High Life is a film that's really hard to explain in a short synopsis, so I will give you the broad strokes I feel are most important. The film takes place on a space ship crewed by death row inmates and other criminals. There are two scientific missions they need to complete. One, which is fertility based and the other which is about harnessing the energy of a black hole. They are traveling at 99% the speed of light and eventually figure out there is no returning home. Trust me, that's as clear as I can be. The film stars Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Andre Benjamin and is directed and co-written by Claire Denis.
This film is a bit of a mess. It seems to have been cobbled together from a few previous versions of the script and possible previous versions of the completed film. Yet, it can and does transcend that muddy messiness with scenes of genuine intensity or strange beauty. And when I say strange beauty I'm not just speaking of the odd, sexy, creepy, gross scene where Juliette Binoche's Dr. Dibs enters what's known as the "fuck box" and toward the end a furry appendage comes out of the wall to wrap around her. I'm of course speaking of the relationship between Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, and his child.
Monte and the baby, Willow, are who we start with. Monte has the communications system open to sing to her as he does his space walk. We can see that they've been alone for a while and we can see his genuine affection for this child he never wanted and never expected to be caring for. I'm a person who has never watched a real baby sleep, but it certainly tugged at my heartstrings to hear the tiny snores while watching Willow's belly go up and down. It plays even more with our emotions knowing that the ship is degrading and Monte is thinking of what humane options are open to him. He at one point contemplates their murder suicide out loud to her. That's kind of how this film exists, teetering on the brink of tragedy until the characters step fully up to the line and then over.
So, yeah, if you were expecting space adventure, you're in for a bummer. High Life is far more 2001: A Space Odyssey than The Martian. I feel where the film fails is not only in its lack of levity, but in what and how much explained versus what and how much is unexplained. It reminds me of Blade Runner in a lot of ways because, as I wrote earlier, it looks like the film is sewn together from a few versions. Much like Blade Runner's theatrical version, High Life has the narration, which is good for somethings, but when there's a scene and characters never visited again or ever explained on a train giving the same information, I question which version this one was meant to be, what version am I seeing and if there be others that will be more satisfying. It's not even satisfying that its violence feels justified or earned.
This film is brutal. It has a brutality that is ongoing and relentless. A pane of broken glass is used to cut and stab, there's biting, punching, scalpels used on people while they're awake, assisted suicide, suicide, shovels used as knives, kicks, attempted rape, rape, forced insemination, multiple dead dogs, it's hard to take in. The middle section of flashback where the brunt of the brutality takes place made me ever more thankful for the scenes of quiet reflection.
So, why watch it? If it's a mess and is harsh to its characters and audience, why take on High Life? Why take on a film that challenges us in far more ways than the latest multibillion dollar production? Because it actually asks things of us. High Life asks us to ponder how criminals and criminal behavior are approached in society. It asks us to think about the idea that having children maybe a biological imperative, but it's not the same as raising a child in a harsh world. It asks us to think about mortality. The hardest questions, the ones that stick with you are important to see interpreted as art because art is a gateway into a different thought pattern that may spark the idea for us to change things in our own lives.
Though, I fear, the only thing I will see when I think about this film forever more is the "fuck box" scene. A lot of that thinking will be spent only on the question "how?" I feel High Life is what happens at the intersection of collaborative filmmaking and filmmaking by a committee. Someone, somewhere, down the line dictated the movie needed more or less and that's where it got off track. This movie is not for every person. It is in theaters right now, but I think if you are someone who's intrigued by the prospect, you may just want to wait until you can watch it at home to turn it off if you don't like it or immerse yourself if you're into it.