HIGH LIFE. Starring: Juliette Binoche, Robert Pattison, Lars Eidinger, Mia Goth, Gloria Obianyo, Jessie Ross, and Ewan Mitchell. Also, Andre Benjamin, and Agata Buzek. Directed by Claire Denis. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong themes, sex and violence). 113 min.
This is a horror science-fiction movie, which is the first film Director, Claire Denis, has made in the English language. It tells the story of a group of violent criminals, who are told they will be released from imprisonment if they volunteer for a spaceship mission to find sources of energy that can be harnessed for Earth. However, they must first agree to participate in human- reproduction experimentation which will be conducted by scientists on board their spaceship.
The ship is on an eight-year mission. Most of the prisoners are serving death sentences, and all have been promised that they will be released if they serve as subjects for experimentation headed by a pathological (criminally disturbed) scientist, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Dibs is obsessed with creating a child in space through artificial insemination. Her goal is to
extract semen samples from the male prisoners on board so as to inseminate the women prisoners. Dibs has no qualms about any sexual procedures that she thinks could lead to the creation of new life, and she is “totally devoted to reproduction” by any means.
Well into the voyage, a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and the ship’s captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) collapses and is euthanised. With Dibs in control, the sexual activity on board reflects the nature of her madness. Rapes are tolerated if they lead to life. A prisoner, Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), becomes pregnant, but dies with her newborn infant; and a scientist, Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) attempts to rape a prisoner, Boyse (Mia Goth), but his attempted rape is prevented by some of the remaining prisoners, who become violent.
The violence is quelled. Dibs sedates the remaining prisoners, and continues with her sexual experimentation. Boyse is impregnated by Dibs artificially with the semen of another prisoner, Monte (Robert Pattinson), and Boyse gives birth to a healthy child. After violence breaks out, an injured Dibs tells Monte that the child is his, before ejecting herself suicidally into space.
Monte struggles to raise his baby, who he names Willow. When Willow grows to be a teenager (Jessie Ross), another ship arrives, in which aggressive animals roam. Monte cannot board because of the risk of contamination that might kill both himself and his child. The film ends as Willow and Monte face the oblivion of a black hole which looms before them, and they enter it, hand in hand, in what they hope may mean survival. Willow says “we’ll make it through”, but Monte knows they won’t.
Claire Denis is a French Film Director, responsible for an acknowledged French classic, “Beau Travail” (1999). Here, she skilfully skirts the dark edge of horror with a movie, that is extremely disturbing. This is a piece of cinema that confronts head-on the positive idealism of science-fiction movies like “The Martian” (2015). It explores human survival in a complex, challenging way by targeting personal isolation, entrapment, and abuse, and deals immorally with most of the human relationships it depicts. It begins and ends humanely, but serious depravity exists in-between.
Denis has relatively little interest in cinema that obtrusively makes a moral point, and she prefers to deal with controversial emotions in uninhibited ways. Some of her imagery is positive, but most of it shocks in a totally confronting way.
This is a movie in which film-goers will be exposed to some extraordinary unsettling imagery. Its violence, and scenes of sexual assault and abuse, push it to the edge of adults-only viewing. This film won the FIPRESCI Award (for the development of film culture) at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in 2018. Its images of space are hauntingly beautiful, and Claire Denis’s direction is assured, but it displays scenes that many viewers would prefer not to have ever seen.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released June 6, 2019