In space, no one can hear you scream – unless, that is, you’ve hooked up a baby monitor to your spacesuit. That’s how Claire Denis’ outstanding High Life begins, with Monte (Robert Pattinson) monologuing to his infant daughter Willow as he repairs an exterior panel of a spaceship. When she begins to shriek down the microphone, the irritation causes Monte to lose grip of his wrench. It plummets irretrievably into the blackness.
Back inside the ship, Monte tends to Willow, teaching her vocabulary (“taboo” is the telling word he repeats) and farming food from the Edenic on-board garden. Monte is the last adult survivor on the ship, haunted by sporadic video transmissions from Earth to which he is unable to reply. What happened to the other crew members? And what the hell is a baby doing in space?
Monte, we learn in the flashbacks that make up most of the film’s runtime, is one of a group of suspiciously good-looking death row inmates – Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek and André Benjamin (aka OutKast’s André 3000) all feature – offered a second chance at ‘life’. Their doomed mission is to see if they can capture the rotating energy of a black hole, which it is hoped will provide Earth with an alternative energy source.
It’s a crafty bit of exposition that enables the sci-fi setting, though High Life is hardly interested in its science. Rather, it’s a parallel mission that becomes the film’s focus: that of the ship’s medical officer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is obsessed with creating new life in space. Her work consists of harvesting sperm from the male crew members (except Monte, who has vowed abstinence) and attempting to impregnate the reluctant females.
Why is Dibs doing this? There’s hints at all-consuming regrets rooted in her own dark past, but director Claire Denis (who co-wrote this first English-language film with her long-time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) doesn’t over-psychologise. Themes of gender and sexuality are explored in a strikingly sensual manner. One already infamous scene sees Dibs enter the “fuck box”, a dark room kitted out with straps and dildos with the purpose of relieving sexual frustration. Yorick Le Saux’s bewitching cinematography captures a naked Binoche writhing around in remarkable chiaroscuro, as if floating in space.
High Life’s gorgeous visual aesthetic is complimented by Stuart Staples’ bewitching score, which is sometimes enigmatic and ambient, sometimes outright delirious. Praise also has to go to the two leads: Binoche, relishing her role as a campy mad scientist, and Pattinson, whose restrained performance proves once again that he is one of the best actors working today.
Needless to say, this film won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Its bleak non-linear narrative is slow and heavy on atmosphere. Claustrophobic restlessness breaks into sudden moments of sex and violence, and Denis pushes the body – and its extreme vulnerability – to the fore, delighting especially in corporeal fluids. Its closest relative is perhaps Under the Skin, another divisive sci-fi film with elements of body horror, similarly interested in the potentials of sex for exploitation and liberation.
All space odysseys are inevitably existential quests for (often unattainable) transcendence, and as such High Life also slots into a canon of cerebral space movies containing the likes of 2001, Solaris and Interstellar. But Denis’ film should be celebrated for all the weird ways it departs from a genre often constrained by cliché, and indeed from regular cinematic grammar altogether. It is a deeply evocative film, seductive and repellent in equal measure. What lingers most are images: enigmatic, grainy flashbacks to Earth; swirling, abstract evocations of the cosmos; bodies floating – no, sinking – through space over the title card.
High Life is out in cinemas now, distributed by Thunderbird Releasing.