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Space thriller High Life is an interminable journey towards nothingness

directed by Claire Denis

Some have claimed that the film is rich in meditations on the human experience, but is it?

Take the last exit somewhere past Pluto, deep into the expanse, and you’ll find a ship endlessly accelerating towards blank horizons. It resembles a beige, oversized cargo container. Aboard, there’s only Monte (Robert Pattinson), a monk-like man who attends to his duties without complaint: shovelling a small garden, reporting to the computer that keeps the lights on, talking numbly to his infant daughter.

We’re quick to glean the register of loneliness, primed as we are by a cinematic lineage of austere endurances in outer space (Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kubrick’s 2001). In flashback, we learn that there was once a crew, all convicted criminals who traded a prison cell for a one-way spaceship – a death row by other means. Thus there is horror, too, that other prime subgenre of the intergalactic odyssey. But the haunting aspect is not how they went. Rather, it’s what was done to them and what they did to each other while still alive.

There is Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and her prurient experiments. There is a room that bristles and gleams with implements of self-pleasure. Above all, there are the secretions: High Life is slick with human goo – blood, breastmilk, semen, snot.

Some have claimed that the film is rich in meditations on the human experience, or that it probes the nature of perversity and taboo. Perhaps, at best, there is a commentary on human disposability. But between bouts of gore and frenzies of abuse, one wonders if there really is anything worth salvaging.

French director Claire Denis (Beau Travail, Let the Sunshine In), working for the first time in English, cannot be bothered with something so bourgeois as tension. The film is one immense longueur. At most, she can conjure a sense of languid dread – but this comes principally from not knowing what the hell is going on.

Obliqueness is the enemy of emotion, and there’s little to latch on to bar Monte’s relationship with his daughter. Beyond that is only the slow glide of its elliptical narrative, an interminable voyage towards nothingness, with much ickiness along the way.



Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.