High Life

“High Life” stars Robert Pattinson.

High Life

At The Myrna Loy


Grade: B

There are books I loved but which I found very hard to read. “Lord Jim,” for example, is a deeply moving portrait of a man who sails into a moral storm, and then spends his life trying to regain due north.

But I can’t count how many times I started that book and then put it down again. Conrad’s tale had flashbacks inside flashbacks and I got lost in the Matryoshka doll maze. But the story is mesmerizing.

I already regret leading with a Conrad classic to introduce a puzzling French sci-fi film, but I found myself envisioning Lord Jim as “High Life” unfolded. I suspect my frustration with the narrative style of this script reminded me of my struggle with Conrad.

In this case, we are on board a spacecraft on a one-way ticket to visit a black hole – and send back knowledge to curious earthlings as we spiral toward the swirling vortex.

Our companions on this journey are not soccer moms and scout-leader dads. All the crew, mostly male with some females, have been plucked from death row.

Perhaps they can earn redemption by unraveling some of Einstein’s mysteries?

Captives held captive in a space capsule are bound to misbehave. There are violent attacks, a rape and a killing. Sex is “regulated” on board the spaceship, which means, of course, bootleg sex happens on board. This is a long trip, so babies may be needed as the next generation of crew members.

Nothing overly interesting so far, right? Well, now let’s sprinkle in the feminine sensibility from French writer/director Claire Denis.

The opening scene finds a man teaching his baby to walk. Quite cute.

The last screen finds the same man holding the hand of his teenage daughter. Quite touching.

Same man. Same daughter.

Both on board all their life, and now both nearing their destination - and extinction.

Suddenly, we have love and compassion threaded into a seemingly typical male tale of violence in space.

And now we pause to ponder – and to apologize for underestimating writer/director Denis.

I can’t say the pieces all come together in “High Life,” but watching a hardened man soften as he raises a daughter kept me involved.

Admittedly, the violence is sometimes too harsh and the masturbation machine is a gratuitous embellishment.

But Juliette Binoche, a brilliant actress, plays a hardened and sometimes cruel female scientist. Robert Pattinson, of “Twilight” fame, captures the contradictions in the criminal-turned-father.

The script avoids happy endings and idealistic portrayals of space, preferring to explore darker currents. We watch violent prisoners try to adapt to their fate and to handle celibacy in space.

Some of this is fascinating, captivating.

But the story moves at a glacial pace, and the glimmers of existential insight have to be torn out of a labored structure. I was ready to take a nap during the baby-walks opening. Is this a training film for young dads, or what? Denis also mixes up the time flow, for devilish fun, I presume.

Eventually, I figured out why Denis inserts the long parenting scenes – to complicate the inner life of a killer sent into space for his crime.

And a feminist study of violent males in space is a provocative premise.

So, I have much to think about. Thank you, Claire.

Alas, can’t say I enjoyed the journey.

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