High Life: Get Me Bodied.
In the days or weeks that follow a viewing of Claire Denis’ incredible High Life, it’s weirdly easy to get that iconic Jurassic Park quote stuck in your head. More specifically applicable to this sci-fi tone poem, though, is the little speech that precedes it. It’s certainly less memorable than that classic Ian Malcolm capper, but it offers an interesting take on the philosophy that surprisingly grounds both films:
…the kind of control you’re attempting, it’s not possible. If there’s one thing that the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories, and it crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously.
Each character in Denis’ film attempts, in some way, to exert a sort of mastery over their own biological nature, and in studying the methods by which each character interfaces with the inescapability of the conditions of their own existence, High Life delivers a bracing reflection on the messily stubborn, and often chaotic uncontrollability of life itself.
Set in a spaceship whose interior is about as ascetic as the yawning void of deep space through which it floats, circling the drain around an enormous black hole, High Life follows a group of convicts sent on a dangerous—and likely one-way—trip to potentially discover a new energy source. Saddled with a cynical lie instead of the actual purpose they were promised (whether there even was a mission to begin with is dubious at best), these people are left more or less to their own devices, their condition mirrored, at one point, by the inhabitants of another experimental ship they randomly bump into during their orbit.
Over the course of the film, Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, the mission’s de facto leader, reduces the ship’s handful of occupants to a collection of controls and variables in a series of experiments that see her madly working to create life in places where it was simply never meant to exist. Her attempts at transposing biological life outside of its intended boundaries is met with predictably disastrous, upsetting results. Mia Goth’s Boyse, Robert Pattinson’s Monte, André Benjamin’s Tcherny, and a few other background players are all set loose in Denis’ fishbowl of an environment, and it’s not long before their raw and uncontrolled natures begin to impact one another in sometimes shocking ways.
High Life isn’t an easy film, and it’s certainly not one that’s interested much in any traditional kind of entertainment. Denis is here to ask complex questions of her audience, and she does so with the confidence of an artist unconcerned with the pleasurability of her output. This is the work of a filmmaker in full command of her craft, and she marshals not just an impressive sense of mood from her even-handed camerawork and spartan set design, but also a set of precision-calibrated performances from Pattinson, Goth, and Binoche. Kubrick is maybe the most obvious antecedent for a minimalist, space-set meditation on the very nature of life itself…but rather than call to mind the work of other filmmakers, Denis’ film sings with originality. High Life is science fiction only in the most superficial of senses, deftly utilizing the genre’s trappings and settings to explore the immutability of the forces that make us who — and what—we are.
For all this high-minded philosophizing, it’s easy to forget that this is also a movie that contains a “fuckbox.” It’s a movie in which a character straight up steals bodily fluids from another (in just one example of its preoccupation with fluids and the way they indicate our humanity). It’s also a movie with the cutest goddamn baby I’ve maybe ever seen in my life. High Life is a bizarre chimera, a film that insists on being many things, but never in a way that detracts from the impressive sum total of its parts.
It’s oppressive, challenging, mystifying, and at times terrifying: a space-set mood piece with a minimalist approach to visuals and storytelling, balanced by a maximalist approach to deep thoughts and existential questions. Perhaps the film’s biggest hook is its insistence on suggesting that the audience consider those questions on its own; High Life grows and grows, taking on rewarding new shapes as it’s mulled over, post-viewing. And mulled-over it will be, as this film all but demands preoccupation, pulling viewers in and refusing to let go like the imposing black hole at its center.
Oh, and also…
- Robert Pattinson is unquestionably on his way to becoming One of the Greats.
- For the most part High Life plays it muted and meditative…but when it decides to get horrifying, holy shit does it get horrifying.
- Mia Goth’s fascinating career choices almost always result in excellent performances, regardless of the overall quality of the flicks in which they’re contained.