SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘High Life’ is divisive arthouse cinema at its best and worst

In the life of a film critic, there will always be critically-acclaimed arthouse darlings you simply cannot connect with. These are the types of films you feel you’re practically required to award five stars to, in order to prove your high standards. This Sydney Film Festival season, that film is High Life, a 110 minute-long test of patience you will either find completely fascinating or tediously dull. There’s little grey area on this one. It’s divisive arthouse cinema at its best and worst.

Working in the English language for the first time, co-writer/director Claire Denis paints a bleak, dark, and twisted vision of intergalactic space travel that’s discomforting, disturbing, harrowing, and, yes, at times, fascinating. But with a purposely yet agonisingly slow pace and a narrative that seemingly goes nowhere, the end result feels hollow,  empty, and rather pointless. And maybe that’s exactly what she wanted. Or maybe it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea.

As High Life begins, we meet Monte (Robert Pattinson), as he works outside a floating barge-like vessel somewhere in outer space. Seemingly alone, we soon learn there’s a young child (Scarlett Lindsey) inside the ship, who Monte is keeping an eye on via video link. As he re-enters the spacecraft known as “7,” we discover there once was a full crew onboard who are now nothing more than a stack of dead corpses, piled up inside a storage room, who Monte soon methodically tosses out a hatch door. Clearly, something terrible happened onboard.

After an exhaustive first act highlighting the monotonous daily life of Monte and his infant companion, we switch into flashback mode to retell the events which led to the unknown carnage. As it turns out, the 7 was actually a futuristic penal colony and its occupants were all convicts sentenced to life imprisonment on a suicidal mission to extract energy from a black hole and, while there, test procreation in space, led by the unstable and scrupulous Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a prisoner herself.

Each male prisoner must donate his sperm (via a contraption called the “fuck box”) and the women their eggs and wombs, in an attempt to create life amidst the radiation emanating throughout the ship. Joining Monte onboard are Tcherny (André Benjamin), a wise and gentle soul who tends to the ship’s garden of plant life, a violent and menacing psychopath named Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), and pixie-like waif Boyse (Mia Goth), who, despite her years of drug addiction, appears to be the best hope of fertilisation. There are several other convicts dotted about, but none are given much narrative focus to bother mentioning.

As the crew begin to grow restless of their habitual daily routines (which Monte abstains from to, ahem, preserve his fluids) and Dr. Dibs salacious desires become increasingly out of control, tensions start to boil over and chaos reigns supreme. Amidst a whole calamity of violence, rape, bodily fluids, and murder, there’s jarring sequence involving a bondage table with a large silver dildo (yep) and, miraculously, the birth of a child, unwittingly fathered by one of the 7’s occupants.

While the film conveys a constant state of tension and anxiety where you never quite know what’s around the bend for these doomed souls, it’s housed within a series of exhaustively slow segments where seemingly little occurs, causing your focus to slowly drift away. Sure, you know with a Denis film you’re not in for an action-packed extravaganza, and every single artistic choice she’s made her is entirely intentional. However, she pushes your patience to its absolute extremities here, and, by the film’s melancholy conclusion, the payoff for sticking with it hardly seems worth it.

When Denis does break through the dullness, she absolutely shatters it with several moments of outrageous and confronting activity that caused a few walk-outs from the cinema. A sequence featuring the brutal and violent sexual and physical assault on several female prisoners is genuinely difficult to endure and barely serves any narrative purpose but to shock an audience out of its stunted stupor. While the male in this scene is naturally portrayed as the vile villain, the film later presents a similar sexual assault by a female character on a male in a drug-induced slumber as something entirely erotic and almost acceptable, which is a damning and confusing message to send.

And then there’s the scene that everyone will be talking about, as Dr. Dibs enters the “fuck box” and climbs atop a table for a wild masturbation session, complete with a shiny silver dildo and black leather bounds. Binoche loses all her inhibitions, as she wildly thrashes about and screams in sheer delight. Shot with shaky close-ups to capture her every emotion, it’s a dark and unsettling scene, perfectly portraying the doctor’s impetuous sexual nature. But, again, it genuinely serves no narrative purpose at all.

In a quiet and understated performance, Pattinson is still entirely engaging to watch, especially his gorgeous interactions with the young child early in the piece. Outside of the Twilight saga, it’s his first true foray into a paternal role, and he handles it with incredible aplomb. It’s a role devoid of dialogue for large segments of the film, with the majority of his words coming from his constant voiceover. It’s a narration that fills the silence earnestly enough but is still delivered in a far too deadpan and dry style to really leave much impact. Binoche is perfectly cast as the nefarious and scheming doctor, in a performance that’s as terrifying as it is impressive. The rest of the cast leaves barely any impression in thankless roles that offer little more than a body count.

Look, there are dozens and dozens of five-star reviews out there for High Life, and they’re all entirely valid. Maybe revisiting this film in a few years will cause me to change my mind and see the film in an entirely new light. It’s not hard to see how some can be completely taken by this film’s haunting, slow-burn qualities juxtaposed by Denis’ startling imagery and sequences. There are moments of genuine fascination here, if you’re willing to endure the dreary melancholia surrounding it.

As for me, the whole experience all proved rather cumbersome and exhausting, offering little but a film trying to say something but never quite getting there. But, hey, perhaps this one just sailed past me completely, and it’s a masterful piece of cinema you need to devour several times to truly appreciate. That’s often the hallmark of arthouse films and it’s absolutely the case with the work of an auteur like Claire Denis.

Distributor: Madman Films
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek
Director: Claire Denis
Producers: Andrew Lauren, D.J. Gugenheim, Claudia Steffen, Christophe Friedel, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Thery Lapiney, Oliver Dungey, Klaudia Smieja
Screenplay: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Stuart A. Staples
Production Design: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 6th June 2019 (Australia)

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