TIFF18: High Life

High Life is confounding. The latest film from the French director of Beau Travail, Claire Denis, High Life finds Robert Pattinson trapped in space aboard a shipping-container-like starship with a baby as his only companion. From its earliest moments, the film disregards physics, spoils genre convention, and utterly confounds average viewers. At its world premiere at TIFF, nearly half the audience bailed before the credits rolled. While Denis’ science-fiction film doesn’t deserve to be ignored, you can’t blame ordinary viewers for fleeing its confrontational blend of body horror, elliptical filmmaking, and sociological look at the effects of isolation. It’s a bizarre film and not accessible in the least.

To be sure, elements of High Life have worth. The plot follows Monte (Pattinson) as he struggles to survive aboard a starship hurtling towards a black hole. Through flashbacks we learn that Monte is a convict sentenced to death but given this space assignment as a chance at redemption. We also learn that all the other inmates (including Mia Goth, André Benjamin, and Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, who sports a Rapunzel-like braid of hair) have died. During these flashbacks, we learn about their mission, watch them deal with the strains of confinement, and die in various manners of accident or murder. Most importantly, we watch as Dr. Dibs conducts reproductive experiments on the inmates, trying to see if she can breed children in space despite the immense radiation. Monte’s baby is the resulting success of these experiments, but only after countless miscarriages and stillbirths.

While most science-fiction films about space travel obsess over quantum physics or the logistics of deep-space travel (2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, etc.), High Life has fleshier interests in mind. In fact, Denis has zero interest, if not active contempt, for the concepts of plausible physics in science fiction. In her film, airlocks open like normal doors, the ship has earth-like gravity, and objects fall into space as if tumbling off a cliff, as opposed to the weightless drift that’d be realistic to space travel.

Now, I’m not a stickler for realism, but science fiction requires some fidelity to scientific logic. It doesn’t have to be real (or else we couldn’t enjoy the nonsensical adventures of Robinson Crusoe on Mars or Forbidden Planet or even Star Wars), but it does require internal logic, which High Life completely lacks. During some moments, characters discuss the gravitational forces of a black hole and mention how constant acceleration creates a semblance of normal gravity on board, but these half-hearted attempts to explain the sci-fi rules to the viewer ring hollow when Monte drops a body out of the airlock or a person’s head splatters against a window during an approach to a black hole. I believe that Denis sacrifices logic for the sake of making memorable images or in order to amplify the discomfort of the viewer, but plenty of science fiction films challenge the viewer’s preconceptions without jettisoning all scientific coherence (such as the recent Annihilation).

At least Denis makes up for her shaky sci-fi physics with an obsessive exploration of biology. In particular, sexual biology. No science-fiction film since the 1980s works of David Cronenberg have paid as much attention to bodily fluids as High Life. High Life is most perceptive when it explores how isolation and despair drive sexual dysfunction and aggression. There are several moments of sexual assault that show how quickly people descend to savagery when the consequences of their actions no longer matter. It also shows how constant sexual stimulation is an easy way to distract people from the despair of their predicament. This comes out in an already-infamous sequence halfway through the film when Binoche’s Dibs enters a masturbation chamber known as the “Fuckbox,” straps herself in with S&M restraints and mounts a massive silver dildo, riding it like a bull for a few minutes. It’s a graphic moment (and another indication of how fearless Binoche is when it comes to sexual content on screen), but it’s also more than a little ridiculous.

Approach this scene as a litmus test for your potential enjoyment of the film as a whole. If you find the idea thrilling and perceptive, you might adjust to High Life’s bizarre wavelength. If you find it ridiculous and laughable, you might want to join the crowds fleeing Roy Thompson Hall and avoid exposure to Claire Denis’s sexual sci-fi odyssey.

As for myself, I’m struck by the confrontational nature of the film, but find it lacking a coherent thesis, much as its sci-fi physics lack internal logic. Pattinson is excellent in the lead role and the moments of him and the baby reveal a shocking tenderness that speaks to his sensitivity as an actor. There are also striking images here, whether it’s the title card appearing over a haunting tableau of bodies floating in the darkness of space (a moment where the film’s lack of realistic physics works) or a shot of moisture collecting on the leaves of the ship’s garden, which harkens back to the countercultural sci-fi films of the 1970s like Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running.

But I find the lack of a coherent thesis, the elliptical structure, and the defiance of science-fiction convention to be frustrating beyond Denis’s intentions. I can imagine the film revealing its themes on further viewings and its lack of interest in the reality of space travel being less of an issue a second time around. But for the time being, I remain perplexed and unconvinced that there’s more to it than its confrontational edge. It’s certainly radical, but I need more coherent ideas from a movie that wants to make me this uncomfortable.

5 out of 10

High Life (2018, U.K./France/Germany)

Directed by Claire Denis; written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Nick Laird, and Geoff Cox; starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, Lars Edinger, André Benjamin, Agata Buzek.