Revered French filmmaker Claire Denis (Beau Travail, White Material) makes her English language debut in the form of a nightmarish, purgatorial deep space Robert Pattinson vehicle. High Life did not prove a comfortable watch at the Elgin theatre during an early morning TIFF screening on a few hours of sleep. Antsy and caffeine riddled, I kept trying to relax, to find steady rhythm within Denis’ depraved vision of the void and doomy atmosphere. No sir, there’s none of that here.
It all plays out like an erotic, other dimensional evil twin of Solaris with a sprinkling of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Denis’ trip into the dark corners of space holds none of the hope or warmth found in the aforementioned titles. Her idea of science fiction is bleak, about as hopeless as anything you’ll encounter this fall season. Pattinson plays a convict named Monte, who wanders and mutters sweet nothings whilst raising an infant child, teaching her how to walk on a musty, sepia toned death shuttle hurdling towards a black hole at the speed of light. We travel back and fourth in time, visiting the past and how Pattinson and the rest of the death row astronauts came to end up on the doomed mission. Some of them are petty thugs; others are real killers with sketchy tattoos and evil faces. There’s a standout freak in Juliette Binoche’s turn as Dr. Dibs, a maniacal presence who performs sexual experiments on the other cons, her ultimate goal is to bring life to environment that’s already dead like some sort of rogue God figure. The segment in which she lets her impossibly long ponytail down and gears up the ships “Fuckbox” is haphazard to say the least. It will surely conjure up scowls and fast-paced walk outs if High Life sees a wide theatrical release.
Denis is not looking to appease the average moviegoer, though. She’s confident and knows how to shock with high-powered filmmaking. The idea behind High Life is golden and darkly fascinating. A synopsis open to vast amounts of creativity and playgrounds. She chooses to show us human beings at their most animalistic, in the face of certain obliteration, the soul in constant jeopardy and waning in a futile couple of years, days, seconds or perhaps millennia. Out of the despair we see love bloom, a father cherishing his future: a baby girl. She cries and it threatens to kill him inside. He clings to the moments of normalcy before the dark, so when an innocent, naive mind tries to reassure that the collapsed star won’t swallow their souls, Monte stays silent and throws on his space suit for the last dive.
Until the very end, Denis pelts the major events with silent frames of the ominous black hole. A character all its own, the final destination and harbinger of non-existence, waiting for them as it always has been, especially for those who believe there’s something on the other side.