Arthouse in Space is Science Fiction…ish: HIGH LIFE.

Initial release: September 2018. Screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox. Directed by Claire Denis.

Summary: Former death row inmate Monte and his infant daughter Willow hurtle through space in a former prison ship. They are the last survivors of a group of prisoners who avoided execution by agreeing to take part in an experimental one-way journey to try and extract energy from a black hole.

High Life is a piece of work, and I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult. It’s extremely challenging, moving mostly at a glacial pace which brings to mind Stalker, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey

yes that opening was very familiar and so was the ending not everyone misses the 70s this much you know

and then switching to cringingly brutal violence, abstracted slightly by a blue tinge which makes blood look black, but no less horrifying. It certainly generates a lot of tension, but sometimes I found the lovingly-rendered stills of the fruit in the garden and the tattered hallways a bit much

maybe she’s a twitchy Millennial, maybe she wants a more linear narrative

and I did catch myself checking my watch a few times. I have to admit, to my intellectual shame, that I struggled with this movie. It’s definitely brilliant, but it is generally more likely to make me want to watch Claire Denis’ other films than rewatch this one.

yeah hope you didn’t come here for the intellectual take there are countless ones of those already

The story follows Monte and his infant daughter Willow, who are the sole surviving inhabitants of prison ship 7 (at least, I think that’s its name, that’s certainly the number). Monte tries to juggle keeping the ship running and taking care of the toddler, and for a horrifying moment I thought this was where the movie was staying, shot after artistic shot of a man and his baby. Thankfully, the film mostly takes place in flashbacks, depicting the crew and their warden, the complicated Dr. Dibs. These inmates are a weird bunch, whose names I didn’t all retain, as they included unusual ones like Boyse. Many of them I only really recognised after their demise, and I also lost track – I was certain by the end that at least two were still alive.

a rewatch might be in order after all

There were several interesting meta-narrative points about this film. One of them is that this was Denis’s first English-language work. Another is that it was made for eight million euros and that one of the script co-consultants or co-writers was a physicist and black hole specialist. The low budget shows in many ways, especially the design of the ship

it’s sort of silly if you are going for immersion and give me a cardboard box which reminds me of uchu daikaiju girara ma’am if you are making me think of giant space chicken during your deep artistic dive into the meaning of human nature then something has gone wrong

but it’s mostly not distracting, and I was extremely pleased by the black hole effects, which were overseen by Islandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson

who designed the extremely cool rainbow panorama on top of Arhus Art Museum ARoS

I laud the inclusion of astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau to the team. It speaks for Denis that she brought in a professional, and indeed undertook some important research herself on her first venture into SF. I only wish some other people

cough passenger armageddon the day after tomorrow avatar cough

would do similar groundwork.

Robert Pattinson did a good job with the role, although there was something slightly off about it. This made sense when I read that it was originally written for Philip Seymour Hoffmann, so I would like to say Pattison actually did a really great job, that is not an easy spot to fill.

I had to think about it for a few days, but I eventually decided that I admired High Life, even though it is, at its core, less about SF than it is about imprisonment and despair. The isolation the prisoners feel, and the way Monte winds up raising the infant alone, is suggestive of proto-SF from 100 years ago. It was only after Earth was sufficiently “discovered”

let’s not get into that here

writers moved their adventure stories to the stars. This is why we consider the exploration novels of the 19th century to be a kind of early SF

but this is a whole can of alien spawn which we will tackle eventually stay tuned

because it is the isolation and the exploration of the unpredictable unknown that makes up the appeal. High Life riffs on a lot of things, even to my mind, some Jules Verne writing.

Verne’s not exactly ambiguous though he’s a weird thing to find in a arthouse film but I’ll take it

I liked the micro-examinations of the characters very much, but I live for well-written interpersonal drama. Especially the way much character background was never fully explained worked very well for me. We do not need to know everything, and often negative space is enough for me.

I did feel like some of it might be translated from French, as some of the phrasing felt peculiar, but it suited the unsettling sense you have during the entire experience. The whole movie works very well on the uncanny front, from the 70s-reminiscient soundtrack to the treatment of sex and abuse, which is graphic and bracing, but not exploitative.

The character who stuck out most to me was Dr. Dibs, who uses the prisoners as test subjects in her – extremely dubious – research into reproduction. The doctor who was sentenced to death row for something I will not spoil is reminiscent of a classical movie witch in several ways, from her waist-long black hair to her obsession with children

also she has the most eye-opening solo sex scene I have ever seen in a movie so props for that I guess

and so contributes to the dream-like air, right up until her final scene.

Denis herself characterises Dibs this way but that’s a spoiler so be warned

I don’t really know whether I liked High Life personally, but I feel my Aronofsky principle might apply. See it if you like Denis, SF, French arthouse, or just want a surreal experience.