High Life will cover the entire gamut of audience reactions, whether their responses are rooted in awe, frustration, confusion or curiosity.
Like the best prose, the work of Claire Denis isn’t the easiest to translate. In her latest, High Life, the pieces are there for us to assemble, but it’s a jigsaw puzzle of themes, moods and narrative beats that demands to be experienced more than once in order to be fully comprehended as a whole. It will cover the entire gamut of audience reactions, whether their responses are rooted in awe, frustration, confusion or curiosity. And that’s the genius of High Life, a remarkable work where everything is not quite what it seems and yet everything is exactly where it needs to be.
There isn’t an incidental shot in the whole thing, as this is an unblemished work of pure artistic ambition that aims for the heavens and doesn’t give a fuck about what you think. Denis is a cinematic rebel, and High Life is yet another weapon in a filmographic arsenal that the 72-year-old French filmmaker has used to challenge her audiences for decades. You may not understand High Life once you leave the theater, but be damned if it doesn’t leave a searing impression on your psyche that’s hard to shake. From its imagery to its chilling atmosphere, this is a work that lingers in the very best ways possible. It’s that poetic stanza that sticks in the back of your mind, or an earworm song in another language that keeps looping in your head when you least expect it, even if you have no idea what the lyrics are saying.
The film follows a group of death row criminals sentenced to embark on a years-long space mission for alternative energy. However, as the mission’s true motives become clear—especially when you consider the nefarious practices of the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche)—High Life becomes all the more haunting. It’s a film where you could generously discuss the plot in detail if you’d prefer, as Denis jumbles up the narrative so precisely that there isn’t really much room for “spoilers.” Otherwise, the film would spoil itself within the first few minutes. But Denis is far less concerned with proper narrative trajectory and instead targets her focus toward creating an overall mood, something she achieves effortlessly and to an effect that is both relentlessly nightmarish and overwhelmingly beautiful.
Visually and thematically arresting, High Life moves along its course like a phoenix, constantly igniting and reforming itself into something newer and more exciting. In its early moments, we’re observing Monte (Robert Pattinson) as he walks around the ship with a baby girl, seemingly the only passengers on board. Soon after, we’re introduced to the inevitably doomed crew. Forty minutes in, Juliette Binoche is riding a giant dildo machine in a structure called “The Fuck Box” as the camera slowly scrutinizes the motion of her spine and the long hair sticking to her back with sweat.
The fascination with bodies, the disregard for traditional storytelling, the aesthetically precise compositions—High Life is endemic with Denis’ DNA. It’s an experience filled with unknown factors that may or may not come to full realization upon first viewing, but that’s what makes it special. The story is filled with meticulous ruminations on sexuality, cruelty, loneliness, death and existence, and yet these musings manifest themselves in the most remarkable and unexpected of ways. High Life isn’t a film to be “figured out”; it’s a work that aims to figure you out instead. How you perceive it, how it challenges you and how it ultimately impacts you is what makes the art of Claire Denis so compelling. There’s no clear cut answer. And that, in the end, is what poetry is all about.