Director: Claire Denis
Talent: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin
Released: 10 May
With this odyssey into deep space, the ever-arresting French auteur Claire Denis makes a characteristically singular English-language debut. Denis is often at her most discombobulating when flirting with ‘genre’ – as in her 2001 ‘horror’ film Trouble Every Day, her 2013 ‘noir’ Bastards, and her most recent feature Let the Sunshine In (2017) which was notionally a romantic comedy, albeit one that took its cues from Roland Barthes. High Life, for what it’s worth, might be called a ‘science fiction’ film, although it’s so thoroughly the work of its writer/director that the play of expectation and reward that constitutes ‘genre’ becomes largely irrelevant.
The dependably adventurous Robert Pattinson plays Monte, who we first meet mending the hull of a boxy space-craft, somewhere deep in the void. It emerges fairly quickly that he and an infant child of unknown provenance are the last survivors aboard the craft – a revelation that comes with an indelible image of Monte releasing the corpses of his former co-passengers to drift silently into infinity.
The rest of the narrative comes in fragments, many of which are disconcertingly shuffled in time. It appears that Monte and the other passengers (also including Mia Goth and an affecting André Benjamin) are/were death row prisoners, jettisoned on an experimental rendezvous with a black hole. Presiding over the mission is one Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who seems to have taken it upon herself to combine research into the infinite with rather more corporeal experimentation in the realm of human fertility. The role instantly catapults Binoche into the pantheon of cinema’s great mad scientists – not least for a truly startling auto-erotic sequence, and an equally memorable scene in which she harvests her charges’ sperm samples with a wry fascination that borders on the parental. This is Binoche in uninhibited form, squaring the circle between Huppert-grade icy hauteur, and Beatrice Dalle sex-witchiness. One might not expect it, given the circumstances, but she’s a hoot.
Pattinson remains both a compellingly interior performer and a fascinating photographic subject. In a film largely uninterested in the conventional aesthetic pleasures of science-fiction, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux creates a number of striking compositions using only the play of light on Pattinson’s profile, and the curved visor of his intriguingly low-tech space-wear. Meanwhile, the muted and quotidian vessel interiors – while evocative of a few forebears, particularly Solaris (1971) and Silent Running (1972) – give the film an entirely different visual texture to the generic chrome and gunmetal of much contemporary science fiction.
The question of what High Life actually ‘means’ is open to debate – perhaps because, by placing human bodies in an apparently infinite space that is, in fact, a site of extreme restriction – Denis is staging a confrontation between humanity and the limits of the self that rejects conventional ideas of meaning or purpose. Ultimately, her film feels like the exhaustive proof of a thesis that is kept intriguingly out of reach. Like space itself, it draws the mind in precisely because it doesn’t seek to be known.
Words: David Turpin
Illustration: Debbie Jenkinson