Thursday, October 4, 2018

NYFF Spotlight: High Life

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 56th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 14th.

High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
Main Slate

Many classic films set in outer space can be easily identified by their directors, who left an indelible stylistic mark on their work that has come to define or at the very least inform their careers. Stanley Kubrick made “2001: A Space Odyssey,” George Lucas helmed “Star Wars,” Ridley Scott guided “Alien,” and James Cameron steered “Aliens.” More recently, established filmmakers not known for science fiction or extraterrestrial efforts have traveled to cinematic space, with Alfonso Cuaron as one prominent example taking home an Oscar for “Gravity.” Now, a director whose previous work has definitely been set firmly on Earth is traveling to new heights for an inarguably unique vision of what space could look like through her eyes.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a death row inmate who has accepted an innovative sentence, going into space to try to harness the power of a black hole. Aboard his quiet ship, he spends his days working on repairs and taking care of a baby before submitting nightly reports to refresh his life support. Through flashbacks, the full picture of his mission is revealed, with a convicted doctor (Juliette Binoche) conducting a side project of attempting to impregnate the female prisoners. Trapped together in a small space with no knowledge of if they’ll ever make it home, the group of violent criminals predictably begins to experience cabin fever before all hell breaks loose.

Listed on IMDB under adventure/drama/horror, this film is probably best described as a science-fiction psychological thriller. It appears to take some inspiration from the template of “Alien,” with internal strife and discord serving as just as much a catalyst for the doom as the very threatening possibility of death whenever a black hole nears. Starting with Monte operating the ship by himself while tending to an inexplicably present infant only increases the melancholy, draining feeling that this trip has gone horribly wrong. No fate that can befall the passengers of this ship will be good, but watching as past and present play out simultaneously is a tense and troubling experience.

Director Claire Denis and star Robert Pattison discuss the film at a press conference

Denis, whose extraordinarily different “Let the Sun Shine In” screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, makes a recognizable imprint on this film, focusing most on the characters and their coming undone. She also says that there is no way that people in could speak French, her straightforward explanation for why the film is in English rather than her native language. The presence of a “sex room” aboard the ship designed to help the prisoners alleviate some of their tension is a very peculiar addition that doesn’t feel as strange as it should thanks to Denis’ incorporation of it, and Binoche in particular helps to normalize it with her magnetic and haunting performance. Pattinson, who has transformed himself into a more serious actor over the past few years following an early tween “Twilight” craze, serves as a stable lead, one who anchors a story far out of Monte’s control with a frank acceptance of his situation. This film unapologetically frames and follows its own narrative to great effect, on its own individual, unsettling course the whole time.


No comments: