High Life is basically a broody teen freshman sitting in his very first college course, finally free to ask what he feels are profound questions about sex. Writer/director Claire Denis’s talent and cinematic acumen are beyond reproach, but even Aristotle has lesser works, right? Her first English-only film is, sadly, a sleepy slog seemingly content to half-postulate philosophical quandaries without ever doing the hard work of proposing any measure of an answer. Were it not for the impeccable pedigree of its creator, High Life’s staying power would disappear faster than the carbonation in an open can of the “champagne of beers” on a summer day.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is the sole remaining astronaut on a ship once filled with criminals that was shot into outer space for a combo of research and capital punishment. Denis is likely right in assuming that welding murderous revenge onto science is likely the only way the public will ever go HAM for STEM. Monte does have company: a baby. Discovering how this baby came to be is the crux of what passes as a plot.
It involves a disgraced doctor who slaughtered her family (Juliette Binoche), a steel-willed female prisoner (Mia Goth), loads of pulse-pounding gardening and a self-pleasure room so vile, E.L. James thinks it doth protest too much. High Life seizes from the past to the present and back again without ever even accidentally generating suspense. Instead, the whole thing is a journey to a black hole, a metaphorical bellybutton that makes all the navel-gazing quite literal.
Honestly, High Life should have been weirder. From the clunky rationale for why the ship has gravity to the tamest possible event horizon encounter, nothing about the film feels as dreamlike or hallucinatory as would be warranted. It’s mostly just Pattinson pouting, intermittently interrupted by sexual assault and dog murder. If that sounds unpleasant, please know there’s also the most embarrassing scene Binoche has ever filmed, and she appeared in the live-action Ghost in the Shell.
Pattinson acquits himself just fine, although he’s never asked to do much more than frown. Denis seemingly asks more of her audience than she did of her performers. If this is meant to engage issues about morality, the human capacity for survival or whether procreation is a substitute for purpose, those debates all happen between the viewers and themselves. High Life is a Philosophy 101 term paper where every sentence ends in a question mark.
The collision between weird, obtuse art and science-fiction can make for provocative, exciting cinema. High Life is not any of that. Instead, it is a leaden, posturing misfire from a renowned artist. That’s totally fine. It happens. Every rabidly positive review of the film feels like it was either written by someone who saw an entirely different version or, far more likely, by someone replacing High Life’s actual banality with the spirited creativity they expected.
Grade = D