As part of an initiative to bring lesser-known films to Wrexham, 73 Cinema aim to show a variety of films that would otherwise have required a trip to bigger cities to view. Based in Ty Pawb, the second chosen feature was High Life (2018), Claire Denis’ first English-language project starring Robert Pattinson in the lead role as a death row inmate who is sent to space with other inmates in order to conduct experiments for those on Earth. Their major mission is to venture to the far ends of the Solar system and the minor mission is to attempt reproduction in space. Denis is a filmmaker who refuses to follow the rules and the brilliant use of non-linear structure reflects this. The film opens with remaining survivor, Monte (Pattinson) repairing the ship as his baby daughter, Willow, cries hysterically, causing him to lose a piece of equipment. There are moments of deep isolation in Monte’s eyes that are soon swept away when Willow starts to laugh and play. Willow becomes his driving force to survive.
Denis’ direction is outstanding and the film is beautifully still. The use of one major primary location is genius because it allows us to feel the claustrophobia. What is brilliant is how small the ship looks from the outside but it seems so big inside with each segment of the ship looking as though it is in an entirely different space. It’s difficult to believe that the same ship contains the garden that grows their food also contains the aptly-named “Fuck Box”, a room where the passengers go to obsessively masturbate. Monte is the only passenger who avoids the room, choosing to lead a celibate life and making him appear alien to the others. Pattinson knocks it out of the park with his performance. Monte is quiet and subdued, allowing the action of the film to be carried out by the more extroverted characters but he is also the most resilient of the bunch. Despite his crime, he has a strong moral compass and doesn’t lend himself to the violence easily. Pattinson carries this film and his performance as Monte appears natural. It’s a role that he was born to play.
The supporting cast are also strong with stellar performances from Juliette Binoche as the sinister Dibs, the ship doctor who is determined to complete the reproduction mission for her moment of glory and Mia Goth as troubled passenger, Boyse who is reluctant to participate in the experiment. Dibs is a character who can never be trusted and her presence onscreen immediately brings unease. She is unapologetic for her actions and what she does to Monte and Boyse is hugely upsetting and she shows no remorse. She is aware of her crimes and the monster she is but chooses not to linger on it with the exception of an emotional scene between her and Boyse in which she confronts her crime. It’s a moment in which Dibs becomes human and seems equal to the others. On the other hand, Goth is an actress who has shown much promise and fearlessness in her film choices since her debut in Lars von Trier’s sex-fuelled Nymphomaniac (2013). Her performance as Boyse shows a clear growth from her earlier work and I predict that she will have a long career. The scene in which she escapes in a ship to enter a blackhole is deeply disturbing and makes for one of the craziest death scenes I have ever seen in film.
As ever, the screenplay is what I pay attention to the most and the film has so many qualities that I admire. Written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the film could be described as a sci-fi horror set in space and yet is one of the most human features I have seen. It’s a claustrophobic study of human nature and the strength to survive in unknown conditions. As discussed, it is hugely intense and the script relies heavily on the actions rather than the dialogue. A lot of the time, the physicality and expressions of the character take us through a scene rather than what they are actually saying. Like the mission, the script also takes us into the unknown with twists and turns at every scene and motives change or emerge. There are only a couple of scenes based in Earth to give us a contextual glimpse into the background of the mission and the ship is used a primary location.
It is important to note that High Life is not a film for everybody. It doesn’t hold back in its grittiness with excessive violence, explicit rape scenes and suicide but it’s also a film that creates an intricate study into the human mind when thrust into impossible situations, demonstrating just how far people will go to ensure their legacy. Even in the vacuum of the universe, there is an obsession throughout the film with the idea of legacy and being heroes but in the end, it doesn’t matter. It is Monte’s refusal to engage with such ideals that has meant he is the last survivor. The final scenes between him and teenage Willow (Jessie Ross) bring the film to its hopeful conclusion as they venture into a black hole.
What did you think of High Life? Let me know in the comments below!