I suppose Claire Denis’ High Life will get labeled as “science-fiction,” but that genre hardly does the film justice. After years of space epics that attempt to impress audiences by taking strenuous steps to let us know all the research that informed the film or all the sign-offs from expert consultants within the scientific community, Denis shrugs and indicates that none of those things matter to her. In High Life, the space suits and helmets do not look like they could protect someone from a light drizzle, much less the ravages of space. The production design appears to relish in a lo-fi, borderline anachronistic quality. The stars in the sky appear designed by a decades-old computer program. The only indication that Robert Pattinson’s Monte ages decades is a slightly grayer streak running through his buzzed mane.
This is, of course, the same Claire Denis who used Comic Sans as the font in the credits for her erotic vampire film Trouble Every Day! Exploring the wonder of space is not Denis’ raison d’être, to borrow a phrase from her native French tongue. The setting is but an excuse to further abstract human beings from recognizable surroundings. Here, primal instincts run wild through the antiseptic chambers of a box-shaped vessel flying through the skies. Protectiveness over children, insatiability to reproduce and outright cruelty rule the day.
Space as a backdrop merely amplifies the isolation among the passengers, who are really prisoners trading one death row for another. Their vessel, essentially an intergalactic Australia for scum getting “recycled,” embarks on a mission to harness the power of a black hole. But, admittedly, I had to look at the New York Film Festival program guide to remind myself of this. Denis disrupts the steady forward progress of an objective-driven story by unmooring High Life from narrative gravity altogether. The film floats weightlessly, bobbing back and forth between characters and timelines.
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Denis does not squander the setting or employ it incidentally, however. At one point, the passengers go to an observatory-style deck, and a character remarks about the sky — it appears they are getting further from what’s getting nearer. As they navigate towards the remotest reaches of space, the light from the stars only appears more distant. That paradox of watching something elude one’s grasp as it gets closer informs the torment of High Life, where tight quarters that should inspire tight-knit connections only serve to drive people further into their own headspace.
The passengers’ pent-up sexual energy provides the fuel to propel High Life. Some, like Monte, prefer to keep to themselves and wield chastity as a form of steeling himself against the isolation on board. Others, like Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, show no such restraint in consummating their feelings and urges. At one point referred to as “the shaman of sperm,” Dibs oversees fertility on board the spaceship, but her work goes beyond mere reproductive facilitation. There’s also the matter of a certain “Fuckbox” on board, a dark room that provides the opportunity for a more, shall I say… immersive experience of pleasure beyond the usual self-service. Denis only enters the room once, and it’s the most striking sequence in the film. The camera dances with the despair of the character employing the contraption to bring themselves to orgasm, yes, but also toward a sense of satisfaction that’s impossible to achieve anywhere else on the ship.
Denis devotees will know that when the director plumbs the darkest depths of any emotion, violence will be there also. Human cruelty in High Life peeks in to interrupt any rare moment of tenderness or connection, punctuating the narrative in a fashion that is both startling and banal. I wasn’t entirely sure if Denis is exploring these thematic worlds or merely orbiting them in High Life. She allows viewers to feel the pull without ever fully exploring what’s there. Not that she has to or needs to, either. Denis’ approach resembles that of Pattinson’s performance: pointedly pared down to the bare minimum without fully untethering from recognizable humanity. Whether that’s enough for each individual viewer likely depends on how much of themselves they can project in to fill the intentional gaps — or simply admire Denis’ observations in the abstract.
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