Title: High Life
Country: France, UK, Germany, Poland, USA
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi, Mystery
Director: Claire Denis
Music: Stuart Staples
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux, Tomasz Naumiuk
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Linear narrative is disrupted and rejiggered in Claire Denis’ Sci-Fi conceit about a man and his baby drifting alone in deep space apparently with no point of return, invoking Tarkovsky’s masterwork SOLARIS (1971) and boasting a high-concept visual craftsmanship from artist Olafur Eliasson, who designs the film’s distinct rectangular spacecraft (likening a prison perpetually self-rotates into oblivion) and partially partakes in creating HIGH LIFE’s stupendous cosmological spectacle, including the ending when the father-daughter duo philosophically probes into a gleaming black hole, destiny unknown.
HIGH LIFE starts in medias res, lonesome astronaut Monte (Pattinson) juggles operating a spacecraft with ministering to his infant daughter Willow (Lindsey), glacially, other crew members are introduced, either in their cryogenic bodies (5 altogether, being jettisoned into the space to preserve energy), or flashback glimpses. Only through the words of an Indian professor (Banerjee) on a barreling train in terra firma, smidgeon of information is eked out: the crew is exclusively consisted of death-row prisoners, volunteering as guinea pigs for a space project purportedly to seek out new energy from a nearest black hole, but in fact, they are subjected to artificial insemination experiments, under the supervision of the filicide-committed Dr. Dibs (Binoche). Meantime, Monte’s own heinous crime perpetrated when he was a boy surfaces in a sylvan locality, together with a brief introduction of Boyse (a ferocious Goth), the wild girl who will become Willow’s biological mother.
When the story heads into the familiar “casualties countdown” orbit (occasioned by human frailties rather than any extraterrestrial forces), Denis cunningly triggers attentive viewers hooked by the question “what happened to Dibs, Boyse and Tcherny (Benjamin)?”, as a result of simple arithmetic calculation, 9 people in toto, minus 5 disposed bodies and Monte himself. Channeling a habitually elliptical approach in character construction and expositional clarity (no soul-searching burrowing into the mentation behind such a kamikaze and improbable mission), Denis’s chief mission is to explore human sexuality in an unabashedly non-hardcore fashion, a merkin-wearing Binoche rapturously riding on top of a “fuckbox”, synchronized with a throbbing electronic cacophony arranged by UK indie band Tindersticks, amounts to a corybantic, surreal celebration of a woman’s uninhibited sexuality, and makes her later sperm-stealing endeavor look sharply tame and clinical.
In the leading role, Pattinson gives off a commanding sense of maturity that puts self-sufficient mystique on his heartthrob appeal, minimizes and internalizes any affective turbulence, his Monty is both a observant cipher and a winner of “survival of the fittest”, only strengthened by the father-daughter bond that feels like a disjunction from the rest. Under the story’s conceivably perspective-altering context, HIGH LIFE is Denis’ answer to the time-honored question, where humanity lies within the fathomless universe, her emphasis on our sexuality is a persuasive argument, and the film makes for fascinating viewing if slow tempo doesn’t put you off.
referential entries: Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (1971, 8.9/10); Duncan Jones’ MOON (2009, 8.1/10); Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE (2007, 7.5/10).