Revered Parisian writer and director Claire Denis is well known for the other-worldly sensibility of her screen tales, from 1988’s Chocolat to Beau Travail (1999), White Material (2009) to Let the Sunshine In (2017). With her latest offering, and first foray into English language cinema, she takes us one step further by drawing us literally into the realm of outer space in this horror-cum-science fiction story that dwells in the abstract and meditates on our most base impulses.
The context the filmmaker creates of a 23rd century-set suicidal space mission to extract energy from a black hole to save the earth, with death row convicts as recruits, in its own way replicates the conditions of long-term incarceration through its stifling enclosed spaces and lack of personal freedom, which exert a barely bearable psychological and physical pressure on the inmates.
For her enigmatic lead, the director takes a very-much-transformed-from-his-Twilight-days, lock-shorn Robert Pattinson as Monte, while Denis’s longtime collaborator Juliette Binoche appears in the darkly alluring role of raven-haired, white-coated Dr Dibs, who ostensibly keeps the health of the crew in check but who is tasked with a far more sinister project: to breed another generation to continue the mission after this one dies off.
The film opens with Monte struggling to care for his young child, Willow, on what appears to be an otherwise abandoned space ship. Time-jumps throughout then reveal in non-linear form the events that have preceded and post-date those scenes: Monte’s crime of murder as a teen over the death of his dog, glimpses of the fellow inmates who had initially joined him on the mission and their various fates (including Mia Goth as Boyse and André Benjamin as Tcherny), the sadistic experiments Dr Dibs performs to artificially inseminate the female crew, and the creatively named “fuck box” the former prisoners – who are banned from having sex with each other – use obsessively to masturbate.
Denis’s movie undulates with mystery and is pulled taut with unexplained but disturbingly compelling imagery. Our characters are viewed from a distance, their actions studied but interior worlds left unexplored. The stark and sterile interiors of the ship are put in contrast to constant sputtering of bodily fluids, the claustrophobia of tight cabins and hallways with the vast expansiveness of the infinite space stretching limitlessly beyond it and the drabness of the man-made rooms with the lush, green dewiness of the indoor garden.
High Life is undoubtedly bizarre and often frustratingly opaque as the pieces of its puzzle seem to weightlessly circle one another, as do the bodies Monte releases in the ether, without ever settling in place to reveal their bigger picture – but the movie prompts a visceral response to its sounds and images and the unanswered questions it poses about our inescapable drives toward violence, sex and survival continue to tick over in the mind long after it ends. At the least, viewers won’t forget that magnificent one-person sex scene in a hurry…
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 10th May 2019.
High Life is released in select cinemas on 10th May 2019.
Watch the trailer for High Life here: