In the Champions League of contemporary filmmaking, Claire Denis, the French writer and director synonymous with her unique dramas that seem uncannily able to balance scope and incision, is a regular finalist. “High Life”, Denis’s latest, is no stain on the brand she has built up among her appreciators over the past three decades; and, for newcomers, it offers a careful glimpse into a mystifying world and a wonderful creative mind.
“High Life” is interested primarily in habitation, human and otherwise, so it’s natural that we begin in a small garden on a tiny spaceship somewhere in the outer reaches of the known universe, accompanied audibly by a baby’s crying. Human nature (specifically intimacy) and its strange ability to invade even the coldest and most clinical of environments seems to be Denis’s primary subject matter. And the film’s title, an ironic spin on the cliché which denotes a glamorous way of being, does justice to the thematic range of this 110-minute history of human behaviour.
Though the comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey” have been frequent, they ought to be limited only in the films’ shared sense of scope. “High Life” is told through the eyes not of an object or a people, but a small band of criminals trapped on a cigarette box-shaped vessel; as guinea pigs hurtling towards a black hole out of which they will intend to extract immense amounts of energy, society has finally found a use for them.
Most important is Monte (Robert Pattinson), an enigmatic, suppressed young father serving a life sentence. In terms of similarities to other dystopia, Monte’s less Winston Smith (jumpsuit aside) and more Shukhov from Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, a plucky opportunist with a complicated past and an unknowable future. But unlike Shukhov, Monte actually committed his crime.
Of course, he’s not as bad as Dibs – the mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche – who seems to be enjoying herself all a bit too much. Dibs spends more time than anyone in ‘The Box’, a sex chamber with a difference, though in that contest is closely followed by the dysfunctional romantic Tcherny (André Benjamin) and the deranged Ettore, played eerily by Ewan Mitchell in his sophomore feature credit. Mia Goth and Agata Buzek complete a main cast and balance their evident experience with an eerie naiveté. Though the ease with which they portray their unsettled and unsettling characters is still not the most memorable takeaway from that core group: Binoche in an immediately classic masturbation scene steals that crown. Even so, in an ensemble combining newcomers and seasoned professionals, their experience shows.
As, of course, does Denis’s. Her ability to bring such life and colour to a genre which when it fails can appear nebulous should be watched closely by students of film and future makers of it. “High Life” has a sense of scale and style which makes even the formidable First Man look like an episode of Seinfeld. If Chazelle’s film was about not the destination but the reasons for embarking on the trip, “High Life” is about what happens when the trip goes wrong – or, depending on your outlook, how it was always going to go. It isn’t a spoiler to state that, as in life, trauma and violence are part and parcel of “High Life”. But it isn’t satisfied to be a downer; and, at the end of all that darkness, a light.