We feel a certain wonder when we gaze up at the stars and stare deeply into the vast expanse of the unknown. It’s difficult to fathom the immensity of it all – the possibilities of what lies beyond our limited grasp. Our amazement at the infinity of the universe often masks the fact that we are every bit as terrified of the existence beyond our own atmosphere as we are enraptured by it. Space is an oppressive and cruel space, indifferent to the needs of our body and full of obstacles that prevent us from ever truly knowing it.
From Alien conjuring up unholy manifestations of our sexual anxieties, to Event Horizon, tying our worst nightmares to the possibility of what lies in the darkest corners of the universe, science-fiction films are all too aware of how the prospect of space-travel would awaken our innermost demons. Despite the storied history of exploring this concept through cinema, there’s perhaps never been a film more unique in its acknowledgment of the relationship between our very human fears of oppression and the vastness of space than High Life. As legendary french director Claire Denis’s first fully English-language film, this is a deeply challenging and harsh bit of sci-fi nightmare fuel that’s keyed into what keeps us awake at night in a way most films can only dream of achieving.
Taking the breathless, claustrophobic nature of a prison drama and shooting it into space, High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a convict trapped with his infant daughter on a ship hurtling towards a black hole. Extended flashbacks reveal how he and a collection of fellow criminals were part of a program that sends them on missions focused on attempting to harness the rotational energy of black holes as a fuel source.
Complicating the already heady nature of their journey is their suffering under the control of Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the crew’s twisted doctor who is hell-bent on impregnating one of the ship’s female crew members with a healthy baby. Using drugs both offered and slipped into the water, Dibs has turned the voyage into one of nightmarish sexual tension, where the crew’s only relief comes in the form of a strange masturbation room they call “The Fuckbox”. That’s of course saved for Monte, who refuses both Dibs’s sexual advances and her demands to be part of her experiments.
The film inter-cuts between his struggles to learn how to be a father and the descent into madness that ultimately doomed the crew’s mission, which Denis uses as a damning condemnation of the nature of the human spirit. This is less a film about space and more about lacking autonomy even in the widest of spaces; about how the struggle for control over our bodies is often an ugly, violent mess of insecurity and doubt. This film gobbles up the warmhearted idealism of films like Interstellar and spits it into the gutter. Love is not what binds us across space and time, Denis argues. It’s our propensity for savagery.
Indeed, High Life is a nasty piece of work, dripping with every bodily fluid imaginable and standing out as one of the least sexy erotic thrillers ever made. Denis recognizes the terror that comes with the vulnerability of sex, that the power of desire can be a frightening tool. By fully committing to this thesis, she’s made a deeply difficult and troubling film. Many will be entranced by its hypnotic visual style, but the piling on of cruelty that reveals her pessimistic view of human nature may be too much for some to bear.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. There’s a genuinely pure father-daughter story at this heart of this otherwise bleak picture, one that allows Pattinson to continue to prove he’s one of the most tender actors working today. This is perhaps his best role since his foray into art house film-making, a restrained and tortured performance that offers this cold film a warm hand to grasp onto. He completely sells Monte’s evolution from a quiet brooder into a committed (if unprepared) father, proving that even Denis’s misanthropic ways can’t deny the faint glimmer of hope provided by the bond of our more loving relationships.
Pattinson is outshone only by Mia Goth and Binoche at the top of her game, who both turn into delightfully twisted performances that only heighten the already palpable dread of the rest of the film. Goth, coming hot off great turns in A Cure for Wellness and Suspiria, continues to cement herself as an indie horror darling with her twitchy role as Boyse, a former drug addict who falls prey to Dibs’s schemes. Binoche is magnetic, bringing what could have been an one-note character to startling life. She brings a malevolent, intense sensibility to the role, making her presence known even in the moments where she’s not on screen.
High Life is an audacious piece of art, a film so beyond classification that it’s admittedly difficult to boil it down into words. Like the best Denis films, it’s an insistent ear-worm of cinematic complexity; the kind that will stick with you long after the credits roll, constantly evolving in your brain and never quite landing on one solid conclusion about what it makes you feel. Denis may not look to the stars and see a bright future ahead, but her keen awareness of what makes us tick, warts and all, may yet teach us what fate awaits us when we fall prey to the darkness.