High Life

Robert Pattinson's entire career has brought him to this space thriller, and it's a strange but stellar ride.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 06, 2019


UPDATE, September 4, 2020: High Life is available to stream via Stan, Google Play, YouTube Movies and iTunes.cp-line

Another unique, distinctive and thrilling film by a stellar director. Another movie so impressive, it's instantly among the decade's standouts. And, another exceptional Robert Pattinson performance. We'd say that it's becoming a welcome trend, however this pattern has been recurring since RPatz stopped wearing sparkly makeup and fake fangs. Complain all you like about the Twilight series — we don't have much that's positive to add — but the vampire romance saga gave two of today's best young actors an enormous platform, as well as the currency to choose their next roles wisely. So both Pattinson and Kristen Stewart keep doing just that, and cinema is all the better for it. In the former's case, see the likes of Cosmopolis, The Rover, The Childhood of a Leader, The Lost City of Z, Good Time and now High Life.

With his latest film, Pattinson rockets into space under the guidance of director Claire Denis, which proves a match made in movie heaven. In recent years, the future Batman star has increasingly cornered the market on existential yearning, a feat that the inimitable French auteur has also been pursuing since she first stepped behind the camera thirty years ago. There's a philosophical angle to both Pattinson and Denis' work, not just depicting the quest for purpose that drives us all, but delving into the intricacies and horrors of searching and struggling — as explored across multiple settings, stories and genres. Of course, there's no more apt a place than a spaceship to grapple with life's meaning, or lack thereof. Perhaps that's where Pattinson and Denis, either together or apart, were always headed.

As their vessel charts a course for a black hole, Monte (Pattinson), Tcherny (Andre Benjamin), Boyse (Mia Goth) and the ship's other inhabitants bide their time doing what they're told. They're prisoners jettisoned into the great beyond in the name of punishment, redemption and science, although resident doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche, star of Denis' last release Let the Sunshine In) has her own plans for the captives. That's the bulk of High Life's narrative, in a broad and linear sense. The film begins with Monte roaming the halls with just a baby named Willow for company, and pressing buttons every 24 hours to stay alive, adding a palpable sense of hellish foreboding to its already moody, brooding atmosphere. Also amplifying the movie's tone is its carnal obsession, and not just in the name of necessary procreation (a room dubbed the 'Fuck Box' is also onboard).

With scripting assistance from both credited and uncredited co-scribes, including novelists Nick Laird and Zadie Smith, writer-director Denis teases out High Life's tale. Sometimes, the film gets caught in the minutiae of Monte and Willow's monotonous but happy-enough lives. Sometimes, it flashes back to the ship's busier, darker, more populous and tumultuous times. Sometimes, it ventures into memories on firm soil — recollections so steeped in nature, including thriving plant-life and scurrying animals, that the otherwise space-bound film always retains an earthy feel. Of course, it's that juxtaposition that sits at the heart of this immensely intelligent, ambitious and rewarding movie. To wrestle with human existence, and with our very purpose, is to realise that we're all careening forward in a state of constant chaos, hurtling towards inescapable darkness, all while trying to grasp onto whatever we can. Quiet moments spent chatting and contemplating in the ship's own garden; lustful encounters, both alone and with others; the need to connect, whether by sex, violence or love: as they each pop up on screen, they illustrate High Life's point.

'Illustrate' is a key word when it comes to Denis' work, as she has proven across her French-language career. High Life may be the director's first film in English, but her visuals have always transcended dialogue with their probing, patient stare — as well as the sensation that they're scrutinising everything in sight as deeply and carefully as possible. Here, clinical, institutional surfaces say so much when contrasted with babbling streams and sprouting leaves. They say even more when placed opposite bodies and fluids in all of their icky, sticky glory, and against ruminative faces with furrowed brows and eyes all a-flicker as well. While the movie boasts other acting highlights, including a no-holds-barred Binoche in her steeliest guise yet, it won't come as a surprise that Pattinson's restless gaze provides the film's favourite canvas. That said, Denis and her cinematographers Yorick Le Saux (Personal Shopper) and Tomasz Naumiuk (Nina) don't simply glare, but rather stalk, circle and glide around the picture's leading man.

Denis's movie doesn't do much that similar science-fiction fare has, would and will, for that matter. But while shooting into the stratosphere to ponder what it all means has become a genre of its own, High Life proudly stands in its own space boots. Perhaps that's why both the film and Pattinson seem like such a perfect fit, and why the final product both soars high and burrows deep: you won't catch either meekly treading where everyone else has before.


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