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‘High Life’ is a work of art that you have to work to appreciate

High Life is a work of art. It’s a work of art that you really have to work at to appreciate, since it makes very few concessions to its audience regarding storyline or characters. In fact, you spend most of its 110 minutes just trying to make sense of what’s going on. In the end, there are still gaps in your understanding but you do realize the movie does have a commercially viable premise and its characters had the potential to be real box-office draws.

It’s just that the film is simply not interested in cashing in in that way. It would rather provoke discussion than offer up clever plot twists, romantic tensions, and character arcs to satisfy expectations. “High Life” is an art film with a capital A.

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That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of the auteur Claire Denis. She’s spent decades making esoteric films in French, and she’s staying true to form with High Life, even though it’s in English, stars a British movie star, and is set in outer space, all personal firsts for her.

It’s the latter aspect, I imagine, that surprises most Denis fans. But she is quick to say that despite the setting, it’s really more like a prison movie than a sci-fi flick. That’s an apt remark given that the spaceship the movie is set on is filled with convicts. We eventually figure out that the dozen or so people on board were all either on death row or facing life sentences down on earth. They were given the chance to go on a mission to the far reaches of outer space.

“They were scum, refuse that didn’t fit into the system, until someone had the bright idea of recycling us.”

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That sullen voice belongs to actor Robert Pattinson, the heartthrob of the Twilight films. He’s one of the last surviving criminal astronauts. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about their double mission, one to find an alternative energy source via a black hole, and second to experiment with artificial insemination in space. Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche plays the insemination doctor who clashes with Pattinson’s character because he refuses to provide samples for her tests.

“I just don’t understand how you can still believe in your mission. It’s like you’ve become a shaman of sperm. It’s just a new religion for you.”

“Because I’m totally devoted to reproduction. Happy monk.”

Things for the most part go from bad to worse. It becomes clear that it’s more of a suicide mission than anything else. But at one point a baby is born. Is that the sliver lining in an otherwise grim existence? Is Clair Denis somehow getting at the essence of our humanity? Or is life in the face of death a fool’s errand, given the prospects? Mull those questions over as you leave the theater, why dontcha?

The ironically titled High Life might be better called Bleak in Space. Or Despair in Space. Or Grim Eroticism in Space.

No, I’ve got it: Bleak Erotic Despair in Space. That should sell some tickets.

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