PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Claire Denis's Splendid 'High Life' Engages and Repulses

Mia Goth as Boyse in High Life (2018) (IMDB)

In existential nightmare, High Life, Claire Denis explores the darkest intersection between outer space and the human psyche.

High Life
Claire Denis


12 Apr 19 (US) / 10 May 19 (UK)


If astronomers could peer deeper into their startling black hole photographs, they might find Claire Denis's High Life screening there. The veteran French filmmaker's English language debut is grim, challenging stuff. High Life has the barest of sci-fi bones. There's a dilapidated spaceship (like Nostromo from Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien, only boxier and more claustrophobic), a crew of radiation-poisoned astronauts searching (ironically) for a black hole, and a mad scientist performing medical experiments. Even the high concept premise of a father and daughter struggling to survive in deep space is just a façade for something far more nebulous; the beauty, ugliness, and tantalizing futility of existence.

Denis supplies only the thinnest of tethers on this existential nightmare masquerading as a space movie. Monte (Robert Pattinson continues his string of winning indie roles) repairs the outside of his spaceship while the cooing gibberish of a toddler rattles inside of his helmet. The coos belong to his daughter Willow, the ship (romantically dubbed '7') is on a one-way ticket to destruction, and Monte, as we eventually learn, is a murderer.

They are adrift. The crew's whereabouts, the ship's mission, and Monte's motivations are at first mysterious. His lifeblood is steeped in routine. He prepares gelatinous space porridge for Willow, tends the fledgling strawberries growing in the greenhouse, and makes daily reports to an ancient onboard computer that looks incapable of playing Atari Pong, let alone operating a spaceship. Each report ends with the computer graciously granting "prolongation of life support for 24 hours."

Robert Pattinson as Monte and Scarlett Lindsey as Willow - Baby (IMDB)

As if the past were scrambled by the crushing vortex of space-time outside the ship, Denis (35 Shots of Rum, 2008, Let the Sunshine In, 2017) parses out clues to a puzzle that never quite fits together. Flashbacks reveal that Monte and Willow are the last survivors of a prison ship; its inmates lured aboard with false hopes of parole in exchange for harnessing the energy from a nearby black hole. What little we learn of the inmates is archetypal. Nansen (Agata Buzek) is the pilot, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the psychopath, Tcherny (André Benjamin) is the philosopher, and Boyse (Mia Goth) is the mother. Each is there to occupy a niche in Monte's life, even if he can't fully appreciate their significance.

More central is the deliciously weird Juliette Binoche as Dr. Dibs. Finding a black hole may be the mission objective, but Dr. Dibs is obsessed only with creating life. She trades drugs for the inmate's semen and then inseminates the female prisoners using a glorified turkey baster. Perhaps she's trying to balance the cosmic scales for murdering her children back on Earth, or maybe she just gets off on control. Occasionally the so-called 'Shaman of Sperm' adjourns to The Box, a psychedelic virtual-reality chamber designed to indulge every orgiastic desire. Binoche surrenders herself completely to the role, writhing naked on the unspeakably vulgar machine until it literally oozes bodily fluids when the deed is done. Yes, this is a disturbing journey we've undertaken, dear traveler.

Dialogue is at a premium here, as Denis prefers lingering visuals or sharp, sudden bursts of emotional violence. You can almost feel the cold tiles on your feet as Monte silently shuffles through the sparse corridors. Overhead, a light flickers ominously as if the power is about to shut down; one imagines the smell of rotten meat wafting from down the corridors. It's that kind of place. Where bodies accumulate in darkened rooms until Monte unceremoniously hurls them into the void of space.

Juliette Binoche as Dr. Dibbs (IMDB)

Don't expect Industrial Light & Magic to come crashing through the capsule accompanied by Hans Zimmer's thunderous score. Our only glimpse of cosmic spectacle comes through the window, and our only break from the silence of space is Stuart A. Staples's thrumming, atmospheric soundtrack. The idea of a black hole is captured through grimy, smeared light and scattered particles. And the Event Horizon… glowing hot and yellow… the point of no return. This is where everything begins and ends. What comes between the beginning and the ending is a hopeless collage of birth, sorrow, joy, death, and subjugation.

Like the black hole, you can journey as deeply into Denis's psychological treatise on humanity as you wish. She explores every facet of imprisonment through symbol and metaphor; her true artistic mediums. We are prisoners to biology, social systems, mortality, and ultimately, this spinning chunk of earth hurtling through the cosmos.

Yet there's also a comforting simplicity to High Life. Monte and Willow spend ample time doing the things that adults and children do. They play and chatter, or share the type of peaceful slumber that nothing in the world (or outer space) can disturb. Monte lovingly repairs Willow's precious cloth doll, which she is free to ignore or abuse at her leisure. These moments, profound and unspoken, are a fundamental celebration of our connectivity. There may be a black hole waiting at the end of this journey, but the connections formed along the way are what sustain us in the meantime.

High Life is dark and unforgiving cinema. Perhaps it's more accurate to say one survives it rather than watches it, but there's no denying its immersive power. Denis holds you enthralled with the promise of answers. There aren't any to be found, of course, which is entirely the point. Fearless travelers will find much to appreciate in the endless ambiguities of High Life.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.