Keen to support women filmmakers, I was eager to review High Life, the 14th feature film and the first in English from the 73-year-old darling-auteur of French cinema, Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In). The early reviews were raves — happy me. Then I saw its R rating “for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity and language.” Uh-oh …
A baby squeals in a playpen set up in a spaceship that has seen better days. Making repairs outside the vessel, her space-suited father (Robert Pattinson) coos to her. Lovely, eh? It’s haunting and unforgettable, too, but only after suffering through the entire film do you realize these endearing early images anesthetized you to the horrid images that follow. Was such numbness, God forbid, the purpose of the film?
The premise of High Life is classic sci-fi: The government offers a deal to death row inmates, trading execution for a trip into space as medical guinea pigs. The ultimate destination, however, is an encounter with a black hole to see what happens — surely a mission with a low potential for success.
The positives: Cinematography, sound and music are top-notch. All actors, including the international supporting cast, are terrific. Pattinson is outstanding as the solitary prisoner who finds hope in raising his daughter Willow (played as a 14-month old by Scarlett Lindsey and as a teen by Jessie Ross). Unfortunately, I do wish I could forget the brilliant performance of Juliette Binoche, my favorite actress, who is too convincing as Dr. Dibs, the insidious reproduction-obsessed crew doctor.
Denis claims High Life is about what it means to be human. (Life in really high places — get it?) The loving father/daughter thread exquisitely portrays humanity at its best, but the surrounding story is humanity wallowing in its worst.
The crew’s unending isolation means life is nothing more than maintaining existence. It’s 24 hours a day of being a hopeless victim, insanely seeking relief in drug addiction, endless exploration of bodily fluids, masturbation, rape, murder and suicide. Without even one ounce of humor, High Life is 110 minutes of emotional pummeling.
You’ve been warned.
Starts April 19 at the Fine Arts Theatre