By Bradley Lane
Claire Denis has already secured her legacy as one of modern films’ most thought-provoking and unique directors. She began her career making disturbing, ultra-serious films that challenged audiences around the world, like Trouble Every Day and Bastards. Her most recent feature before High Life, titled Let the Sunshine In, was a complete change of pace as Denis took on a romantic comedy. All eyes were on Denis when she announced her next feature was a science fiction piece starring independent film darling, Robert Pattinson.
In High Life, Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, a criminal sent from Earth on a spaceship with other convicts to serve his sentence as a form of scientific discovery. While on board the ship, Monte and the other inhabitants become the subjects of morally questionable, confusing and sometimes horrific tests pertaining to fertility and sexuality. Eventually, these tests begin to affect Monte and the other convicts, so existential crises and uncomfortable introspection slowly but surely begin to take their toll as every character becomes emotionally unhinged.
Denis draws from strong influences, the most notable being Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. These films deal with existentialism in a way only the genre of science fiction can. In all these films, High Life included, audience members are forced to reckon with existence in nuanced and delicate ways. What Denis’ work lacks, in comparison to these titans of the genre, are meaningful links that holistically tie the work together.
There are so many moving parts and intricacies in Denis’ work that it would be irresponsible for me to write off High Life as a film devoid of meaning. I believe that High Life can be read a variety of ways. However, my central issue is that the film never quite justifies its own content in a meaningful way. There are many small concepts it communicates well; however, it never comes together as a cohesive piece in my interpretation of the film.
While Pattinson is sublime as Monte, his relationships with those around him are so strange and other worldly that it takes the entire film to even begin to understand his character fully. Monte is set up as a criminal, but since his crime is never explicitly stated, the audience can never settle on how they feel about his character. It is a credit to both the writers of the film and Pattison’s performance that his character is endowed with so much ambiguity.
More than anything else I’ve written about Denis’ work on High Life, know this: High Life is wickedly unique and is clearly thoughtful in its planning and execution. It failed to impact me in a serious way, however, I believe that everyone with an interest in being challenged by a film viewing experience should seek out High Life.
High Life struggles to deliver a satisfying film experience, however its dedication to its vision and material will have audiences talking about it for years to come. – 2.5/5 stars