I'm not sure if I like Claire Denis' High Life, but I certainly admire it.
Denis' previous films like Chocolat and White Material investigated the legacy of France's colonization of Africa, so it's fitting that her latest captures both the awe and the darkness of conquering the final frontier, space.
89 Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger, Claire Tran, Gloria Obianyo, Victor Banerjee, Scarlett Lindsey, Jessie Ross
Director: Claire Denis
Rating: R, for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
High Life begins with a shot of lush, almost glowing vegetation that seems to be from a jungle or possibly new world where Capt. Kirk might land. The plants are actually growing in a spaceship's greenhouse, and the only other living beings are Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his young daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey).
Maintaining the vehicle leaving the solar system while also keeping a toddler occupied is a challenge no one else has had to master before. It's no wonder he seems stressed. It's a big job, too much for one man. Monte and Willow (played as a teen by Jessie Ross) didn't start the seemingly endless voyage alone.
While NASA and Star Fleet send Earth's best and brightest into space, this mission is meant as punishment -- bad actors hurtled toward a black hole as extraterrestrial guinea pigs. Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) was in charge of the ship, but she is pressed into service for doing something regrettable back home. Her crew is made up of criminals -- it's only a matter of time before they revert to their antisocial ways.
This feeling of volatility keeps High Life from getting dull or staid. Knowing that friendships are tenuous can be just as scary as onscreen assaults. There are some of those as well, but Denis and an army of co-writers wisely keep their power dry. We don't need to be reminded these folks are capable of horrific stuff. Denis' previous movie, I Can't Sleep, took place in an apartment that just happened to be housing a serial killer. She's an old hand at dealing with claustrophobia and quiet dread.
That said, the scenes between Monte and Willow are as touching as they are unaffected. Lindsey is a little too young to engage in "child actor" poses and simply conducts herself as a child that age would.
It's also reassuring to know there's a wonderful actor hiding behind Pattinson's glum visage. Now that the Twilight saga is fading from memory, filmmakers are asking Pattinson to do something other than brood for two hours straight. Thankfully, he can. He seems more convincing as a struggling dad than he did as an obsessive lover with fangs. He also ages convincingly as the movie continues. Like his former co-star Kristen Stewart, he's flourishing in the hands of French filmmakers.
Binoche is magnificent as the conflicted doctor, but Andre Benjamin deserves more screen time as a melancholy passenger-prisoner.
Denis' ship is rusty, not sleek. After all it's not supposed to return.
Opening just a few weeks after photographic proof of black holes has finally become available, Denis' version of the fallen star seems reasonably close to the images circulating on the Internet.
As I was watching High Life, I found the experience compelling but gloomy, but the movie is now vividly living in my memory. In her own way, Denis is reaching for the stars by making a film that lives outside the theater.
MovieStyle on 05/03/2019
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