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Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair

Are you looking for things to do indoors? There is no better way than immersing yourself in another time and place through film. Stay entertained with Kanopy, an on-demand film streaming service that provides access to over 30,000 films, including classic Australian, independent, world movies and documentaries. 

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For inspiration, check out our weekly film review series by State Library of Queensland’s very own cinephile, Lance Sinclair. We kick off the series with a review of "High Life", directed by Claire Denis, one of France's most important filmmakers. "High Life", which premiered in Toronto in 2018, stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, and won the FIPRESCI Prize in San Sebastian.

Image from film High Life, directed by Claire Denis, produced by Andrew Laurens Productions, streamed on Kanopy database.


The promise of the stars and what lay beyond has been a staple of cinema since its inception. The ultimate blank canvas, unifying everything that lives beneath it and allowing us to project whatever driving force we see fit onto it. Stories of adventure, wonder, dread or hope have played out against the constant, endless amphitheater of the airless void.

Claire Denis, one of the most vigorously independent and unique film storytellers operating today, has given us her space opera. A story that jumps off from a place of global tragedy and narrows its focus as it goes, arriving at a point of peace, beauty and a strange kind of victory. It is the near future, and as the earth slowly submits to the weight of its own excess, we join a crew of condemned death row prisoners and their medical overseer as the hurtle into the depths of space, still locked inside an ugly, functional box as they embark on a one-way trip far from whatever comfort their home planet may have provided. Superficially, their mission is to explore whether energy can be harvested from black hole phenomena, but very quickly we understand that this is merely a doomed ship filled with people that the world would rather forget. Juliette Binoche, as the sinister Dr Dibs, has plans for her crew that go beyond any official edict and into new, darker pathology. Much like its predecessors Alien and Planet of the Vampires (a movie that High Life shares some beautiful interior design touches with), we find ourselves in a haunted house in space.

Robert Pattinson, having shed the skin of his Twilight persona through years of bold role choices (David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and the criminally under-seen Australian feature The Rover come to mind) anchors the film with a strange, unglamorous dignity. Heroism through quiet minimalism is a rarity in science fiction, and a tactic that is played to perfection by the guiding hands that take us through this strange story. By bringing a completely vulnerable, helpless infant into the care of a condemned man, in a pitiless scenario (a twist revealed to us in the film’s introduction), the work elevates itself above so many of its dark sci-fi relatives. It introduces heart, genuine emotional stakes, and a sense of terrible, precarious risk far beyond what we’re used to in so many space-mission movies. 

It’s a film that completely swallows the viewer in its atmosphere, as the inescapable claustrophobia of the ship’s interiors and the gradual unravelling of those who dwell in it start to shift into a sense of liberation – transcending who they were, some for good and some for ill. It’s a meditation on what makes us human, and whether we can be brave enough to act beyond what we were, moving perhaps to who we could be.

At times disturbing and confrontational, the overwhelming atmosphere of High Life is one of free-fall, the eerie state of calm that can settle over us when fear has had it’s due, and the great unknown opens its arms to embrace us.

Further reading

  • Claire Denis's Flickering Spaces of Hospitality / A. Asibong. L'Esprit Créateur, 2011, 51(1), 154-167 (article)
  • Sex, the City and the Cinematic: The Possibilities of Female Spectatorship in Claire Denis's Vendredi soir (article)
  • Towards a feminist cinematic ethics : Claire Denis, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy / Kristin Lene Hole (ebook)

Join Lance on Tuesday 14 April at 2pm for a Q&A session on State Library of Queensland’s Facebook page.

With school break upon us, the kids can also enjoy unlimited plays from the Kanopy Kids curated collection.


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