High Life is a bloody ugly film. Front and centre is a spaceship that looks like a flying concrete block, with a yellowed and dirt-brown interior redolent of a rundown hospital waiting room. The violence that intermittently erupts between its characters is brutal and shocking. And the “sex” – quote marks because little of it is truly consensual – is perhaps ugliest of all.
Additionally, and helped in no small part by Stuart A. Staples’ discomfiting score and a less-is-more design aesthetic, director Claire Denis conjures an atmosphere that feels off-kilter, curdled, queasy. The fug of disinfectant, sweat and bodily fluids is palpable; it gets under your skin and fills your nostrils. If this is sci-fi, it’s of a lo-fi, grubby variety a million light years removed from 2001’s gleaming white corridors or Interstellar’s “ain’t humanity neat!” optimism. It’s horrible… and utterly hypnotic.
The French director’s first English language film, High Life marks another of Denis’s increasingly frequent dips into genre, although the fact her previous movie – Let The Sunshine In – was a screwball romcom seems almost preposterous when confronted by something this oppressive. Robert Pattinson gently simmers as Monte, one of a band of Death Row criminals sent into the far reaches of space to investigate a black hole’s “rotating energy”. The idea is that it can be harnessed to provide Earth with “boundless resources” (typical sci-fi silliness, in other words). But the crew are also being used and abused like lab rats by resident mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is experimenting with artificial insemination, and bids to create a human child – presumably the first born off-planet.
The action unfolds in a non-linear fashion – fragments of backstory drift in and out – and time jumps forward over a decade during the film’s second half. Initially, we see Monte alone on the ship with only a baby girl (his daughter, Willow) for company, but in flashback are introduced to the rest of the crew – a combustible bunch including Mia Goth’s Boyse and André Benjamin’s underused Tcherny – and discover their fates.
This is a Claire Denis joint so nothing is straightforward: odd lines of dialogue stop you in your tracks, random TV transmissions from Earth – including a Scotland rugby international complete with bagpipes – do likewise, and at least one death (amongst many) is so oddly enacted it required a second viewing to work out what had transpired (it takes place in the ship’s onboard garden and is actually poetic and quite touching).
It strikes me as more than a little peculiar that High Life has been deemed “sexy” by at least one high-profile US critic because the film is anything but. The crew are presumably forbidden from having actual intercourse so as not to interfere with Dibs’s experiments. Instead the men provide her with sperm samples in exchange for drugs and there’s a room called the “Fuckbox” – think Sleeper’s Orgasmatron kitted out by David Lynch – which is used in lieu of physical contact. In the ship’s confined spaces, sexual tension and the threat of sexual violence hang heavy.
Monte – nicknamed “The Monk” – chooses to remain utterly chaste, although when we see Willow (Jessie Ross) as a teenager the exact nature of their relationship becomes our focus. In one of High Life’s early scenes, he talks to his daughter about “breaking taboos”, and later we are invited to muse upon which taboo the two of them might have broken. As Bastards (2013) and Nénette et Boni (1996) both attest it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Denis has broached the subject of incest in her work.
Ever the contrarian, the director doesn’t consider High Life a science fiction film, but you don’t have to work too hard to locate its touchstones – Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey and a couple of the Alien movies, especially the third of the original “quadrilogy” set on a penal colony in space. There’s no rampaging extraterrestrial threat here but you could easily make a case for Dibs – a murderer herself – being its “Xenomorph”. Make no mistake, she preys upon these people – drugging them, raping them, exploiting their bodies to further her work.
Whether stalking the ship’s corridors like a voluptuous Nosferatu (“My crime is the only one worthy of the name”) or letting loose in the “Fuckbox”, during High Life’s most jaw-dropping scene, Dibs is enigmatic and dangerous. Such a role is manna from heaven for the great Binoche, who is doing some of the most interesting and challenging work of her career right now. Dibs’s relationship with Monte and connection to Willow are two of the film’s most intriguing aspects and Denis leaves us with more questions than answers.
Despite the physical, moral and spiritual hideousness of pretty much everything on show here, you’ll be surprised to learn High Life isn’t entirely misanthropic – Denis wants us to sympathise with this dysfunctional “family” of fuck-ups. Buried beneath the film’s seeming contention that humanity is too dangerous ever to be allowed to venture outside its own solar system is perhaps a meditation on the manner in which society treats its most disturbed and broken.
Yes, the crew have committed terrible crimes, but incarceration hasn’t made them better people, it has dehumanised them (a recurring visual motif featuring dogs – dead, lame, cannibalistic – is there for a reason). Sending the inmates out into the furthest reaches of space could be a metaphor for the way society abandons prisoners to their fates, leaving them out of sight and out of mind. And those who have packed Monte, Boyse and co off on this mission turn out to be the biggest monsters of all – leading each to believe they can eventually return when nothing could be further from the truth.
A film preoccupied with birth, sex and death ends in perhaps the only way it can – a very close encounter with a black hole (High Life‘s symbolism isn’t always subtle). At least its final moments seem hopeful. I wouldn’t bank on that being the case though.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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