflection, even if it all doesn’t add up so easily.
The calculus of piecing this all together definitely demands more than your average matinee, Denis’ film taking on an inkblot quality that’ll leave different viewers with different impressions of what it all means; a Rorschach that reflects parts of yourself back depending on your angle of viewing. Open for interpretation to a fault perhaps, we’re left with an impression of finality and choice but there’s no small amount of guesswork involved. By the time the lights came up, High Life’s mission truncates, which in and of itself can make the film a not entirely fulfilling venture on a single viewing. But the bizarro journey manages enough high marks to warrant the trip time and it’s the kind of movie that I could easily see revisiting and trying to dig further into its themes, despite its at times frustrating attempt to purposefully leave viewers adrift.
CONCLUSION: Claire Denis mans a spiritual reawakening aboard a vessel of violent criminals in this poetic, beautiful, and at times rather long-winded, portrait of science vs. man. Challenging in form and function, this humanist sci-fi places character and plot secondary to tone and obscured questions about meaning and destiny.
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