REVIEW BY MIA SHERRY
Claire Denis’ first English language film, High Life is one of the year’s most awaited releases by casual cinema-goers and cinephiles alike, perhaps only rivaled by Marvel’s Endgame. I myself have been (not so) patiently waiting for it to grace our screens since its initial premier in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received widespread acclaim. With all this hype, when I finally got to watch it, I went in not necessarily with excitement but rather with fear; what if it’s awful? What if it’s just okay? I can say with near certainty now that if you have similar reservations: don’t. The wait is undoubtedly worth it.
High Life focuses itself on Monte, played by Robert Pattinson in what likely will go on to be a career-defining role. It was no easy task; the film’s major storyline takes place as he and his young daughter Willow (Scarlette Lindsey) are stranded on a spacecraft, meaning that it is largely a one-man show. Admittedly I am a fan of Pattinson, so I had no hold-over grudges from his Twilight days, but even still his performance blew me away. As an aside, it boasts his control when approaching a performance; when comparing the cool, slowly unraveling detachment of Monte to the frenzied mania of his character Connie in Good Time, it's like watching two different actors. Met with Claire Denis' keen eye for shape, texture, colour and all things concerning the senses, Pattinson lifts what would otherwise be a lifeless script into a visually arresting psychological thriller.
However, praise for Pattinson aside, High Life would be nothing without the stone-cold obsessive Dibs, played by Juliette Binoche, who is an utterly sublime gothic spectre, at once enticing and frightening with her deathly pale skin and long curtain of dark hair. Further bolstered by a team of incredible supporting actors (featuring, among many, Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin), High Life grows into a claustrophobic and thoroughly atmospheric study into human life in captivity, and examines the ties that bind as the ties that break.
At an hour and fifty three minutes this film doesn't have the most energetic pacing, and I understand the frustration that could cause among potential viewers. At no point does it significantly accelerate or wind down, but in my opinion that makes for a more captivating watch. It ticks along slowly, like an old, worn clock, or perhaps a better descriptor would be a time-bomb. It feels, at times, like both; simultaneously racing towards some kind of inevitable destruction and yet removing itself so far from human civilization that it begs the question of whether it will even matter.
Claire Denis has, in essence, created a brilliant piece of meta-filmmaking, reflecting the world it has created so that even the audience is caught in the character's loop. All the while there's that constant, intimidating hum, partly beckoning and partly warning. It becomes synonymous with the set, and the characters, ever-so slightly adjusting itself to characters and moods, acting almost as a narrator alongside Dibs and Monte. When High Life ends, your ears will be ringing, and if you’re like me, there will be a distinct feeling of panic you won't be able to shake or place; but this isn't a film that's supposed to leave you. It demands attention and active viewership, which is a nice challenge in a world where media consumption has become so rapid and so passive.
High Life, ultimately, leaves us with a question voiced by Monte - “Are you scared?”. Scared of what, exactly? A capital-punishment world? Hurtling towards oblivion? Climate change? Right-wing developments? Well, yes. But that’s not exactly the point High Life is trying to make, though it does touch on those things as a basis for its question. It’s asking: “If you were stranded at the end of the world, what would it feel like? Why would it feel like that?”. It is not an answer that will come easy to any of us, but that’s where Denis’ brilliance lies. As certain art forms become considerably less subtle with their messages, it’s fresh and exciting to be presented with something that allows, and even asks for, introspection.
High Life opens in selected theatres on Friday 10th of May.