When we use the term “science fiction,” almost invariably the branch of science we’re thinking of is physics: Quantum levels and warp speeds, artificial intelligence and advanced alien technologies. But Claire Denis’ first English-language film, the extraordinary, difficult, hypnotic, and repulsive “High Life” doesn’t give a damn about physics, and not just in the way that bodies tumble wrongly out of airlocks and nobody seems to spend a moment of their day engaged in cosmic problem-solving. In the science fiction of Denis’ forbiddingly austere and audacious imagining, the science is biology: Out here, we are not made of stars but of blood, hair, spit and semen.
We’re far from earth but this earthiness is everywhere. “Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled,” murmurs crew member Monte (Robert Pattinson) to the little baby in his care. “It’s what we call a taboo. A taboo. Ta-boo-oo. Ta-boo.” He turns the word into a song, and the baby gurgles. These moments of connection, beautifully played by Pattinson and a borderline miraculous baby performer (Scarlett Lindsey) are all the more precious once we realize that the pair are the last ones left alive aboard a slowly failing spaceship, unromantically designed to resemble a shipping container. According to a jumbled chronology that could be reflective of the way time buckles and bends in proximity to a black hole (but more likely is just the way Denis prefers to tell her story), even before the title appears over a lyrical shot of the crew’s bodies floating down through the inky void of space, we’ve watched Monte go about the nasty, lonely business of jettisoning his dead colleagues.
In the simplest terms, then, “High Life” tells the story of what went wrong on this peculiar mission. A group of death-row inmates, imprisoned for crimes only ever vaguely outlined, have been offered commutation and a chance at redemption if they will man this mission to investigate the “Penrose Process” — a real-world theory propounded by physicist Roger Penrose whereby energy might be extracted from a region close to a black hole. But while there is a captain on board (Lars Eidinger), the real authority seems to lie with the ship’s witchy Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, sporting a long Rapunzel braid and go-for-broke unhinged carnality) who has a grim, pointedly “unnatural” backstory herself, and seems less invested in the mission’s success than she is “dedicated to reproduction.”
She harvests semen from the men — all except the voluntarily celibate Monte, with whom Dibs is consequently obsessed — and inseminates the women in the hope of creating life out here in the lifeless, irradiated void. But isolation and a dawning awareness of the suicidal nature of the mission, as well as a presumed predisposition toward violence, conspire to create a mood of spiraling despair and menace among the crew. This is mirrored by the jerky, discomfiting pacing of the film as a series of longueurs interspersed with moments of shuddering, gory violence, rape and mechanistic masturbation in the already infamous “Fuckbox” — a small, leaky room equipped with restraints and piston-mounted dildos in which the inmates of this floating prison can relieve their sexual frustration.
This kinky, often grotesque melding of genre science-fiction with all-out body horror is an audacious project, but the scope of its ambition is cleverly reined in by the low-key presentation, its more salacious potential muted down to an insistent threatening hum, like the background radiation of Stuart Staples’ score. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is restrained and intimate, though it captures the same kind of tactile beauty amid sleaze, in the same ochres and browns, as in Denis’ “Bastards.” Even the involvement of Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is minimal, confined to an occasional spray of colored lights against a wall, and some color-blocked frames wherein red rooms look through blue filtered doorways to yellow halls beyond.
|VARIETY PORTRAIT STUDIO AT TIFF|
In general, François-Renaud Labarthe’s scuffed and weary production design is a vision of the future telegraphed from the past, owing more to “Alien” and “Solaris” than to anything slicker or more ergonomic. Even the ship’s garden is overgrown and slightly tatty, though lovingly tended to, in a small but welcome, grounding turn, by Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny. Elsewhere Mia Goth impresses too as the young woman forcibly impregnated by Binoche’s Strangelove-esque obsessive, before enduring a fate that is surely the single most unflinching portrayal of spaghettification ever committed to film.
But “High Life” can’t be separated from Pattinson’s omnipresent performance, and he seems perfectly attuned to the uncanny demands of Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau’s challenging script, which is so precise, almost deterministic in its details, yet so elusive in overall effect. With few words of dialogue, but a great deal of screen time, he also carries this foreboding, dissociative film’s slender thread of connection in the relationship between Monte and the baby (named Willow, according to the sinister lullaby that is the closing track, written by Staples, performed by Tindersticks, and sung by Pattinson). But we shouldn’t overstate: His presence, plus the loosely familiar genre, and the English language dialogue, might make you believe this is a more accessible Claire Denis film than we’ve seen. It is not.
At once a grand departure and the same film Denis has been making all her life, “High Life” deals in a kind of metaphorical colonization, in the violence inherent in interpersonal relations between men and women, and in the perversity of (especially female) desire. But it also goes further in sorrowfulness than Denis has gone before, becoming, for the viewer who can bear it, a film orphaned by almost inexpressible loneliness and grief, in which humanity is marooned between physics and biology, the earth and the cosmos, reaching out for the infinite but tied to an eternally dying body, and lost forever in the moment we realize we’ll never get where we’re going, but have come too far to ever go home again.