Sometimes, as though only to show that they can, auteurs go to space. Stanley Kubrick had 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Christopher Nolan had Interstellar (2014), and now Claire Denis has High Life (2019). Regrettably, though it isn’t the sausage fest those perennials of science-fiction cinema are, Denis’ fantastical story of a fruitless space voyage to a black hole entertains more as a showcase of her filmmaking than it does as a proper story with compelling characters.
Set on a nearly derelict spaceship maundering about the empty cosmos, High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey as a baby, then Jessie Ross as an angsty teen), as they simply burn time. They’re the lone survivors of a mission that saw convicted felons used as guinea pigs to test piloting around black holes and reproduction in space, among other things. And while Monte’s just as adrift as his spacecraft, much of the film takes place in flashbacks to when the ghost ship wasn’t so dead, when other inmates and the sinister Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) wandered about, spouting off estrogen and causing trouble.
To say High Life is science-fiction is misleading. That the story’s set in space hardly matters. And based on the slipshod production design, Denis’ completely uninterested in Western sci-fi. The walls of the station look recycled from the scrappy cardboard sets of Dave Made a Maze (2017), and I didn’t believe for a second that those thin suits would protect anyone from the cold vacuum of space.
Though Denis is a French director, High Life’s influences skew Russian, as if Stalker (1979) and Solaris (1972) featured more ejaculate and fewer alpha males, or if Hard to Be a God (2013) were quieter and lit like a Japanese horror movie. Some shots, composed by Yorick Le Saux, play with deep shadows and filming through obstructions, like thick plastic flaps, that obfuscate our view of the actors. In Monte’s flashbacks to Poland, Tomasz Naumiuk films the boggy forests with palpable graininess and dew — it’s all very Tarkovsky-esque. Earlier, one shot of bodies falling through the void of space recalls the men sinking into the black sludge from Under the Skin (2013).
The brunt of High Life’s buzz concerns the sheer amount of ejaculate and sex we witness — sure, there’s a small chamber at the heart of the ship that one prisoner (André Benjamin) dubs the “fuckbox,” but the film’s really only about sex because it isn’t about much else. Even then, the sexual encounters are usually squeamish or violent, as when one prisoner (Bo Burnham lookalike Ewan Mitchell) attempts to rape a former drug addict (Mia Goth).
When Dibs, whom the film cannily sexualizes as though she’s a sleek Lexus in a car commercial, takes her turn in the fuckbox, the film mixes the operatic with the grotesque, showing her sweatily bucking and heaving on a chair that looks suspiciously like the one George Clooney kept in his basement in Burn After Reading (2008). But we never see her face, only her black hair as it spiderwebs across her naked back. The music comes in deep, bestial hums as Binoche throws her head and limbs around like Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981).
A pall of dread falls over the film early and never leaves. The eerie, empty corridors unsettle even as we know Monte and his daughter are alone on the ship. Binoche’s waist-length mass of black hair and the blue midnight hues unnervingly echo The Ring (2002). And High Life is riddled with tiny moments of body horror, even scenes as seemingly negligible as Goth lying in a pool of her own lactation, that made me wince and want to look away.
But the hypersexuality is inescapable: Tall, strong pipes litter the backgrounds of every set, wires spread apart as though they’re Fallopian tubes, and when we see the black hole, the stars bending around it resemble serpentine sperm cells. High Life — and Binoche’s character in particular — trains you to look for the phallic and the yonic in everything. Including black holes.
But to support these motifs, High Life wants for a better story with more memorable characters. Denis’ film places its themes and style front and center, but not even Pattinson and Binoche get enough material to chew on. Pattinson’s stoicism helps him immensely here — he’s playing the same character he did in Good Time (2017), but Monte’s circumstances are far different. Yet in a scene after a pivotal revelation, when Monte stands at the airlock door and hits himself in the head over and over, High Life has earned neither the audience’s sympathy for him nor their understanding of why he’s so frustrated.
Pattinson’s better in a smaller, more damning moment, when he whispers to his sleeping baby daughter, “I coulda just drowned you like a kitten. It would be so easy.” But hinting at a more interesting protagonist isn’t the same as having one, and Pattinson’s ultimately upstaged by a black hole, left playing second fiddle to the computer-generated wonders of space.
Still, the audacity of High Life’s languid pace, unconventional narrative structure and humdinger of an ending will leave you in good spirits. It’s more literary than most of its contemporaries, too; there’s a garden on board the ship filled with foods Monte’s cautioning his daughter not to eat.
One wonders whether Denis and her co-writer, Jean-Pol Fargeau, were intending to allude to Paradise Lost. Fat gourds and lumps of moss litter the arboretum as Pattinson, playing at Adam, wanders through the mist, trying his hardest to avoid his mortality. Better yet, this would cast Binoche as both God and Satan, creator and corrupter — the role she was born to play.