Examining what it means to be human is a staple of more serious science fiction, but like most things that Claire Denis does, High Life‘s examination is slightly askew, purposely off-putting. This space drama has it all: chunky space suits, a wheezing space ship with brutalist furniture design, even a black hole. These things are just decoration for the drama going on in front of us, where a group of people – most of them former criminals, drug addicts, death row residents – live out in space under the impression that they’re taking part in a dangerous exploratory mission for the discovery of alternative energy. Instead, they become pawns for a mad scientist’s psychosexual fixations.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, the last surviving member of the crew, wandering aimlessly through space. With him is Willow, a young baby girl that Pattinson chooses to raise all the while performing maintenance on the ship and trying to come up with ways to safety. Flashbacks show what led to his isolation, from the beginning of the space mission where a group of convicts were chosen to fly through space with Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), an authority figure with unknown credentials who treats her passengers like guinea pigs for her dream to create a baby through artificial insemination. Dibs’ ship is filled with obstacles meant to create sexual frustration, and the passengers are often bribed with meds to take part in her experiments.
None of the passengers seem thrilled with Dibs’ behavior. Boyse (Mia Goth), an unhinged addict, is often hostile towards Dibs and her treatment of others. The male passengers, Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) and Tcherny (André Benjamin), don’t mind giving sperm samples, appreciating the release of tension, but Monte takes a principled vow of abstinence, rejecting Dibs’ advances and the lure of “The Box”. The Box – a shadowy, damp masturbation room – is one of many unsettling details in Dibs’ disconcerting reality. The passengers’ purpose and function often get blurred as their actual mission begins to meld with Dibs’ desires. These already unstable individuals are soon sent on a downward spiral that only Monte and Willow survive.
Great tragedies occur, often proceeded or followed by tremendous violence. What is achieved is hard to say, and what is meant to be achieved is even more unclear. Denis seems much more captivated by her characters and their oncoming mental breakdowns. Monte’s passive observations as his team begins to dwindle is often spliced with bursts of defensive force. He doesn’t seem interested in becoming violent unless provoked, but High Life is filled with characters aching to burst out against authorities and aimlessness. Dibs’ sexual manipulations are not enough to quell the boredom of life in space, and under the stress of their purposeless lives, their small society begins to destroy itself.
Right when High Life seems to be at its bleakest, Denis does something rather remarkable. This is not a grim meditation on the black heart of the human race, but actually a testament to the human spirit to overcome incredible trauma. Brilliantly cutting (editor, Guy Lecorne) Monte’s intimate, affectionate scenes with Willow with the horror of the flashbacks shows what grows out of Monte’s harrowing experiences. Pattinson’s transition from Twilight heartthrob to serious indie actor will probably never be complete, perhaps because he is always trying so hard, but this is probably the most impressive performance I have seen from him. The contrast between his scenes with the infant and his scenes with the inmates displays a range I wasn’t previously aware of.
Pattinson’s grave portrayal of Monte’s tense survivalism is often reflecting the much more evocative work of Binoche and Goth. Obvious adversaries, the actresses perform a dangerous battle of wills that makes up the more thrilling, suspenseful moments of the film. Binoche, who was in Denis’ previous film, Let The Sunshine In, plays Dr. Dibs as maniacal and desperate, not much more trustworthy than the criminals she’s watching over. Her Kurtz-like succumbing to her obsessions feels like a truly evil turn. “I know you think I’m a witch,” she states near the beginning of the film, which makes clear Denis’ objective for Dibs to play a more classical horror movie villain.
High Life has a lot of genres rubbing against each other, a disorienting amount of conflicting imagery. Its sexual content, explicit and unnerving, lays bare its characters’ desires and fears. It’s hard to think of a recent film that works so hard to make its audience uncomfortable. And yet, High Life still manages to achieve some real beauty. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography toggles between the gray claustrophobia of the inside of the ship and endless majesty of the space that surrounds it, brilliantly complementing the film’s Jekyll and Hyde personality. Denis’ indulgence in her conflicting imagery disorients till the very end, leading to a conclusion that does little to answer questions but solidifies the film’s celestial beauty.
Directed by Claire Denis