DIR: Claire Denis • WRI: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox • PRO: Laurence Clerc, Oliver Dungey, Christoph Friedel, D.J. Gugenheim, Andrew Lauren, Klaudia Smieja, Claudia Steffen, Olivier Thery Lapiney• DOP: Yorick La Seux, Tomasz Naumiuk • Ed: Guy Lecorne • CAST: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek.
Monte (Pattinson) is the lone passenger, along with his infant daughter, aboard a spaceship headed towards a black hole. Through flashbacks we see what brought this about: how he and a group of other death-row convicts were put on this suicide mission, dressed up as a shot at redemption. We find out what became of his former colleagues aboard the ship including the authoritative Dibs (Binoche), a fellow death-row convict, who also happened to be a doctor and who was intent on carrying out various sexual experiments on those on board.
The inimitable Claire Denis returns to our screens with this, her English-language debut. Any fears that a bigger budget and name cast would see Denis attempt something more mainstream are quickly dispelled in this elliptical, hypnotic and provocative picture. This being a seriously minded, contemplative science fiction film by an auteur director, it is inevitable that there will be some comparisons drawn to 2001, Solaris and Stalker. Some of the film’s body-horror elements also vaguely call to mind Cronenberg. However, while there are some nods to those, particularly some visual homages to the latter Tarkovsky film, this is a highly distinctive piece with a singular, pungent ambience and one that doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules. The structure of the film is often quite radical, the form deeply tactile.
In terms of Denis’ other films, the one it most resembles is Trouble Every Day. While this is Denis doing a sci-fi film, that was her riff on horror and the vampire sub-genre specifically. Similar to that film, Denis here doesn’t shy away from explicit depictions of sex and violence. Denis has no sense of middle-brow prudishness about her, a large reason why Trouble Every Day and her insidious, disturbing 2013 film Bastards got such hostile reviews from many critics. The often visceral imagery on show here, to go along with a plethora of bodily fluids, works in stark contrast to the tenderness depicted between Monte and his daughter, while also forcing us to confront humans animalistic nature and how this contrasts with our great accomplishments in the advancement of technology, not in a tasteful manner, but with blunt clarity.
This is a film that is rich in theme and texture, where contrasts and contradictions abound. The film lends itself to a vast array of interpretations, with the picture working as a series of snapshots from which the viewer can piece together their interpretation. At times the film seems like it’s a vicious, filthy satire of societal norms, other times it suggests it may be a Christian allegory. One can also just simply submerge themselves in the utterly tangible world of the film. Denis utilises Le Saux’s cinematography, Lecornu’s editing, and her regular collaborator Stuart A. Staple’s terrific score to create a trance-inducing spectacle. The film flits between the long corridors aboard the evocatively simple spaceship to darkly nostalgic 16mm flashbacks of her characters’ pre-space, past to extraordinarily odd and original scenes of eroticism, to scenes of harrowing brutality, to scenes of serene beauty. All the while, Denis exhibits a mastery of tone amidst a vast swathe of ideas, both formal and thematic.
The cast are all uniformly excellent. Goth carries on her recent string of strong supporting turns, while Benjamin brings a low-key warmth to his character. Binoche exhibits her typical charisma, throwing in a splash of dangerous malevolence for good measure. However, the standout out here is, of course, the reliably excellent Pattinson who spends much of the film on-screen on his own or acting opposite his character’s infant daughter. It’s a subtle, magnetic performance – the type that has become his trademark.
This is a wholly uncompromising, deeply evocative and highly intelligent piece of work.
18 (see IFCO for details)
High Life is released 10th May 2019