Imagine an Australian prison colony. Now, imagine it in space. There you have Claire Denis’ High Life: a puzzling, yet enthralling Sci-Fi thriller that subverts and devilishly careens from and into the genre to challenge an unsuspecting audience.
High Life, to begin, displays a lush green garden. Life, finding a way, survives on this adrift and forgotten vessel heading toward a black hole. Here, on this dilapidated and gloomy spaceship, Monte (Robert Pattinson), a prisoner, cares for a little girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). As shots of Pattinson feeding and caring for Willow run across the screen, Denis provides a scene of Monte repairing the ship during a space walk, softly imploring over a monitor for Willow not to cry.
Denis, before we know of Monte’s prisoner status, imbues the character with affection, while slowing drawing the audience closer through her distant gaze. And Pattinson, for his part, portrays the quiet radiance of fatherly love and mirthless parenting with ease.
Denis’ film then backtracks to the original inhabitants of this shipping container shaped vessel. Including Monte, Tcherny (André Benjamin, who occupies a tiny, but unmistakably stoic, yet addictive role), Boyse (Mia Goth), Mink (Claire Tran), and Nansen (Agata Buzek) adorn this ecosystem of death-row prisoners given a “reprieve.” These inmates are ruled by the unstable and inscrutable Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who conducts fertility experiments on them. Periodically, we’re also given flashbacks of Monte’s prior life on Earth, but they arrive in drips along with the cryptic radio communications from Dr. Dibs’ superiors.
The loneliness of space, played to cliche effect in other films, discovers tantalizing new life in Denis’ film. Like a 17th century ocean voyage, the prisoners (and even the “good” doctor herself) are pushed to their psychological breaking points, descending into their baser instincts. Rape transpires, an erotic fascination by Dr. Dibs towards Monte buds, and masturbation is expected. Seriously, there’s a chamber featuring restraints with a machine covered in mounted dildos specifically made to elicit the deeper sexual thirsts and impulses of all on board. Verboten fantasies and actions become common law here and Denis captures the animalistic commotions of this Dystopian world with a poetic and ruminative eye.
Denis, whose previous work includes Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, and Let the Sunshine In, isn’t solely relying on the groundwork of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in her English language debut. In fact, such comparisons belie the fuller cinematic conversation she’s employing in High Life.
Psychologically, the film adapts the same tensions as Ex Machina and Annihilation. Chillingly, the crew’s assignment to investigate the mysterious “Penrose Process,” is a suicide mission. Unbeknownst to them, their charge will require greater time than their lives will allow. The film also bends time — employing several flashbacks to Earth mixed with the crew’s current travails and Monte’s future with Willow (clear allusions to Interstellar) .
High Life‘s other scenes, moments not curtailed by the “fuck box” or various Lord of the Flies-esque struggles for power, take place in a tranquil greenhouse. A reference to director Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running, here, Benjamin shines as the quiet Tcherny: a prisoner who’s decided to dedicate his sentence to the organic life of the garden (much in the same way Monte will devote his days to Willow in the future). The eco-commentary taking place decidedly ascribes the cyclical process of rebirth, whether it’s the plants that fuel all on board or the restructuring of the prisoners’ lives and futures to their new reality, or even the fertility experiments conducted upon the inmates.
The Sci-Fi odyssey also serves as a brutal indictment on the prison system, especially concerning the use of isolation or solitary confinement. Most space films display camaraderie devolving to petty or murderous infighting. Others will insert an outside alien force, putting the crew at risk (think Aliens). High Life screenwriters Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, and Denis, instead, find their provocations in the punishment imposed upon a less than ideal makeup of characters. Many of the rooms/cells have the appearance of the padded walls found in mental hospitals; the ship’s cube shape mirrors the dimensions of a cell, and the ritual scientific and medical experimentation finds its roots in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Through it all, Pattinson is the film’s energy core in another tour de force performance. Few actors are as capable of tenderness and impulsive rage as him. Pattinson, as has been said before, has crafted a stellar and chameleon-like career. His turn as a teen heart throb in Twilight has never faded from memory, but like few others who have made the jump before him (the exceptions being DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and Ethan Hawke) he’s demonstrated the rare ability and star power to be both a box office legend and the muse to film’s most talented auteurs.
High Life will be a divisive film among audiences (it certainly was at TIFF), and the various interpretations of its ultimate conclusion will incite heated debate. Furthermore, there’s no way one can leave High Life on an ambivalent note. There’s too much to digest in a film meant to be provocative in every syllable of that fallen metered-word. Between the film’s retro cinematography helm by Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk, Stuart Staples‘ stellar synth-led score, and the film’s impenetrable themes creating a host of interpretations, this odyssey into oblivion demands a fit audience though few.
Denis takes massive risks in this subversion and reinvention of the Science-Fiction film, of the Dystopian thriller, of the exploration of space in cinema. A humanistic tale lacking aliens, lasers, and intergalactic battles, High Life (a bittersweet irony of a title) is a perfect combination of Denis’ art-house sensibilities, her prodigious skill, and her larger-flashier eye toward the unknown and indistinguishable.