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TIFF Review: High Life – “Disturbing and uncomfortable to watch”

The opening sequence of High Life shows Robert Pattinson fixing the outside of a spaceship. Inside, a baby girl in a makeshift play-pen is crying. Not just crying, but emitting piercing, blood-curdling screams. It causes Pattinson to drop his tool which goes floating off into impenetrable darkness – a reminder of the stark void in which he travels.

Through flashbacks we learn that Monte (Pattinson) was on death row back on Earth, imprisoned for an unspeakable crime. So he made a deal, along with some other inmates, to leave for the vastness of space, a suicide mission of sorts as they head towards a black hole closest to our planet. But there’s also another reason they’re on the ship – as subjects in an experiment curated by a cruel, deranged doctor, Juliette Binoche.

As one could expect, putting violent criminals in a claustrophobic environment is a recipe for disaster. Everyone has scars here, as we are visually reminded.  While hurtling through space the group deals with their own morality and tendencies, Lord of the Flies-esque in concept but taken to the nth degree. Violent acts, rape, illness, drugs all occur within this metal box and the film is at its best when it’s looking at how the characters all interact with one another and their humanity (or lack thereof). We never find out much about the supporting character’s stories here, it’s almost all about the present, and director Claire Denis’ keen eye for observation makes this compelling.

However, there’s also a lot of bizarre accompaniments to this story including a box where inmates can pleasure themselves (and where you see a fairly long sequence of Binoche utilizing its toys) and a cacophony of bodily fluids. It can be, at times, disturbing and uncomfortable to watch and in the end just wasn’t for me. I give full credit to Denis, a brave and provocative filmmaker for a movie that I still couldn’t look away from despite not enjoying it on the whole. Part of this is due to Pattinson, who continues to be a formidable actor in indie fare.

High Life does have the ability to engage and Denis pushes the boundaries with artistic merit.  However, this film is going to be divisive (not unlike Vox Lux, also at the festival) and is not for the average mainstream moviegoer, though it wasn’t made for them either. Fans of Denis’ previous work will likely see a triumph, but some may leave, as I did, feeling unfulfilled.

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