SFF Review: High Life
By Sarah Jasem
Claire Denis’ High Life, is a film that makes space, with all of its glory, a simple vessel for human primitiveness and the unexplored wonders of taboos. As you watch it (and you have to watch this) whether in a fancy selective independent cinema or alone in your room, it makes your surroundings feel like nothing but a façade.
The film centres around a father, nicknamed ‘Monk’ or ‘Blue balls,’ played by Robert Pattinson, and his baby daughter, Willow, who we meet as a tiny infant. Taboos arise out of this situation, and age-old taboo questions and situations continue throughout the film, the sci-fi genre being utilised to show the fear around the fact that even in space, these questions still persist. Some taboo space questions are answered, like ‘How do astronauts wank in space?’ Denis answers that a fair bit.
The daughter is introduced as a mostly real infant, something you hardly see in movies, with vulnerable little legs and hands and something raising the stakes and a sense of ruthless foreboding throughout the film. This is sparked in the beginning when you have no clue what is happening, and carries on until the end when you still don’t really know what is happening. Why is there a Prospero and Miranda situation happening in space instead of stranded on an Island? How did that happen? Why did it happen? What will happen next? Were they always alone? Who is the dad, what’s his deal? Who is Caliban in this situation?
Most of these questions are answered bitingly, but more are left to marinate, leaving you wondering and wanting more. The film shows to tell, with visual metaphors and stunning cinematography increasing the beauty and magic of the ships lush green garden and the pulsating stars. The only things which do not stay intact are the sterile man-made components of the ship and its counterparts. The natural and the primitive parts of man persist in space. This is Denis’ first English language film, and occasionally the dialogue seems too unnaturally pointed, because it is so scarce. You could, however, argue that no dialogue can be pointed enough in a film this bizarre. Space Odyssey slowness is helped by the stunning visuals and a powerful cast of volatile characters also on the ship, notably including Juliette Binoche, playing a seductive, evil, ‘witch’-doctor with sprawling long black hair. She is the hellish god and leader of the ship, bringing nothing but chaos to everyone on it, and is like the film, an exploration of the transgressive.
The magic of High Life is the dark uncomfortable underbelly of the beast hiding under the beauty and magic of nature. Watch it, but not with your parents or someone you can’t readily discuss taboos with, no matter how much they like space or Edward from Twilight.