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Review: High Life

April 19, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Claire Denis does sci-fi in High Life, and the results are as confounding and maybe even weirder than you expect from the French auteur, who is also working in English for the first time.

The film opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) alone on a spaceship, tending to his baby daughter. We find out that he is there as part of a program that sends dangerous criminals on a one-way trip to space, in order to get close to the edge of a black hole for research purposes.

They are kept under the charge of a mad scientist of sorts, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is obsessed with collecting sperm samples from the male specimens aboard the ship to be used in breeding experiments.

I won’t say anything more, but from this description alone, you can probably tell that High Life is one of those films that is guaranteed to divide audiences, perhaps even more so than expected. Any film that has an extended sequence where Juliette Binoche goes to town in her “fuckbox,” which is essentially a chair with two seat cushions and a protruding dildo that comes up between them, automatically isn’t going to be for everyone.

Denis has said that she intended High Life to be more of a study of what happens when people are isolated and denied intimacy in the prison system that just happens to take place in space, rather than a traditional science fiction movie, and that’s a pretty reasonable assessment of the film. While it’s easy to admire some of the things that the filmmaker is trying to do here, her reach often exceeds her grasp. The execution is somewhat strained at points with an overly literal quality to some of the metaphors, and the film also feels too long at nearly two hours.

But High Life is still interesting in parts, even if some of its ideas do seem half-formed, and Robert Pattinson continues to prove himself as one of our most intriguing actors, delivering a performance of quiet intensity in the leading role. The film is deeply provocative and clearly polarizing, with reports of numerous walkouts during the film’s world premiere at TIFF last year, but I didn’t hate it, and didn’t love it. I’m open to watching it again at some point to reevaluate.

High Life is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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