‘Claire Denis’ "High Life" had an underwhelming world premiere at the Roy Thomson Hall during the Toronto Film Festival, for which I attended. Around half the audience had already left the theater by the time the film ended, you could just tell nobody was into it. And this is coming from a fest that prides itself in having the best audience in the world. Even Toronto audiences couldn't deal with the metaphorical artsy ambitions that were unfurling on the screen. And I don't mean that as a detraction of Denis' mad ambitions in "High Life," which, by all accounts, warranted a repeat viewing on my part.
I saw it again earlier this week and can safely say that it plays better on second viewing. Does it now get a pass from yours truly? I believe so. It’s a perplexing movie that with every viewing may have its qualities enhanced further. Denis has always been hit and miss with me; When the French filmmaker is on her game (“Beau Travail,” “35 Shots of Rum”) her experiments turn out to be landmark events. But the filmmaker also has a knack of overdoing it, being so full of herself that it ends becoming incredibly detrimental to the overall focus of her films. The NYC elitists over at the Lincoln Center still eat her stuff up every time she has a new film, but what about the rest of cinephiles? Denis has never transferred her Big Apple fame to the rest of America - Hell, even journalists from her own country of France are baffled by her Goddess stature at the Lincoln Center. After all, Denis has never been selected for official competition at Cannes. A slap in the face for the director.
"High Life” is her deep space opera. A film set beyond our solar system as Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter Willow survive together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation of the nothingness around them. Monte fathered the girl back when the spacecraft had 7 death row inmates who were sent up to space, as guinea pigs, to explore the possibilities of black holes. Now only Monte and Willow are left. What happened? Through flashbacks we get to see the moral and ethical downfall that occurred which culminated with just Monte and Willow being the sole survivors.
The film is, of course, much more complex than that. There’s literally a fuck-box that Juliette Binoche’s biochemist Dr. Dibs keeps pleasuring herself with As Binoche self-pleasures, Denis cuts to a shot of the floor, the machine drips her ejaculation to make a mini flood of sexual juice. Not to mention Dibs is specifically on this ship to harvest the crew’s eggs and semen. Another highlight is Mia Goth’s scathingly dangerous performance as Boyse, a woman whose thwarted desires lead her to near insanity. It’s just that kind of a movie. Despite the flawed prologue, the crux of the film is intriguingly ambiguous, you do wonder where Denis will go next, there are ideas splattered in every frame, which makes for a fascinating experiment on her part.
“High Life” is Denis’ first film in English, and her only one set in space. The screenplay she wrote, with Jean-Pol Fargeau, has specific imagery meant to be accentuated by Yorick Le Saux’s elegantly simple cinematography and the too-subtle-you-might-miss-it brilliance of Stuart Staples’ humming score. Denis told me she’d rather her film be called a “prison movie” than science fiction and one does understand why after watching the film. In “High Life” space is prison, a never-ending void that has limited possibilities for the mind, despite the unlimited abyss it is set in.