High Life, a Contemplative, Tragic Tale Made Haunting by Director Claire Denis’s Thoughtfulness: TIFF Review


Claire Denis is without a doubt one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today, but one can only find it so difficult where exactly to place expectations for what could turn out from a film set in deep space written and directed by her. There’s no exact way for one to define the sort of films that she makes, but that’s part of the reason she has remained one to keep my own eyes peeled out for. Yet I don’t think even having loved so many of Claire Denis’s past films can prepare me for what was set to come forth with High Life, because there’s another door she’s opening with this film that I don’t even know if many other filmmakers would ever dare to approach. But I think that’s why I know for a fact that I love what she does behind the camera, because I know that with films like this she’ll truly remain one of cinema’s greatest miracles, especially if we are going to speak those who are still working today. High Life is a difficult film to describe, but that’s one among many reasons I still find it to be so infinitely fascinating too, because it’s almost like Claire Denis is making a film all about what’s set up for humanity’s own future too, and it also makes me look forward to more English-language features from her.


Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, one among a group of criminals who are sent to space as part of a program in which they are promised freedom by travelling towards a black hole as the scientists on board perform sexual experiments on them. Through the use of artificial insemination, Monte has also had a daughter while on board, although he has also come to accept his own love for her while in space. Claire Denis as always been a playful filmmaker, but her approach to often difficult subject matter remains so uncompromising and being her first film in the English language, her attention to detail is something that remains so stunning. Yet even with a concept of this sort, there’s something special about the sort of touch that Claire Denis adds from her work behind the camera that allows High Life to stand out. This isn’t the sort of film that I can see any other filmmaker even attempt to bring to the screen, but among the most haunting elements that come by within such a work from start to finish – it’d be hard enough trying to put together why every moment of it only ever manages to work so perfectly. But I can only guess so much when talking about a filmmaker like Claire Denis, and if there’s anything else to be said, one can only look at a film like this as proof that she truly is one of the most thoughtful working filmmakers – and it always runs clear no matter what genre she works with.

Denis isn’t exactly one to show off so much about what else takes place in space, but there’s a great deal to admire about the minimalism to her own filmmaking in this instance. Like Damien Chazelle’s own First Man, this isn’t so much a film about space but rather the very possibilities of what trying to breach an unbroken barrier could mean for the future of humankind – only Claire Denis’s approach shows far more signs of being incredibly playful. When working around a concept of this sort, she makes the very most out of what possibilities she has to work around, especially with capturing the essence of the human spirit – though if anything else were to be said, you’ll only ever find something nearly untouchable in High Life. It’s untouchable in the sense that Denis remains one of cinema’s most daring provocateurs of recent memory, no matter how much she can work with and no matter how big or small her ideas may be, there’s something more to admire about what it is that she manages to bring here especially regarding the limits of human boundaries. She makes the most out of both the claustrophobic setting in space and the lack of limits regarding what’s possible in High Life, in a most daring film all about humankind beyond Earth – and what more is to come.

Space travel is not the primary focus on Denis’s mind here, but there’s a whole lot to admire in High Life and its own portrait of how the loneliness of space travel can even consume the minds of any sort of human being – for better or for worse. It starts off from how Denis contrasts two sorts of lifestyles in this case, with showing only the worst of what’s to come on Earth and the very uncertainty of what space travel would have in store for the convicts who are treated like crew members on board the ship, from the abstract nature of the imagery of what a black hole looks like – all to incredibly disturbing results. But they never leave your head the moment you first see them, but neither does the nature of the story being told. These convicts are also lab rats for he sexual experiments of Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, who wants to see if it is possible to conceive a child in space. Denis’s understanding of the necessities for life far and beyond what we know, especially after our time on Earth, doesn’t only make for a deeply unsettling feature, but you feel even more trapped with these characters as they travel to an uncertain fate.

Yet in a most unexpected sense, High Life also manages to create a beautifully touching experience. Amidst all the grotesque imagery that Denis floods the screen with, there’s something all the more touching just from watching the scenes with Monte merely spending time with his daughter. He merely wants to be able to survive inside of a small space because he knows for certain he does not have any choice to go against the doctor’s wishes, if he did not want to remain so lonely in deep space. In recent memory, Robert Pattinson has already proven himself to be a talent worth looking out for after his work together with David Cronenberg and the Safdie brothers, but there’s a sense of restraint in his performance here that never lets go of the pain that Monte would have experienced the moment he first came on board the ship. As the pieces come together in that final sequence, what also comes forth is one of the most haunting sequences of recent memory.

High Life isn’t any other science fiction film, but if there’s anything that Claire Denis has proven about herself with each new film, she only remains a unique cinematic experimenter that can’t ever be replicated in any sense of the word. It’s a film that makes you feel trapped as if you’re part of the experience, in the same way that many of the best films about space travel would evoke. To say that Claire Denis is a provocateur would be one way of putting it, but her understanding of human instincts especially nearing the uncertainty of a future beyond time – whether it be for the better or for the worse, many filmmakers can’t touch that experience. You’ll only leave High Life wanting more answers about what comes forward, because feeling trapped in Monte’s position throughout this journey can only leave oneself every bit as pained as he did adapting from one lifestyle to another. But therein lies the greatest tragedy of such a future, we just can never know for certain.

Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Pandora Filmproduction.

Directed by Claire Denis
Screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox
Produced by Laurence Clerc, Oliver Dungey, Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen, Olivier Théry-Lapiney
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth
Release Date: September 9, 2018 (Toronto)
Running Time: 110 minutes


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