What happens to our minds in deep space?
Several filmmakers have brushed up against this idea, but few have dared going too far into the abyss of the human mind stuck in the ultimate great outdoors. Instead, they stuff the science fiction-infused story with action, big time movie stars, and stay away from the complex area that defines sanity in isolation. The dichotomy of self-preservation and soul deprivation is only intriguing if a filmmaker truly leans into it.
Claire Denis does just that with her American feature debut, High Life. Instead of scratching the surface, she rips and claws away at the skin of outer space turmoil, a suicide mission, and mind-bending trials and tribulations.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is one of several death row inmates on a one way trip to the Black Hole in space, a mission carrying the goal of gathering data and finding out a few secrets about a dangerous territory. For Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the self-appointed leader of the ship, there are more mysterious and mischievous intentions involved.
We have a real motley crew of souls on board. Tcherny (Andre Benjamin) is a reliable source of trust, but carries a few secrets. There’s Nanzen (Agata Buzek), who seems to have a connection with Dibs that could tilt in either direction of good faith and dark roots. Monte and Dibs have a unique connection that gets fleshed out as the movie ages.
Mink (Claire Tran) and Elektra (Gloria Obianyo) carry their own moral code, but the two true firecrackers are Boyse (Mia Goth in a breakout performance) and Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Every ship has the ones you can’t trust, and everyone in this film carries a sliver of that ability, but Boyse and Ettore keep things fluid and unpredictable.
Denis, who also wrote the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, keeps the viewer rightfully off-balance throughout the two hour running time. You don’t know who to trust, who will break bad next, or who is the civil soul. When the human element gets claustrophobic, all bets are off, and Denis seems to revel on that playground of human emotion, interaction, and fallibility.
For example, the film starts out with Monte and his infant daughter in an abandoned ship trying to survive, but you know there’s more to the story, and Denis takes her time in filling in the blanks and describing what happened on the ship. Like a hotel owner going into random rooms at will for roll call and bed check, Denis moves around the story in a non-linear fashion, showing you these people at different stages of the mission.
I feel like I’ve already told you too much. The secrets in this film, the quietly evolving reveals, are the juice here a pair of virgin eyes must squeeze on their own terms. This is an indie film with a commercially viable skin, pulling you in with its good looking star, and then trapping you in a paradox with its trippy premise.
I can tell you Binoche easily participates in the most exotic solo sex scene in the history of film, which comes in the first 30 minutes, as if Denis needed to inform you what type of film you were getting into. The gorgeously talented actress has the role of a lifetime as the devious Doctor who may be up to no good. She holds your attention in a role that was built for someone with looks, brains, and an ability to make you wonder. She’s been active lately, but Binoche hasn’t grappled with this deep of a character in quite some time. Dr. Dibs has things she wants and needs, and how she gets them is wild and erotic.
All Pattinson does these days is take on challenging roles that move him further away from the safe zone of young good-looking actors. Instead of leaning on his boyish charm and model features, Pattinson uses it as a disguise to lure you in. If good looks were a home, this guy is running away from it every day. Monte has a depth that you aren’t sure about, but can’t help following. He cares and loves his daughter, but what did he do in order to be on this ship in the first place–and who is the mother of his child?
Goth’s Boyse is a vital piece of the puzzle, playing a catalyst on the ship. She is something else. A troubled woman who grows protective of Elektra, yet holds a grudge against Dibs for reasons you will understand as the film stretches its legs. I haven’t seen the actress in much before, but I have a feeling she’ll be buying up real estate on posters soon. She has a young Milla Jovovich quality to her appeal. A rose with a devil trapped inside.
Denis’s most courageous note here is that she doesn’t shy away from the sensitivity of a person’s sexual desires in space. When you are stuck out in the great unknown, with no ideal knowledge of a return, the erotic tendencies and needs don’t shrink; they grow larger and larger each day, especially when thrown together with so many young bodies. So many filmmakers merely play cute with this proposition, going on a first date before abandoning it for a safer breed of movie-making. Denis’ European filmmaking training is shown off in the film’s unapologetic sexual overtones.
High Life isn’t for everyone. It’s not the easiest sit. The film is a slow burning candle, one with its own timer. The movie imposes its will onto you, providing you with an escape, but one that is fresh and daunting if you aren’t ready. The poster reveals an adult hand in an astronauts suit holding the hand of a child with the tagline, “Oblivion awaits.” While that’s a central ingredient of the story, it doesn’t even show you half of the kitchen Denis is cooking in.
It’s a daring and visually stunning film. Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography keeps your mind suspended while the production design and music (from Stuart Staples and the Tindersticks) surrounds you like a nervous stranger at a Radiohead concert in Poland. The technical aspects are sharp, feeding Denis’ tale.
The ending is just enough without being overwhelming or too tidy. I left wanting more and needing to know more, but not slighted or fooled. Claire Denis had me thinking about this film for a week, keeping me from writing this review too soon.
I feel like I could go on and on, but I’ll stop by telling you this. If you want something original and courageous, a tale of outer space drama that hasn’t been explored yet, High Life should be your destination this weekend.