In her most recent venture, director Claire Denis takes us to space in High Life, though she wouldn’t exactly label the film a “sci-fi movie”. Set almost entirely in space, save for a few flashbacks, Denis’ solar epic is surprisingly human – in the best and worst meaning of the word. A beautiful work that showcases the versatility of her directing and of her actors’ abilities, High Life is a stunning erotic space thriller that is certain to divide audiences.
Told in a nonlinear structure, the film opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) raising a baby girl, Willow, alone on a spaceship. Through flashbacks, we discover that the ship had been used to house a group of convicts on death row. Seemingly a part of their punishment, the prisoners are subjected to tests run by the sadistic Dr. Dibbs (Juliette Binoche), who is intent on creating a child through artificial insemination. Sexual activity between prisoners is prohibited, their only option being “The Box”, a device used by the inmates and Dibbs alike to relieve themselves. Tensions begin to rise among the inmates, ultimately leading Dibbs to up the dosage of a sedative given to all of them every night. She takes advantage of Monte, the lone celibate on the ship, while he’s deep in sleep by raping him and using his semen to impregnate a young passenger, Boyse (Mia Goth).
Boyse eventually becomes pregnant and gives birth, a success for Dibbs after her meddling with other women’s bodies has failed. However, when the ship begins approaching a black hole, Boyse sneaks into a shuttle in an escape attempt that ultimately leads to her death. The body count aboard the ship begins to decrease until Monte is the soul survivor. Years pass as Willow grows into a young woman (now played by Jessie Ross), who eventually convinces her father to travel into the black hole, despite not knowing what may be waiting for them on the other side.
Robert Pattinson takes another shining turn in a string of impressive performances that have cropped up ever since his attempt to shed his heart-throb reputation after the success of the Twilight franchise. He has now established himself as one of the industry’s top performers, churning out diverse performances once or twice a year with High Life being no exception. Similarly, the great Juliette Binoche is charming, sexual, chaotic, and inherently evil as Dr. Dibbs.
In more minor roles, Mia Goth and André Benjamin (as Tcherny, Monte’s closest friend) shine in career highlights. Other notable performances from lesser known actors come from Agata Buzek as Nansen, the ship’s pilot, Gloria Obianyo as Elektra, Dibbs’ initial pregnancy test subject, and Ewan Mitchell as Ettore, another antagonist figure whose sexual repression leads to rape.
Speaking of this brutality, the film’s portrayal of sexuality is anything but subtle. Denis openly explores sexuality, but ultimately in a matter-of-fact manner. Sexuality is an aspect of the film that motivates a number of scenes, and Denis is never afraid to cross the line. This leads to some incredibly disturbing scenes, verging on hard-to-watch territory. But perhaps this helps form her commentary on the mental well-being of prisoners and the isolation caused by the high level of security that they are held under.
A haunting score and meditative cinematography help characterize High Life, heightening its slow-burn tension with a vague sense of dread and keeping in theme with its setting in space. Interestingly enough though, this space-set story doesn’t explore the usual themes that come to mind when one thinks of space. Yet, the film wouldn’t have succeeded in any other setting. High Life focuses on what humans are capable of within a confined environment, even more so confined since there is no escape from their ship. The fact that any of the characters are able to make any rational choices at all is astounding given their circumstances, but these brighter moments are few and far between. Denis’ portrayal of space life, or “high life” if you will, is cold, dark, unsettling, and devastating… but not hopeless.
This being said, the film definitely has a silver (or golden) lining. Not all is lost, at least not for Monte and Willow, and there is much left to explore. However, what they find within the black hole may not be ideal: just like how High Life is sure to turn away some audiences who see it. But those who are willing to take the ride are in for a real celestial treat.