Updated: Mar 30
Let me start out by saying this movie isn’t for everyone. Having never previously seen a film by director Claire Denis, I may not have been prepared for her first English language film, High Life. Set aboard a small ship floating through deep space, the film feels more concerned with theme and tone than the special effects of your typical sci-fi space movie. If you look to the film’s main character, Monte (played by a post-Twilight Robert Pattinson), you may have more accurate expectations. High Life can feel like it has more in common with a Cronenberg film than, say, Alien. There are however, a few similarities between it and Ridley Scott’s classic. They both have an overall tone of despair, a drab color palette, and a cast of characters that seemingly distrust each other. The crew and passengers aboard our space vessel are all criminals. Think Con Air in space (but not quite).
High Life is a movie told out of context and out of order. It starts with Monte fixing the hull of the ship in full space suit, all the while talking and cooing over an intercom to a baby girl named Willow on the vessel. Who is the baby? Where are the rest of the crew? What the heck is going on? We jump around the timeline during the story - between Monte and baby Willow, Monte pre-baby with the ship’s crew, and later with an aging Monte and teenage Willow. The story hinges on two major plotlines: hurtling through space directly towards a black hole, and the attempts of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) to inseminate a patient and deliver a healthy baby in deep space. The most fleshed out characters are Monte and Dr. Dibs, who is a criminal and a basket case in her own right. She adds sedatives to the ship’s water supply and gives out pain pills as a reward for male semen specimens. Monte is the only man on board that does not participate in her trials. But eventually even that does not save him. Dibs is definitely in control of these castaways in space but who put her in this position of power? The film takes its time unfolding and never quite answers all of the questions that arise throughout.
High Life gives little backstory to these convicts, only that they all chose space over the death penalty on Earth. We glimpse quick flashbacks for a few of the characters, hinting at their various misdeeds, while others are never really explained: André Benjamin’s Tcherny is happy enough to work in the ship’s garden, hoping that he is making a difference for his wife and child back home (even if he never sees them again). It is implied that back on Earth, things are not going well, but it is never really clearly explained why. The hope is for the space crew to enter a black hole and find another possible energy source. But in reality, Denis seems less focused on this plotline than on the journey itself and the toll it takes on its passengers. It becomes more of a vehicle for addressing the theme of loneliness: wanting or not wanting to connect, or not being able to. The passengers (including Dr. Dibs) all drink recycled gray water, grow vegetables in the ship’s garden and let off steam by masturbating with something called the “fuck box.” The film feels stifling at times, and I think Denis means it to be that way. When Mia Goth’s character, Boyse, is impregnated by Dibs against her will, she ultimately delivers the only baby to come to term and survive: Willow. But Boyse isn’t pleased to be a mother. Her experience is a solid depiction of postpartum depression. Put that into the context of traveling in deep space - so far from Earth that everyone you know is already dead - and it compounds the despair factor even further.
The scenes featuring Monte alone (albeit as a frustrated but loving single parent to Willow) are some of the best in the film. Monte is humanized. He could easily be in the same predicament on Earth, but here, alone in space, everything is amplified. The horrible circumstances of how Monte gets to be alone on the ship are incited by Ewan Mitchell’s Ettore, who takes full advantage onboard to rape and beat some of his fellow female passengers. After this incident, High Life becomes a bit like Ten Little Indians; one by one the members of the crew perish, until only Monte and his baby girl remain. By the time a graying Monte and teen Willow are about to enter the black hole, they are ready for what’s next, no matter what, and so are we.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro