High Life, the first English-language film by French auteur Claire Denis, made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018. Planned by Denis for 15 years, High Life finally saw a limited release in the United States in April 2019. In comparing the film to genre heavyweights, it is closer to The Phantom Menace’s meandering than A New Hope’s quality. High Life would’ve been better off unrealized.
Monte (Robert Pattinson), Boyse (Mia Goth), and other convicted criminals sentenced to death are given an alternative: serve as guinea pigs on a mission to space to discover and utilize the energy from a black hole. Monte, Boyse, and their fellow crewmembers accept, along with the enigmatic Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical doctor convicted of murdering her own husband and children.
Dibs, by her own choice or as a secondary objective of the mission, obsesses over the idea of conception in space. After failed attempts using a sex chamber and artificial insemination, Dibs eventually succeeds by drugging and raping Monte and inseminating Boyse with his semen. As the crewmembers die of radiation, murder, or continued experimentation, Monte is left to care for Willow (Jessie Ross), the child he unknowingly conceived.
On the outside, High Life appears focused on a man and his daughter surviving on a failing ship. Alone, Monte is forced to operate a ship intended to be manned by a full crew. This is complicated by Willow, who needs baby food and a makeshift nursery, among other childhood necessities. Denis forgoes this compelling narrative for a convoluted story about sexual politics.
Scenes of intense sexuality, including a memorable, lengthy scene featuring Binoche in the sex chamber, border on absurd. Denis, perhaps purposefully, has directed a movie about human sexuality that is more uncomfortable than it is erotic. With relatively stuffy American audiences more accessible to Denis than ever, she may have included these scenes to spotlight American prudishness. Interrogating America’s repressed sexual desires does not help to explain High Life’s willingness to depict sexual violence, however. Multiple scenes of rape are included in the film and little can be extrapolated from Denis’s intentions to include such disturbing content.
The imprecision of the sex scenes doesn’t stop there; despite Dibs’s fascination with conception in space, sex between crewmembers is forbidden. Predictably, this leads some of the ship’s violent criminals to lash out and rape other crewmembers. Giving the benefit of the doubt, Denis likely hopes to make some point about the prison system and the sexual violence therein, but the message is muddied and fails to resonate.
The sound mixing adds to the film’s litany of problems. Dialogue is often inaudible. Whether by direction or design, mumbled lines are impossible to make out, even against stark silence. From the same technical standpoint, the cast, one of High Life’s few bright spots, deserves recognition.
Indie darling Pattinson carries the film on his back in a performance that straddles the intimacy of the setting and his character’s distance from the rest of the crew. André Benjamin (OutKast’s own André 3000), is excellent as Tcherny and has a legitimate acting career available to him if he wants it. Goth, whose presence can overwhelm, is well cast here. All three are tremendous, but unfortunately, it isn’t enough to salvage Denis’s unstaffed ship of a movie as it hurtles through space.
Denis’s English language debut is a disconcerting, pointless excursion to space that wastes the promise of its concept and the skill of its actors.