High Life

 

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Claire Denis moves into new areas but not in the event into the mainstream.

 
High Life

Robert Pattinson and Scarlett Lindsey

 

Marking a fresh step for the much-admired French filmmaker Claire Denis, this is her first film in the English language. In addition it's her first work to be set in outer space but, if that combination suggests something more commercial to draw in mainstream sci-fi fans, the fact is that, notwithstanding also two star presences (Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche), High Life is very much an arthouse film. Admirers of Denis may well welcome it but in my own case, having often found myself off her wavelength in the past, I certainly find that to be the case here.

 

That is not to say that High Life is without qualities. In particular, its portrayal of life on a vessel in space is strong on atmosphere: the production design is extremely adept, the photography every bit as good as one expects from Yorick Le Saux and the music by Stuart Staples and Tindersticks sustains the otherworldly sense required quite admirably. And, indeed, atmosphere is very much needed here since, despite the presence of Robert Pattinson from the start and on his best form, High Life is slow to develop its storyline. We do know that Monte (Pattinson's role) and a baby girl (Scarlett Lindsey) are the sole live occupants of the spacecraft that once had a much larger complement on board so the mystery of what happened to them is a drama promised. But, just as we are kept waiting for the title to appear on screen, brief inserts apart the flashback narrative takes ages to arrive.

 

In the event, though, the atmospheric introduction is more potent than anything that follows. We do learn that the craft set out on a mission aimed at utilising energy from a black hole in what is in effect a one-way mission having been undertaken by criminals released from jail for this very purpose - that even applies to the doctor on board (a thankless part for Binoche). However, the storytelling is such that the characters are insufficiently developed for anyone other than Monte to make much impression and the excitements that dramas set in space can provide are only occasionally present. As a substitute there is an emphasis on sexual issues including the deliberately vague use of what is described as 'The Box' into which people enter as a means of obtaining sexual satisfaction. How the baby seen at the start comes to be born does form part of a dramatic plot thread, but not one adequate to sustain a film lasting only a little short of two hours.

 

Although some critics have made comparisons between this and such superior works as Gravity (2013) and the original Solaris (1971), the film's characteristics such as the weak impression made by the characters themselves and its emphasis on telling music and visuals point instead to 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968). However, Kubrick's remarkable masterpiece continues to dwarf all later films that prompt thoughts of it and consequently even the best aspects of High Life immediately pale by comparison. Apparently, Denis has described her film as being about "Trust, fidelity and sincerity", but such an interpretation is not conveyed by what is on the screen.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Jessie Ross, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Edinger, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Victor Banerjee, Scarlett Lindsey.

 

Dir Claire Denis, Pro Andrew Lauren, D.J. Gugenheim, Laurence Clerc, Oliver Dungey, Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen and Olivier Théry-Lapiney, Screenplay Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau and Andrew Litvack with the collaboration of Geoff Cox, Ph Yorick Le Saux, Pro Des François-Renaud Labarthe, Ed Guy Lecorne, Music Stuart A. Staples, Costumes Judy Shrewsbury.

 

Andrew Lauren Productions/BFI/Arte France Cinema/ZDF Arte/Canal+/Cine+-Thunderbird Releasing.
113 mins. France/UK/USA/Germany/Poland. 2018. Rel: 10 May 2019. Cert. 18.