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CINEMATIC RABBIT HOLE: ‘High Life’ is the strangest movie so far in 2019

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The year is half over. If I’m being honest, I have watched a lot of mediocre movies. It’s par for the course as a film critic. Most of what I see is average tripe that barely ends up justifying its existence. Though there aren’t many memorable movies in 2019, the strange, atmospheric and often baffling intergalactic gauntlet “High Life” bucks the trend.

First off, this is not a movie for anyone with a low tolerance at the sight of bodily fluids. “High Life” has them all. But while wading through this particular swamp of squeamishness, “High Life” is weird and challenging. It’s the kind of film to watch when looking for sheer entertainment. It’s a cinematic rabbit hole.

The first English-language movie by Claire Denis, “High Life” tells the story of a deep-space mission and circumstances that end up leaving a single passenger alive and having to care for a young baby. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is in the unenviable position of trying to raise a baby on a deep-space mission that has gone horribly wrong. The movie does a wonderful job of staging a mystery where the audience slowly discovers who the wayward drifters are, and the reason they’re all on a mission to a black hole at the edge of the known galaxy. “How” and “why” are integral to the experience, so I’ll stay away from spoilers. However, let’s just say they’re all connected by some common themes and the journey is going to be far from pleasant.

We meet Monte’s crewmates, including a doctor (Juliette Binoche) obsessed with creating a viable pregnancy during their mission. It’s something other crew members aren’t all that interested in. It’s just one of many stresses the crew has to endure while maintaining sanity in a claustrophobic starship bound for the infinite abyss.

I’m being intentionally vague because there’s a great sense of discovery in “High Life” for film fans that can appreciate a nice, slow burn. There is very little here in the way of immediate gratification. Denis works hard to provide a stark portrayal of a hellish existence and the poor souls serving a seemingly endless sentence. A palpable sense of dread makes the ultimate fate of this interstellar search party feel almost like sweet release.

Robert Pattinson carries most of the movie on his bony shoulders. His Monte is the kind of strange, socially awkward loner that manages to be both troubling and tantalizing. Ever since he was paroled from the “Twilight” franchise, he’s worked extra-hard to find more interesting, introspective cinematic fare. Movies like “The Lost City of Z” and “Good Time” have proven he’s more interested in quality material than the size of a project. He might be the most interesting actor working today.

“High Life” doesn’t require much of Pattinson, but there’s something about the quiet intensity of his character that manages to be engaging and heartbreaking. We get brief glimpses of who Monte wants to be as he struggles to raise a daughter in the black void of space. The concept is strange and some of the logic feels a little loopy, but it always manages to be grounded in a harsh reality.

I think some people will get through “High Life” feeling winded. There are real sucker-punch moments, emotionally speaking. There is no attempt to lighten the dour mood or portray the crew as likable. They are flawed, often damaged individuals trying to avoid losing their minds.

“High Life” is a beautiful tragedy with beautiful visuals and exceptionally atmospheric music. It’s the kind of experience I wish more filmmakers were interested in creating. The folks behind “High Life” have created a fully realized world with characters that feel painfully real and worthy of pity.

“High Life” is the one movie I’ve seen so far this year that had resonance. It’s not for everyone, but I have a feeling there are some real cinephiles out there who will find something special in its odyssey.

High Life
Directed by Claire Denis

Rated R, 1 hr. 53 min.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin

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