ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry 29: High Life

Year: 2018

Runtime: 113 Minutes

Director: Claire Denis

Writer: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth

By Kristy Strouse

Claire Denis’ experimental sci-fi “High Life” (2018) is utterly bizarre- yes, but it’s also a reclusive and powerful picture. It’s a difficult film to quantify, and yet, despite its space odyssey setting, it really gets down to the meat of humanity. It’s more about relationships and isolation than it is about the exploration of black holes, or scientific experimentation.

Yes, that’s where it starts. As we eventually learn this ship once contained a group of previously death row inmates (including Mia Goth and André Benjamin) who were given the choice to be used as lab rats on a suicide mission. It gives you more time, and it may potentially help society find an alternative energy source, so it seems like an easy choice, right?

What She Said:

“High Life is richly layered, atmospheric, and as creepy as poison ivy winding its way around your leg.”

Debbie Holloway, Narrative Muse

We are first introduced to the story with a placid meandering, as we see our setting and our two main characters. Monte (Robert Pattinson), who is phenomenal, and the young infant Willow. Monte is subtle, but with bouts of intensity that make for a really interesting study of his character. He goes through helplessness throughout the film, but also executes real perseverance, even as others slowly lose themselves.  As we see his progression, where his story started, we understand it. Even more so, his only human connection now is his daughter, who is entirely reliant on him. They are quite literally floating around in the outer reaches of space together, if that’s not loneliness, what is?

high life baby.jpg

It’s a beautiful concept that wraps up love and pain remarkably well. The film is visually stunning, Denis has an impeccable eye for combining sight and sound to match the emotional presence of the script. You could watch “High Life” merely for the burst of colours, or the careful framing that at one time can make a room seem suffocating and yet endless in the next instant.

What She Said:

“Pattinson tackles a difficult role with aplomb. This is a side of the actor we have not seen before – more mature and thoughtful.”

Allison Rose, FlickDirect

There’s a mixture of experiences, jumbled and at times frustrating, but it doesn’t deter the film from being fundamentally profound. Despite the invites into life on Earth and on the ship before the others were gone, this is a very secluded movie. You feel the contradiction, its tininess and its enormity, and with such a diverting sense of weightlessness, it’s disorienting at times. Within that space, is the beauty of “High Life”.  With such a visceral feeling of loss and such an intimate setting, it’s nearly impossible not to feel the film in your bloodstream.

high life

With no shortage of strange or raw (and I mean, let’s be honest, there’s a pleasure box on the ship) there’s never an absence of inventiveness. This “box” is specifically there for the inhabitants to have their sexual fantasies fulfilled. One scene, with the always tremendous Juliette Binoche as Dibs, is shot in a way that’s ecstasy driven, but also almost terrifying in its ferocity. Most of the other sequences with her, as the medical officer, revolve around trying to get the women pregnant and have a viable fetus, but she never lets go of her sexual edges.

What She Said:

“High Life will send you back out into the world with a totally new idea of what black holes symbolize. It is an elliptical film, yes, because it will answer only the questions that you did not think to ask.”

Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic


There’s a consistent concept of recycling, whether it be fluids on the ship or the sense that these youngsters are being refurbished. It is also about feeling imprisoned, whether it be jail, this ship, space, or just… stuck, in a situation you can’t rectify. As the crew slowly begins to lose themselves, whether, by insanity or illness, there’s new life born, but is it too late? With a movie like “High Life” hope and doom seem to go hand in hand, and it isn’t an easy watch. There is a lot going on here, with a grimy shell that will suspend your expectations, surprising you with its grungy violence before hitting you with a dose of warmth and fatherly love.

High life space

It is an eerily felt film. The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk is brilliant. The score by Stuart Staples and Tindersticks takes us along for the ride with ample use of puncturing notes of guided optimism within the heavy void. Robert Pattinson truly shines, and as our main protagonist, it wouldn’t work without his performance. There are instances of utter misery etched into Pattinson’s gait to the lines on his face, but he continues on, as we all do, even in our most dire. The screenplay (by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, Andrew Litvack and Nick Laird) really hits the theological nail on the head and gives us a lot to think about while providing a beautiful, hypnotic film to endure. “High Life” is just the right kind of gradual sci-fi film we need, interweaving reality and the truth of our fragility with the fragmented solitude of space. There’s strength in love, no matter what it is born from.

Rating: 4 Out Of 5 Stars

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

BFI Player: Rent

iTunes: Rent & Buy

Curzon: Rent



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