In many respects, the mesmerizing and elusive “High Life” is a first for writer-director Claire Denis: the first of her films to be shot in English, the first of her films to be set in space, and the first of her films to follow Juliette Binoche inside a metal chamber that’s referred to as “The Fuckbox,” where the world’s finest actress — playing a mad scientist aboard an intergalactic prison ship on a one-way trip to Earth’s nearest black hole — straddles a giant dildo chair and violently masturbates in a scene that’s endowed with the tortured energy of a Cirque du Soleil routine.
Needless to say, “High Life” isn’t your average science-fiction movie. In fact, Denis rejects the genre designation outright, insisting that her latest and most elliptical opus is far too grounded to be lumped in with the likes of “Star Wars” and “Solaris.” That logic doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny in a film where Robert Pattinson and Andre 3000 ride a flying matchbox past the outer limits of our solar system, but no matter. The results are heavenly all the same.
Besides, the most immediate point of reference for “High Life” isn’t George Lucas or Andrei Tarkovsky (though “Stalker” is an obvious lodestar for Denis, both in its mechanics and in its mystery), it’s Paul Schrader, whose “First Reformed” might be the only recent film to be so preoccupied with the end of all existence, and the possibility of wresting some kind of future from the obsidian-black darkness that stretches out before us. As horrifying and ambiguous a space odyssey as you might expect from the singular mind behind “Trouble Every Day” and “Beau Travail,” “High Life” is a pensive and profound study of human life on the brink of the apocalypse. Plus, it features a scene in which Pattinson warns us about the dangers of eating our own shit.
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In space, no one can hear you scream, but Denis dismantles that old chestnut right off the bat. “High Life” begins among the stars, as a closely shorn man named Monte (Pattinson, flat and primitive in a part conceived for Philip Seymour Hoffman) fixes the outer hull of his spaceship while trying to ignore the wailing baby monitor that’s piped into his helmet. Wherever Monte is in the universe, it’s beyond where anyone has been before — and he’s not there alone. There’s an adorable infant, and a number of dead adult bodies, all of which are motionlessly floating in the void by the time we reach the opening title card. In a film that flits from one indelible image to another with such natural grace that it almost feels as if Denis simply found them that way, this introductory shot may be the eeriest and most unshakeable of the lot.
From there, Monte’s voiceover sheds just enough light to make sense of what’s happening, but not enough to stop us from squinting for more information. At some point in the future, American scientists have started using death row inmates as guinea pigs for their off-world experiments, callously launching them into deep space like the Russians did with Laika. What the prisoners don’t know (but figure out in time) is that there’s not really any coming back. The people aboard ship #7 were supposed to be harnessing energy from a black hole, but — as we see through the interspersed flashbacks that drive most of the film — they’re actually up there so that Dr. Dibs (Binoche), a violent criminal in her own right, can experiment on their bodies and grow a baby in a microwave or something. Every 24 hours, the mission leader has to convince a computer they’re still alive in order to stop the ship from malfunctioning.
Good luck to anyone looking for a clean way to connect the dots in this constellation-like narrative — not even Denis has the answers, and she wouldn’t bother telling this story if she did. She’s far more interested in the journey than the destination; more compelled by the road to nowhere than she is by nowhere itself. “High Life” is fixated on the hypnotic rhythms of oblivion, and the human desires it brings to the surface. “Break the laws of nature,” Monte warns, “and you’ll pay for it.” That line resurfaces in our minds when Monte is inevitably left alone with that baby girl, and it shouts at us as time passes and the girl becomes a woman.
In a film that’s comprised of a million little details, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the ones that make the cut. With Tchemy (a wonderful Benjamin), she focuses on his love for the ship’s garden; his feet in the soil. With Boyse (Mia Goth), she highlights the girl’s ruddy cheeks, and a trip she once took atop a train that, for all intents and purposes, was heading towards the Zone.
With Dr. Dibs, it’s the muscles on her back, the Rapunzel length of her hair, and how it rustles in the wind of the air conditioner in an empty hallway that cinematographer Yorick Le Saux has baked in blue tungsten light. She feeds the other passengers little pellets of drugs in exchange for their fluids, collecting their semen like a demented queen bee, and her plume of pubic hair is almost tall enough to obscure the self-inflicted scars that stretch across her abdomen. And with Monte, Denis calls attention to his celibacy, his stubble, and the tract of gray hair that expands across his head as the film goes on. There are more passengers — young people of different races — and the movie defines them by their desires. How horny are they? At what point do they break the social contract that binds us all together? Does the isolation they feel, either individually or as hopeless travelers, drive them to give up or dig in? When exactly does the despair take hold?
As always, what Denis omits is as important as what she includes. Backstories are kept to a minimum, and when the ship nears a black hole, there are exactly zero moments of hesitation before someone is shown piloting a space dinghy straight into it. The pulsing electronic music of Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart A. Staples tells us everything we need to know, accenting the film’s ultra-low-fi aesthetic while also reminding us that these varyingly spiritualized ladies and gentleman are floating in space. And that teensy detail can be pretty easy to forget while staring at the ship’s decrepit examining rooms, its spartan dorms, and its cluttered hallways.
At times, this hopeless one-way ticket to hell begins to feel a lot like life on Earth, speeding towards increasingly certain oblivion while lacking the perspective to recognize the true depth of the void before us. Whatever its nature, we all have to find our own strength to face it. Or maybe the trouble is that our strength finds us, even when it’s long past time to surrender the fight. Denis’ haunting and sublime movie suggests that we all have to stop close enough to the abyss that we can begin to see a new hope building inside, no matter how deranged that hope might be.
“High Life” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.