High Life: Harsh Mistress

The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.

The story by Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau follows a small group of death row inmates hurtling through the galaxy on a hazy mission to harness the energy of a black hole. As their numbers dwindle, a scientist’s (Binoche) shadowy experiments in reproduction leaves one tightly-wrapped convict (Patterson) with an unexpected daughter. Meanwhile, the ship just keeps on vrooming along.

This is Denis’s first English-language film since 2001’s Trouble Every Day, and the clumsiness of the dialogue sometimes chafes, possibly by design. (When crucial exposition absolutely must be delivered, Denis hilariously cuts to a never-seen-again man on a train, which is certainly one way to do it.) Even when the words clunk, however, Pattinson gets the emotions across, with a terrifically rendered mixture of no-nonsense asceticism and brief flare-ups of tenderness. Good as he is, though, Binoche soars even higher, creating a pitiable, fascinatingly human monster. Denis repays her with the film’s most notorious scene, set within a self-pleasure machine known as The Box. Delivered via a bravura series of close-ups, the sequence gets you somehow trying to lean towards and away from the screen simultaneously. (This is a very moist movie.) The word fearless gets tossed around a lot when it comes to performers, but, I mean, come on.

Even the most bewitching enigmas can have their limits, and Denis’s decision to favor lyricism over logic ensures that her film will sharply divide audiences. For those willing and able to be taken, however, the fluid chronology and unpredictable sparks of high-and-low humanity ultimately fuse into a glorious gestalt. I’m still not sure what exactly to make of some of High Life’s final, beautifully opaque moments, but I can’t stop thinking about them, all the same.


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