This article originally ran September 21, 2018
Claire Denis does not give a fuck about science fiction convention. Though High Life would seem to be the director’s most broadly accessible film yet - it’s an English-language sci-fi movie starring fucking Robert Pattinson - it’s every bit as wilfully obtuse and idiosyncratic as you’d expect from the French auteur. Doubtless, it will challenge a lot of audience members. It’s also going to piss a lot of them off.
The disjointed and somewhat episodic story concerns a group of criminals (whose crimes are both unstated and unimportant) sent to space to study firsthand the energy output of a black hole. It’s not a mission from which anyone’s going to be returning - and it’s honestly not a mission that factors into the story all that much. The closest thing there is to someone in charge is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a somewhat mad scientist obsessed with reproduction, who’s there to extract semen, and subsequently deposit it, using the crew’s reproductive tracts for her strange experiments.
There’s also a baby on board. Robert Pattinson warns her not to eat shit. “Taaaaa-boo!”
Denis infuses her film with a disorienting tone, spending lengthy passages in borderline-mumblecore quiet before lurching into brutal violence, sci-fi weirdness, and body horror. High Life is full of bodily fluids, from blood to semen to breast milk, and not just for shock value - each is imbued with a different emotional quality, from grief to hatred to disempowerment. The film also features “The Fuckbox," already a meme within Film Twitter - a disturbingly mechanical, BDSM-styled chamber in which the crew (and specifically Binoche) relieve their sexual space dementia. But incredibly, the majority of the film is paced more meditatively than these madcap details would suggest.
And yet, High Life is all about the details, so scattershot is its storyline. Denis lingers on subtle imagery to establish her characters - like Andre Benjamin’s gardener, or Mia Goth’s tragically used ingenue - and her location. She conflates the film’s central black hole, with its surrounding gravitationally-lensed starfield, with an egg and sperm, then has characters fly, suicidally, into it. As time goes on, and Pattinson’s baby-girl ward grows into adolescence, Denis leans into the burgeoning awkwardness of the scenario. There’s a lot of sexual neurosis lying underneath High Life. And there’s a lot lying on top.
All this takes place in a startlingly lo-fi spaceship environment, with even more lo-fi vessels coming into the story later on. The ship’s rooms and corridors are even more Spartan than the original Star Trek’s, looking like they were knocked up in an afternoon. Space physics are nonexistent: when people step out of an airlock, they simply drop out of frame, as if they’ve stepped off a ledge (which, in production terms, is exactly what they’re doing). Space suits hang on ordinary coat hangers. The lighting, bathed in desaturated primary colours, is oppressively monochromatic at times, mirroring the minimalist electronic score. Even the sound design is devoid of the background ambiance you’d usually associate with starships.
All this determined disregard for convention renders the bizarre goings-on all the more extreme - as if we’re watching people losing their minds inside a labyrinth of cardboard boxes. High Life is more Dark Star than Interstellar; more Tarkovsky than Roddenberry. In effect, it’s a claustrophobic drama about sex transplanted to a spaceship, and it’s all the better for it. Setting her story in space gives Denis license to push it to its limit - and what’s a better pressure-cooker for characters than an airlocked space vessel?
High Life demands multiple viewings, so strange are its turns and so obtuse its science-fiction conceits. A quiet atmosphere of loneliness, isolation, and doom constantly presses at the edges, occasionally bursting through with devastating results. Thank our stars for Robert Pattinson, once again demonstrating - like fellow Twilight veteran Kristen Stewart - a willingness to use his celebrity to uplift interesting projects and filmmakers. High Life will certainly perplex traditional R-Pattz fans - but for those of us captivated by his second coming, it’s a wild and visionary ride