' ' Cinema Romantico: High Life

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

High Life

Set in a spaceship beyond the solar system bound for a black hole, Claire Denis’s “High Life” begins with images of cooing baby girl. She is not on the ship alone, don’t worry, but in the company of a solo male caretaker, Monte (Robert Pattinson), outside the ship making repairs, who we eventually see communicating with his little girl by way of some sci-fi sort of baby monitor, the editing of alternating close-ups helping forge an intimacy despite their being apart. That intimacy, however, is compromised when Monte drops a tool, watching it drop into the void, and then stares out into that nothingness, the black of space stretching out into eternity. It’s an apt child-rearing metaphor, I imagine, where even the joy your young one brings does not prevent sometimes seeing deep into the abyss of exhaustion. It’s just as apt a metaphor for life itself, not a new observation but one Denis nonetheless engenders by emphasizing the abyss so brutally and insistently you might swear, a smirk similar to the one sported by the leading lady, who we will get to. Indeed, once Monte is back on the ship, we see him caring for this baby girl, Willow, in a series of blissful images before we then see him disposing of the lifeless bodies of his apparent crew mates by tossing them out the hatch where they just...float away, making them look like so many tears in the stars.

At that point “High Life” becomes flashback-heavy, cutting not just between past and present but even occasionally between earth and space, a way of learning how we got here, suggesting a puzzle, though it’s a puzzle that connects emotionally more than mechanically. This is not narrative cinema but a mood piece, and the mood is vulgar, underlined in the colors, frequently toggling between an icy blue and neon, each one depicting space as just another place for sleaze and scuzz. If “Alien” could sometimes feel like truckers in space, “High Life” feels like one of those 24 hour adult emporiums just off interstate exits for truckers, brought home in the astutely monikered Fuck Box, where many of the ship’s denizens frequently lock themselves, answering the question of how space pioneers on years-long missions might indulge age-old human desire.

Even if their mission, as we gather it, involves trying to harness energy from the black hole, that is barely addressed and hardly followed through, all these explicit images evoking creation and reproduction settling on something more akin to “2001’s” Star Child as Frankenstein’s Monster. The modern Prometheus, in this case, is Dibs (Binoche), her Rapunzel-ish braid suggesting an even more tangled version of that fairytale, who is not the mission’s commander but exerts control over the commander by sleeping with him, before he eventually bites the dust, his crude final plea and her cold, cold denial of it putting into harsh perspective Denis’s view of the human mind as a repository for pure filth.

In the meantime, Dibs uses the crew as mere specimens for gathering semen, trying to engineer a child. And though her character’s backstory evinces some reason why, her motivation is better conveyed merely in Binoche’s mad doctor air, a haughty smile judging everyone around her, moving seductively, like the star of some 1970s Times Square peep show. For a few minutes, “High Life” even becomes one, allowing us into the Box where Dibs pleasures herself, though Denis mostly keeps the camera in back, setting her white body against the deliberate black of the box, brilliantly comparing this image to the earlier one of dead bodies floating through space, rendering the most innate human desire, no matter how much Binoche leans into it, as no different than the void.

That sensation is evocative of the pessimism coursing through “High Life”, which also manifests itself in bouts of excessive violence, frequently sexual in nature, characters reduced to their animalistic urges, further emblemized in an encounter with another spaceship with one of the movie’s many overwrought metaphors, this one so labored I laughed out loud. The only counterweight to such extremes is Tchemy (Andre Benjamin) tending to the ship’s garden, where the color of green becomes as visually replenishing to us as the greenery’s actual oxygen to the crew, or how Monte takes a vow of celibacy, equating him with a monk, and which Pattison brings out in a performance that is as restrained as Binoche’s is florid.

Granted, even here Denis can’t help but mash our buttons, a jump cut speeding ahead to Willow’s teenage years making it seem, if only for a fleeting moment, that their relationship might now skew illicit. Even so, it is in this relationship and the emergent grim circumstances that brought it into being where Denis’s repetitive emblems of creation still shine through, “High Life” ultimately, almost unbelievably resembling the sensation of vines growing through revolting, stained cement.

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