High Life (2 stars)

High Life

TIFF 2018: Claire Denis' English language debut is a baffling sci-fi mind-bender

Anyone foolish enough to think that High Life might mark a cynical slide towards the commercial by veteran French director Claire Denis are in for some big surprises. She may have a bigger budget then ever before, be working in English for the first time and have cast Robert Pattinson as her lead, but there is no sign of compromise in this bizarre and baffling science fiction mind-bender.

The bones of a conventional narrative are often visible in the tale of a mission to reach the nearest black hole to planet Earth. Monte (Pattinson) is now the last man standing and has been left to care for a young baby. He is the ultimate single parent but the child's instinctive trust in him is matched by his sense of responsibility towards her.

High Life is low-tech sci-fi with the space craft resembling a floating cargo container and interiors reminiscent of an overworked hospital. It is a film that slowly reveals its secrets, scattering random flashbacks around to explain the mission and what happened to those on board. The fact that the crew was composed of dangerous criminals gives the first clue to the forces at play here.

It is intriguing enough and provocatively playful at times, with Denis working hard to unsettle and disturb. Brutal violence and sexual abandon give a sense of the way confinement on the vessel brings out the worst human instincts. Unforgettable images include Juliette Binoche's Nurse Ratched-like scientist Dibs achieving sexual ecstasy whilst impaled on a giant dildo, or later milking Monte for the sperm that he has been so steadfastly denying her.

At its Toronto world premiere, Denis claimed that High Life is a film about trust, fidelity and sincerity. However it never manages to communicate those qualities with any coherency and the end result is more weird than wonderful.

Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2018. General release TBC.

High Life

  • 2 stars
  • 2018
  • Germany / France / UK / Poland / US
  • 1h 50min
  • Directed by: Claire Denis
  • Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth,

Monte (Pattinson) is the last man alive on a space mission, left to care for a young baby; in flashbacks, we find out the unsettling truth of what happened to the others. Denis’s first movie in English is uncompromisingly weird, and in spite of some unforgettable images, it’s a bizarre and somewhat incoherent mind-bender.