At first blush, High Life seems to be about a single father trying to raise an infant child in inhospitable conditions — in this case, outer space.
As in the home, objects aboard his rectangular, wood-paneled spacecraft fail, and Monte (Robert Pattinson) must tend to them while monitoring his baby, always on alert in fronts both personal and existential. His daughter’s cries puncture his headset while he’s outside their module, fixing a door with a replacement parts he cobbled together. He’s just about finished when the wailing in his ears builds to such a crescendo that he drops his wrench, and watches in futility as it hurtles into the cosmos.
A quotidian frustration on an exoplanetary scale: This is the closest High Life comes to a bitter laugh — or at least an ironic chuckle — so enjoy the moment while it lasts. A few minutes later, Monte, the lone adult survivor on a star-crossed excursion to the outer limits, will decide that it’s finally time to take out the trash, as it were, and remove the corpses of his colleagues, dispensing them into the void and inspiring one of director Claire Denis’ most ominous shots: deep space as a soundless graveyard of astronauts drifting in eternal nothingness.
High Life’s title is milquetoast, suggesting a stoner comedy or a prosaic beer, but the result is more curious. It’s Denis’ 14th feature, her first in English, her first with a marquee English actor, her first attempt at an ostensibly commercial sci-fi film, etc. For the 72-year-old French auteur, it’s a career outlier in many ways. But it’s still a doggedly art-house project with considerations beyond the purview of the average space-exploration saga — posing ethical questions about women’s reproductive health, and commenting on an amoral prison system. Part of the reason the movie is so difficult to appreciate is this tension between the dictates of a studio genre film and the more cerebral motivations of its maker.
Denis, who wrote the film with Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, appears largely uninterested in the former, and with plot in general. As High Life proceeds to flash back to a more populated spaceship, there’s a throwaway line about a mission to explore a distant black hole and run some calculations. There’s a passing reference to the Penrose process. But you get the impression the what of this story is immaterial to Denis — she has turned her movie’s elevator pitch into an arbitrary McGuffin, the necessary excuse to place a bunch of combustible characters into a compressed space and let their hidden motivations, their deeper ids, run rampant.
These travelers are all extracts from the global prison system — Death Row inmates given one last chance to serve humanity, knowing the high probability they’ll perish in the process. As such, High Life awkwardly embraces the grisly brutality of a prison drama within the airless confines of a space opera. Blood stains the sterile walls, and it’s not the only bodily fluid that drips and oozes and splatters onscreen.
The movie’s most complicated character, Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, murdered her entire family back home; now, in a grim irony, she’s working tirelessly and un-Hippocratically to create new life through any means necessary. High Life may hold the record for the most insert shots of semen in a non-pornographic movie.
Cinematic influences, conscious or unconscious, surface here and there, from Alien to Interstellar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the whole star child thing) and especially Tarkovsky’s Solaris, whose atmosphere of cold, haunting mystery seems never far from Denis’ aesthetic. This is a high-minded reference indeed: I could watch Solaris every year and find new insights in it, fresh questions to probe. High Life wants to exert a similar hypnotic pull over its audience, but its pacing is sluggish, not mesmerizing; its subtext portentous, not profound.
Chief among Denis’ failings is that, given her dismissal of an intricate, rooted story — the science part of science fiction — compelling characters need to maintain our attention, and almost all of them feel hollow and one-dimensional, including Pattinson’s monkish, implacable Monte. When some of the supporting players simply disappear, their deaths unreported, we barely notice or care.
The one exception to this is Dr. Dibs, whose motivations are well-defined, and who is portrayed by Binoche at her duplicitous, sinister, libidinous best. In the movie’s most extraordinary sequence, she enters the spacecraft’s so-called “f**k box,” which brings inmates to completion whenever they want it, and satisfies herself in the most delirious sex scene since the backseat ecstasy in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind.
Binoche is more equine than human here, and if the scene makes anybody squirm — or leave the theater, as somebody did during opening day last week — it’s because so few films have devoted several uninterrupted minutes to pure female pleasure, no men necessary. It’s the literal response to the metaphoric orgasm ending Denis’ masterpiece Beau Travail — two scenes of unadulterated release. Sequences like this almost justify the movie’s wider problems. As a whole, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone in my social circle, but its cult future is all but guaranteed.
HIGH LIFE. Director: Claire Denis; Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth; Distributor: A24; Now playing at Cobb Downtown in Palm Beach, Gardens, Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura 24, Regal South Beach and Landmark Merrick Park in Coral Gables