Films that deal with space travel generally abide by two optimistic rules. One is that we’re heading out to the final frontier to find something new. The other is that we leave most of our gross bodily urges back on Earth as we transcend its grasp. High Life has no such positivity when it looks on our future, seeing deep space as a dumping ground for society’s rotten apples whose fluids and functions become the only thing keeping them human as they leave the comprehensible behind. It’s an extraordinary look at both the cosmic void and stuff of life from Claire Denis, making her English language debut with perhaps her most ambitious film to date.
Telling its story in fragmented, non-linear pieces over the course of decades, High Life’s heart is Monte (Robert Pattinson), a death row inmate, and his infant daughter Willow, conceived in space during the doomed mission Monte and various other prisoners have been sent on. Their initial purpose was to try and harness the energy of a black hole, but Earth has long forgotten about them well before they even approach their destination. The crew starts at nine strong, but we know from the first moments that eventually only Monte and Willow will be left.
For its first 20 or so minutes, High Life focuses solely on the daily routine of the pair, and Pattinson’s performance with the baby (Scarlett Lindsey) is magical. There’s a warm and tender connection that can’t be faked, serving as a beautiful contrast against the cold and dimly lit corridors that make up the lo-fi spaceship that the pair call home. Flashbacks to the earlier days of the mission eventually intrude, bringing with them more violence and antagonism. Thanks to his stoicism and strength, Monte falls into a leadership role alongside the ship’s fluids-obsessed doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and the affable Tcherny (Andre Benjamin aka Outkast’s Andre 3000).
This trio hold out the longest against the gnawing insanity of space travel, but cannot escape it entirely as the rest of the crew crumble around them. Shocking, distressing acts of violence erupt suddenly and there are moments of truly Lynchian horror when bodies and minds are morphed sickeningly by the effects of the impending black hole. Sex on the ship is presented almost as disquietingly. It’s mostly transactional and clinical, or absolutely bestial when the crew enters the much-talked-about ‘fuck box’. A steel room with a pleasure stool in the centre, scenes involving it are both obviously erotic and mesmerizingly unsexy, focusing on individual body parts to the point of abstraction.
This use of the abstract instead of trying to verbalise the purely physical is everywhere in High Life, including a three-cut sequence carrying us from conception to birth in one of the most jaw-droppingly ingenious edits I’ve ever seen. Denis has always been a master of wordless expression, and her skill combined with glorious, imaginative special effects make for gripping viewing. Dialogue is at a premium in Denis and regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau’s script, but there’s never an absence of efficient, affecting storytelling, packing in an entire saga into less than two hours.
Pattinson is great here, Monte’s struggle to keep control of his environment and mind etched into his face, and Lindsey is remarkable. She’s incredibly expressive and obviously fond of Pattinson, creating a father-daughter bond that remains incredibly emotionally effective as Willow ages into a teenager (played by newcomer Jessie Ross). The constant acceleration of the ship around black holes means that its inhabitants age far more slowly than they would on Earth – by the time Willow looks about 15, it’s been more than 200 years since Monte started his mission, a striking take on the stasis induced by incarceration.
Even in this dank view of the future, the stars themselves are still beautiful. There are definitely hints of Interstellar’s visions of space-scapes and black holes, but High Life leaves more mystery in the air than Christopher Nolan’s opus. Denis is also slightly less concerned with 100% accuracy in her physics, crafting some poetic images of death in space that are all the more powerful for not being restricted by literal reality. Stuart A Staples’s score is a perfect accompaniment to the journey, treading the same line between the ethereal and the primal that the film does.
High Life is a truly unique vision, another obvious masterpiece from Denis that stands tall with her very best work in Beau Travail. Very graphic and utterly uncompromising in the elliptical way it tells its story, it’s definitely not for everyone, but if you join Denis and co in their spectacular voyage without the expectations of typical sci-fi bombast, it’s the most rewarding film of 2019 so far.