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High Life

Oblivion awaits.

Claire Denis is one of our greatest living filmmakers, but if you’re new to her work, the elliptical syntax and dreamlike intensity of her filmmaking might well leave you feeling perplexed – or seduced, or a queasy mix of both. Denis’ forays into the darker recesses of human experience don’t just rattle or disturb; they can make you feel as if something has blotted out the sun.

Poster for the Claire Denis drama High LifeHigh Life, her first English-language production, is a trip and a half. It’s a strange, transporting and disquietingly intimate drama set almost entirely in outer space, aboard a dingy space craft that bears witness to intense scenes of physical and sexual violence.

Robert Pattinson – going from strength to arthouse strength – plays a space traveler named Monte, though few people actually call him that. He is referred to as ‘Daddy’ by an adorable infant girl who, as the movie opens, appears to be his sole companion on board a ship flying well beyond the limits of our solar system. Flashbacks reveal an earlier and not always happier time, when Monte shared the ship’s cramped quarters with a crew of misfits and crooks, some of whom agreed to be cast into space as part of a government science experiment.

Juliette Binoche plays a controlling, vaguely sinister doctor who is obsessed with human reproduction, with ensuring that even in this singularly unpromising environment, human life survives. What that means, practically speaking, is a system of routine sperm donations and artificial inseminations from which Monte, the on-board ‘monk,’ abstains from participating.

I won’t say too much about some of the ship’s more intriguing on-board amenities, or the degree to which the movie juxtaposes a story of rampant sexual predation with a mood of simmering erotic tension.

High Life can be brutal and breathtakingly perverse as only a Denis film can be. But perhaps even more disturbingly, that brutality is undergirded by real warmth and tenderness, particularly in the scenes of Monte raising the baby, whose provenance is one of the film’s gradually unwinding mysteries.

One shot in particular briefly references, and deranges, the Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As you watch High Life, its aura of doomy isolation might also remind you of science-fiction classics like Stalker, Silent Running and Alien, to which Denis has responded with her own singular, staggering leap into the void. She’s a marvelous filmmaker, which is to say that nothing human is alien to her.

– Justin Chang, The Los Angeles Times

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