High Life ★★½


Sorry, I'm afraid it doesn't quite work. Certainly from the very first shot, Denis and cinematographer Not Agnès Godard (real name: Yorick Le Saux) generate an impeccably sumptuous atmosphere, with the slow pans and tracking shots describing the moist, verdant garden and the sterile, vaguely 1970s interior of the spaceship. High Life does quite a lot with a little, using colored lights and the textures of vinyl and chrome to produce a look and feel that I'm going to call, without an iota of condescension, "Perverse 2001." Even when the limited budget gets the better of Denis -- Dibs (Juliette Binoche) floating away into space is obviously the actress lying on a black table in a black room, with a reverse zoom -- these effects contribute to a stilted, airless feeling, as though both film's universe, and the film itself, are on the verge of breaking apart.

Unfortunately there's the story, which takes up far more of High Life than it really ought to. It's probably bad manners to attribute the clumsiness of the script to the film being Denis's first English-language outing, although goodness knows we've seen this sort of thing before. Great European auteurs often stumble when they try their hand at the Queen's. But more than this, High Life just feels far too plotty and character-focused for a Claire Denis film.

Everything with Monte (Robert Pattinson) and baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) comes together beautifully because it is observational, environmental. It is about a father struggling under abnormal circumstances to quite literally keep his child's world from falling apart. But the flashback sequences expend far too much time and actorly energy on "the experiment," the way that a group of people who were probably unhinged to begin with become almost psychotic when turned into sexual Guinea pigs.

It certainly doesn't help that Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau (with help from two British assistants) have no qualms about saddling characters like Dibs and Tcherny (Andre Benjamin) with thick slabs of exposition, detailing nearly everything we don't need to know about this hermetic world. And what isn't shoehorned into the actual performers' mouths in real time is left to Monte's endless omniscient narration. This use of Pattinson as our de facto "captain's log" seems to me at odds with High Life's semi-scrambled, force-of-memory plot structure. There should be moments at which Monte is, like the other characters, figuring things out as he goes. But we seem to be watching a kind of fragmented retrospection, with Monte's life with Willow serving as "the present."

Apart from the possible difficulties of working in a foreign language, Denis seems deeply committed to High Life's fucked-up-space-prison thematics. We see rape and violation and wanton violence, which feels like sensationalist goosing of a story that is rather silly on its face. If Denis had left certain aspects of High Life ambiguous, conveyed by implication and atmosphere, she might have earned the self-seriousness she adopts here, and would have plastered over the story's sub-Freudian deficits by diverting our attention back to the luxurious surface. But I can't shake the sense that, weird as it is, High Life is pandering a bit to a non-French audience, operating under the assumption that "we" need clear motivations and even an arch-villain who twirls her log braid like a mustache.

The Tindersticks, though, are on point. And thanks to Stuart Staples and Pattinson, we all now have a lovely space ballad to sing to Willow. But after Let the Sunshine In and now this, I find myself wondering: is Claire Denis rushing forward, or standing still?

Michael liked this review