This review contains plot points that could be considered spoilers.
Content warning: references to rape, sexual assault, and violence against women.
In Claire Denis’ first English-language film, High Life, there is so much to be intrigued by: its obsession with bodily fluids (“Never drink your own urine, Willow”); its potential critique of the prison system; its peculiar premise alone. Which is as follows — Monte (Robert Pattinson) is trapped on a spaceship, one of a group of “death row inmates selected to be used as guinea-pigs” in the reproductive experiments of the ruthless Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). At the start of the film, Monte’s alone on the ship, tasked with caring for a baby, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) — everyone else is dead. The rest unfolds through flashbacks and time jumps, set to a celestial soundtrack composed by Stuart A. Staples. Denis experiments with a strange shifting of aspect ratios and film textures, and peppers the film with ambiguous insert shots from life on Earth. Evocative of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), High Life’s production design is a welcome alternative to the cold austerity of conventional sci-fi aesthetics — dominated by earthy, root-vegetable tones and plant life. All of this to say: the film has obvious artistic strengths.
But with its gratuitous displays of violence against women, its three distressing rape scenes (one of which serves no narrative purpose whatsoever), and its disappointingly dismissive attitude towards the people of colour aboard the ship, High Life’s broader representational issues obscure its own potential.
Consider Boyse (Mia Goth), a fellow prisoner and the “big booty mother” (don’t ask) of Willow. When Monte hits her in the face hard enough to make her nose bleed (it is unclear why he does this), she responds by looking at him dreamily — the almost permanent state of her character — and touching his bloody hand. His perpetually rough treatment of Boyse appears to be a non-issue.
Likewise, Denis takes a somewhat negligent approach to the portrayal of sexual assault. Boyse and Monte are both assaulted by Dibs — she rapes Monte, and uses his semen to artificially inseminate Boyse; all of this occurring while both characters are unconscious. Dibs’ rape of Monte is a highly traumatic moment, but the scene appears almost sexualized — Denis herself has described it as “a soft rape”, and “a different thing” to the assaults on women. In the context of a world still choked by the myth that men don’t get raped, or that women can’t be rapists, Denis’ ‘ambiguous’ framing of this rape is not only in poor taste, but appears dangerously uncritical. There is some mild semblance of consequence later on — when Monte learns that he was raped, he hits himself in the face a few times — but beyond that, the film doesn’t seem concerned with the repercussions of these assaults. (Much of the burden falls on Pattinson’s face, then, to make visible this trauma, but more on that later.)
It could be argued that these rape scenes have narrative purpose as they contribute to the villainous characterization of Dibs. But what possible justification could be provided for the other rape scene, lengthy and brutal, in which a man assaults first an unconscious Boyse and then her conscious bunkmate, Mink (Claire Tran) — a scene that has absolutely no effect on the rest of the narrative, and seemingly no effect on its characters? Is it simply an opportunity for Monte to show up and save Boyse? And did any of these three assaults need to be played out in full, as they are, rendering the film not simply uncomfortable in its lack of commentary, but inaccessible to the masses of survivors who simply cannot get through such confronting scenes?
Despite Denis’ aesthetic experimentations, such scenes belie a conformity to a cinematic status quo that does little to challenge conventional bodily hierarchies. This adherence to convention is revealed again through Denis’ characterisation of the three people of colour on the ship: Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), Mink, and Tchemy (André Benjamin, credited third but given precious little to do). They are barely given personalities, though Benjamin’s subdued, unassuming performance is a lovely complement to Pattinson. When Elektra dies, early on, Tchemy laments: “Even up here, the black ones are the first to go.” This moment of lampshading does nothing to remedy the problem he’s observed, nor does it absolve Denis from being held accountable for killing off a black woman first. Most of the deaths are brief, and the film moves on from them fast, but the least attention is paid to these three characters. Tchemy himself is given death-by-montage, literally fading away, while Mink’s death is never seen or explained — she dies somewhere in the cuts between timelines. Hazy Dream Girl Boyse spends most of her time as a narrative device in the Dead Girl tradition, but at the very least, she is given a past. She is talked about and thought about, and through flashbacks her death is given some resonance — far more than those of Elektra, Mink, or Tchemy.
So thank goodness for Robert Pattinson, whose excellent performance remains compelling even when the film weakens narratively. He does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to empathy and trauma, swinging from tender and caring with the infant Willow to stoic and impenetrable around Dibs and Boyse. Even around Willow, there is always the slightest sense of sadness; of exhaustion. His situation — imprisoned, lost in space, responsible for an infant — is overwhelming. This comes through most clearly when he is trying to get his baby to stop crying and tells her, with desperation in his eyes, “Stop. It’s gonna kill me. Please.” There, he looks on the verge of collapsing.
There are these small moments of beauty throughout the film (most of them involving baby Willow, in fact), but these only make the work as a whole feel like a missed opportunity for something more thoughtful. Instead, its portrayals of violence and assault feel so glaring and insensitive that one questions how such a film could still expect allegiance from its audience. With dreamy pacing and surreal edits that evoke the sensation of floating in the void, much of High Life is — aesthetically, formally, stylistically — well done. But despite its arthouse style, there is nothing avant-garde about its approach to race, gender, and sexual assault.
High Life is showing as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival, which runs across multiple Australian capital cities from 6 March to 10 April.
Check out the full line-up here.
Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.