Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Scarlett Lindsey, Jessie Ross, Victor Banerjee
Director: Claire Denis
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director Claire Denis has always been fascinated by the bleaker aspects of human nature, and yet her films have equally fixated on the possibility of love and hope. In features like Trouble Every Day, White Material, and especially Bastards, Denis offered a myopic view of the human race laced with moments of optimism, and her latest project, High Life, certainly fits into that template. Those expecting a Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi thriller with elaborate special effects and high concept plotting will likely stumble out of the film utterly baffled. However, for those already initiated into the cult of Denis, her elliptical style and sparse visuals will feel of a piece.
Written by Denis with long time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, High Life favors a fractured, poetic mode of storytelling giving us bits and pieces of narrative; often via single haunting images, brief flashbacks, or seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue. When we first meet convict Monte (Pattinson), he’s attempting to fix something outside a rickety spacecraft (which looks like a floating matchstick box) while a baby cries alone inside an onboard room. The space travel bureaucracy which got him there—along with a crew of fellow prisoners—is never made explicitly clear, even as Denis gradually unspools plot information by jumping around in time. Even the team’s initial mission remains vague (something about identifying and researching black holes), compounded by the fact that the crew remains oblivious regarding the length of their voyage, which will theoretically last longer than their lifetimes.
Before Monte and the baby were the lone survivors, we learn that the passengers, including convicts Tcherny (André Benjamin) Boyse (Mia Goth), and doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), among others, were basically being used as government test subjects. As Dibs collects semen samples and cross-pollinates them with female eggs (doing so even while the participates are heavily sedated), High Life starts to feel like a Darwinian nightmare. There’s a common idea in space travel films that the inky void of the universe drives people mad, but Denis is offering the notion that human society—with its moral rules and governmental mandates—is the thing which ultimately damages the psyche.
The line between acceptable cultural mores and animalistic desires fuels much of the middle portion of the film in a way which creates an unsettling tension. A chamber known as the “fuck room” is introduced, where passengers can go purge their pent-up sexual longings, including mad doctor Dibs, who straddles a sybian dildo in one harrowing sequence which Denis films like a crossbreed of Aliens and Nymphomaniac. Characters talk in hyper-literal proclamations and whispered half-sentences. Sexual violence erupts. Everyone onboard, including Monte, are deeply flawed and possibly dangerous. Denis refuses to offer us easy answers or even a moralistic hero to connect to, though Pattinson’s impressively coiled performance helps to act in some respects as the audience surrogate.
Most films about space offer platitudes of optimism about the human race (remember Ridley Scott’s The Martian?), but High Life poses troubling questions about the future of mankind. Denis is only using the vastness of space to investigate how we live on Earth, and yet, the film’s climax is quite possibly one of the more hopeful endings in recent memory. This is because Denis sustains such an intense mood of dread throughout that the transitory possibility of hope becomes almost overwhelming. One suspects things will crescendo on a dispiriting note based on all which came before, but Denis upends expectations, even as the final image contains several interpretations.
High Life is ultimately a moving film because it takes our stubborn willingness to keep on existing and defining what makes us human seriously in a way few science fiction films do. Denis would probably even scoff at the term “sci-fi”. To her, High Life exists in the same genre as her films Beau Travail, Bastards, and Let the Sunshine In; probing the blurred line between hope and despair, love and disdain, life and death.