High Life review: Claire Denis’ English language debut is absolutely the polarising film to play at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. At our screening alone, there were dozens of walkouts, the film one of those ones you’ll either like or loathe.
The non-linear narrative structure could be one of the factors, and also the difficult subject matter. There are also many scenes that are tough to watch, but it’s the prior foreboding which is the main influence behind this – there’s always threat that something truly awful is about to happen. While this is sometimes certainly the case, Denis has crafted a very different sci-fi piece to anything you will have seen this year, or indeed up on the screen before.
Robert Pattinson leads the cast as Monte, a spaceman on a vessel with what appears to be his baby daughter. How he got there is not initially disclosed, but Denis jumps backward and forwards throughout to explain, often returning her camera to Earth in flashback giving us glimpses of a previous life, one where it was still possible to live there. It seems that Monte, along with the rest of the crew – which we meet in flashback also (after we see Pattinson dumping their dead bodies from a – are criminals, some sentenced to life, others on death row, all of them traveling together on some kind of prison vessel. They are required to complete tasks and check in on an onboard computer, otherwise, their life support system will be turned off.
How the crew comes to be reduced to just two soon becomes apparent, as does the existence of Pattinson’s newborn baby girl. Juliette Binoche plays Dr. Dibs, a professional who is conducting a number of breeding experiments with each of the inmates. We see her collecting sperm samples from the passengers, though Monte is choosing to live a sort of monk-like existence, his celibacy obviously frustrating to Dibs, who takes matters into her own hands in order to get hold of his juices.
The women passengers, made up of the likes of Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Gloria Obianyo and Claire Tran, are inseminated with the collected sperm, the result of their conceptions relayed to the powers that be, and the process then repeated.
Related: First Man review [TIFF]
High Life is perhaps one of the most original and disturbing space movies we’ve ever seen It’s difficult to compare it to anything that has been done before. There’s gore, body-horror, a shocking and indeed jaw-dropping scene in the fuckroom – yes, they have a fuckroom on board – and in places I found myself turning away.
The look of the film is simplistic and hypnotic, a stark contrast to the period, non-fiction space movie First Man which we saw immediately before. That said, High Lie feels very retro – drawing influence from Kubrick and the like, specifically in terms of its sets and production design.
The cast is magnificent, Pattinson especially, but Binoche leads the way as the puppet master in Dibs, her stand-out moment an eye-opening, jarring masturbation scene in the most trafficked room on the ship.
Like I said, it won’t be for all – Denis aficionados should lad it up – as High Life demonstrates everything that’s great about cinema, a film that provokes discussion, baffles and pokes at you, and sometimes repulses you, right until the final frames. An epic, though simplistic film quite out of this world, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
High Life review by Paul Heath, September 2018.