If Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are competing for the prize of who can get furthest away from Twilight, High Life may well give Pattinson the edge…
Monte, a father, (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter Willow (later played by Jessie Ross as a teenager) are drifting through space – they are very much alone. The mysteriously empty ship must be updated on progress every 24 hours to allow the oxygen to function. Monte is troubled by flashbacks, both of his adolescence, when he committed a terrible crime, and of a more recent past, when the ship wasn’t deserted. Monte decides it is time to let go of a part of that past and drags the dead bodies of his former crew mates out into space where they drift away…
Flashing back to a time not long before when the ship was populated by a small number of travellers, all criminals on earth, either from Death Row or serving life sentences, we learn they are on a one way mission towards the Earth’s closest black hole.
As you can imagine, populating a small space with psychologically damaged/sadistic criminals might bring some difficulties to light. As we learn about some of the groups crimes, their eccentricities also shine through. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is the ship’s “doctor” who is on her own mission to create the “perfect” baby by collection the men’s sperm and impregnating the women. This is accepted, weirdly, by most of the crew.
Sex is also an ever-present theme in High Life. In one half-erotic half-very-hard-to-watch scene Dibs uses a room called the “box” where the crew can masturbate using a variety of sex toys and equipment. The only abstainer to both the sex and the collection of sperm is Monte. However, through her own sexual devises, and the use of a sedative, Dibs gets Monte’s sperm and impregnates Boyse (Mia Goth) and the baby is eventually born.
We witness the deaths of all the other shipmates apart from Monte. Some are killed by other shipmates and some through natural means or suicide. One particularly spectacular death is Boyse’s, who gets spagettied when taking a ship out into space.
Flash forward and Willow is a teenager, having lived alone with her father for practically her whole life. Monte and Willow then make a decision that means they will never go home… the end.
Where do I start? I suppose the beginning is a good place. I really enjoyed the beginning. I liked the mystery of how and why Monte and Willow were stuck on a spaceship and Monte’s caring & loving parenting mixed with the difficulties that all babies bring. I also liked the small and fast flashbacks that allowed us to see into the past of Monte’s life and into his crime.
However, although I like non-linear timelines, and enjoy the confusion that comes from working out what bit of the plot goes where, I wanted more back and fourth, rather than a sandwich of future – past – future. Maybe that’s a personal choice, as I was more enjoying the slow-paced life of Monte in comparison to the sex-fulled, violent life of living with the other criminals, but I think a more chopped-up timeline would have been interesting and added to the pacing.
Let’s talk about the sex. One thing is for sure, I didn’t recommend this film to my mother. However, that’s not to say that the sex/masturbation scenes weren’t distasteful – they weren’t. In some cases they were even erotic and sexy. However, some of the scenes that involved sex/masturbation made it seem like this was the biggest concern of some of the crew and I thought that detracted from their wider concerns. For example Boyse, we learn from a flashback, was an addict on Earth – wouldn’t this affect her more?
And what about the crimes of the other crewmates? We do learn about Dibs’ crime, she killed her child and husband, which explains her obsession with creating the “perfect” child. However, if we had known a little more backstory about the others, their characters may have seemed a little more fleshed out.
I loved the ending. I liked the relationship between Monte and Willow a lot and was thirsty for more about how they lived together in the time we didn’t see. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was done well and left the story both concluded and wide open…
The Q & A
Thanks to Paul Salt, of Screen Mayhem, I was lucky enough to attend the preview of High Life at the BFI Southbank, along with a Q & A afterwards.
The Q & A was one of the most painful experiences I’ve experienced in a cinema. The combination of the host’s nervousness, mixed with her lack of confidence made coming up against a formidable personality like Claire Denis not a pleasant experience for her or for us. Her questions, although perfectly reasonable, were batted away by Denis with a sort of ‘you clearly don’t understand my work’ air, and it made both Paul and I cringe in our seats, we also noted a lot more people than usual leaving the Q&A in the midst.
One thing we did learn, is that Denis clearly has a very solid view of what her movie is about. The host asked if Denis was bothered by the fact that some people may not understand the movie, to which Denis replied ‘maybe you didn’t understand the movie.’ A combative response that didn’t exactly endear me to her.
4 / 5*
*But could easily have been a 5 or a 3, depending on my second viewing, hard to tell at this stage, maybe I’ll get back to you.