The French director's English-language debut starring Robert Pattinson is somehow both meditative and zany
HIGH LIFE (Claire Denis). 110 minutes. Opens Friday (April 19). See listing. Rating: NNNN
French director Denis’s long-gestating sci-fi project and English-language debut intriguingly opens with Robert Pattinson nurturing a baby while doing maintenance on an empty space vessel. Gradually, we learn he is aboard a prison ship once populated with ex-cons who were part of a reproductive experiment overseen by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), dubbed the “shaman of sperm.”
More prison drama than sci-fi, High Life’s story unfolds through a complex time structure and a series of memorable sequences – like when Binoche enters a masturbation chamber called the fuck box – though plot details are spelled out in stagey dialogue that is often crude, curt and funny. (Sample: “Douching is for amateurs.”)
Denis simultaneously stretches the artificiality of her sexed-up conceit into serious and zany directions in order to contemplate morality and human impulses. Basically, she has created a meditative B-movie. Though the support cast is underused (especially André Benjamin), the simple and barely futuristic aesthetic adds urgency to High Life’s existential concerns. If there’s such a thing as understated arthouse camp, this is it.