The first sci-fi feature (as well as the first English language feature) from French filmmaker Claire Denis, High Life is set in the far reaches of space, though the opening segments, in which struggling single parent Monte cares for his young baby, could be anywhere on Earth. It’s a grounded performance from Robert Pattinson, who, along with his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, has gone on to become one of the most interesting faces of mid-budget indie cinema. And then he throws a bunch of corpses into space and the story becomes a lot less usual.
The bulk of the narrative is set on the same spaceship at an earlier time. Monte is one of a group of convicts sent into the cosmos on what’s likely to be a suicide mission, with the aim of harnessing the power from black holes. The ex-criminals are also guinea pigs in an ongoing experiment by Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs – a much more out-there performance, her lengthy hair and controlling demeanour making her appear more witch than scientist – who is collecting the semen of the male convicts and obsessively trying to artificially inseminate the women.
It’s in the ponderous category of space sci-fi, one for fans of Solaris rather than Star Wars, but by no means slow, packing a lot of punch into its 110-minute running time. At times, the plot is confounding, with major developments near the end happening quickly and with little clarity. But the somewhat rambling nature of Denis’ style fits the setting, with the characters both isolated in the deep expanse of space and confined to an insular spaceship, which, combined with the fact that they’re forbidden from sexual activity with each other, inevitably becomes a hotbed for aggression and desire.
This situation leads to riveting drama, particularly between the closed-off Monte, who refuses to take part in Dibs’ experiments, Dibs herself, and Mia Goth’s unstable Boyse. It’s disturbing at times, with moments of horror: both human horror, when an attempted rape turns into a violent confrontation, and sci-fi horror, when an experiment on a black hole goes wrong; these two equally shocking images linger in the mind long after viewing. Nor will you forget the more positively sexual image of Dibs using a masturbation chamber referred to as the “fuckbox”. There’s also great poignancy, especially in sequences close to the end – when the focus shifts back to Monte and his daughter, now older and played by impressive young actress Jessie Ross – which are at once charming and deeply morbid.
The comparison to Tarkovsky’s Solaris extends to High Life’s aesthetics; rather than the high-tech space setting seen in the likes of Passengers, costumes and sets look like they were made for a 1970s production. The ship also has a verdant garden, perhaps a deliberate allusion to Silent Running. Yorick Le Sauk’s cinematography is restrained and character-focused, rarely taking us outside the spaceship – though the effects shots, when they arrive, are breathtaking.
High Life is by no means perfect, and it can be a difficult watch. But it’s a movie that provokes a lot of contradictory emotions – it’s charming and bleak, graceful and grimy, erotic and repulsive. It’s challenging, experimental sci-fi, and there’s not enough of that around. It’s only getting a select cinema release, but make the trip to see it If you can.HIGH LIFE / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: CLAIRE DENIS / SCREENPLAY: CLAIRE DENIS, JEAN-POL FARGEAU, GEOFF COX / STARRING: ROBERT PATTINSON, JULIETTE BINOCHE, MIA GOTH, JESSIE ROTH / RELEASE DATE: MAY 10TH