NYFF Film Review: Robert Pattinson Provides Compelling Work in the Confounding ‘High Life’

There are times in Claire Denis‘ new movie “High Life” that it’s almost impossible to know what’s on her mind. At other times, the haunting images and strong lead performance from Robert Pattinson shines through. It’s a puzzling bit of cinema playing at the New York Film Festival. Often confounding, nearly impenetrable, and almost impossible to describe. It’s something you need to see in order to get. At the same time though, is it worth seeing? That’s truly something up for debate. Honestly, a positive review and a negative review for this flick won’t be too different from each other. It just comes down to if you can get on Denis’ wavelength. Most won’t even come close.

“High Life” continues a disturbing trend at NYFF this year of poor treatment towards dogs. At least here it somewhat makes narrative sense. Or, it makes as much sense as anything else in this flick. Deliberately challenging, you get the feeling that Denis doesn’t care one iota if you like this movie or not. That cuts both ways for a filmmaker. On the one hand, it creates a freedom. On the other, it can hold the audience at a real distance. That’s what happens here, unfortunately.

Set on a spaceship in the midst of a long mission, it initially appears like its only inhabitants are Monte (Pattinson) and a baby named Willow. Is this his daughter? The offspring of a former crew member? Monte does maintenance on the ship, while flashbacks show a childhood crime of this. Then, slightly more blanks are filled in. This is a prison ship of sorts, with the crew having been given the option to carry out a suicide mission to a black hole, in lieu of sentencing. Other crew members we come to discover included Tcherny (André Benjamin) and Boyse (Mia Goth). Where did they go? Was there an accident? Murder? Nothing is initially clear.

We learn that they were also under the supervision of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who has a separate agenda. She was studying reproduction in space, sometimes against the crew’s wishes. As things flash back and forth in time, we also see an older Monte and Willow (Jessie Ross). The less said about this part, the better. Then again, could this plot even be properly described?

Robert Pattinson continues a fascinating post “Twilight” career. Pattinson almost exclusively chooses to act in challenging material. This performance is dedicated and intense, which is required for from the film. He fares better than André Benjamin, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, and Jessie Ross. None of them get enough screen time to be more than of passing interest to you. It’s all about Pattinson here, as the closest thing to a human connection that the movie offers up.

You can’t deny that filmmaker Claire Denis has a vision in “High Life.” That vision just happens to include poor fates for dogs (a festival theme, it seems), forced insemination, and sexual taboos. There’s nothing wrong with that, though Denis’ direction makes it all as unpleasant as possible. The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux has some beautiful shots, especially within the ugliness of the story. However, the script Denis wrote with Geoff Cox and Jean-Pol Fargeau is obtuse to the point of utter frustration.

Nothing at NYFF this year is as demanding a movie as “High Life.” You have to go all in to have any chance of connecting with it. Some folks will. Some folks won’t. A24 seems up to the challenge when they release it as some point in the future. Yours truly couldn’t quite meet the flick in the middle. That might just be my failing. If you seek it out, you’ll be able to decide for yourself.


GRADE: (★★½)