Director: Claire Denis
Writer: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, Nick Laird
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger, Claire Tran
Robert Pattinson leads a committed cast in the piquant science-fiction drama High Life from director Claire Denis, an explicit and confronting story of sex and survival set light-years from Earth in the crushing blackness of space. As troubled Monte (Pattinson) and his infant daughter continue to hurtle further and further out of the Solar System towards 'nearby' black holes, High Life slowly and carefully reveals the nature of their dangerous mission and the reason for their isolation.
As sci-fi films go, High Life is up there as one of the most stylish, particularly in recent years, with the design of every aspect of the film feeling fresh and alive. Inside the spaceship known only as '7' which constitutes their home, is an unnerving combination of hospital corridors and underground factories, blurring the clinical and industrial feel of each, respectively. A small artificial garden serves as the only area of comfort or familiarity within the whole film, with the rest appearing quietly threatening and uncomely. The spacesuits are similarly well-designed and continue to betray a striking influence from classics of the genre, while also retaining a scene of originality. The environment is one which is futuristic and yet basic, immediately communicating that, while our protagonists are on a trip away from home, this journey certainly isn't a holiday.
Unlike many other sci-fi thrillers though, sex is at the forefront of Denis' story, with the main goal of 7's on-board in-vitro fertilisation specialist Dr Dibs (played exquisitely by Juliette Binoche) being the successful birth and survival of a baby in the space, parented by any of her fellow passengers. More a chore than a pleasure, however, the sexual aspect of this film's narrative rarely presents itself as a comfortable experience. From the outset, High Life feels forbidden and taboo, a sordid tale of conception and birth told through the eyes of the bored, the hopeless and the psychologically tormented. It is challenging and evocative tale, and one which has a lot to say about the subject of sexuality from perspectives of violence and desire and abstinence, and our fluctuating perceptions towards each of these concepts. Despite being set light-years from Earth, Denis' film is one which takes the viewer on a vast journey inward.
The story's delivery takes a non-linear format, and the film makes no apologies for expecting you to pay attention and keep up. As we rotate between time lines, the film is typically steady with its pace, moving from one aspect slowly and purposefully, before suddenly building to a rapid crescendo which dissipates as soon as it arrives. Its score is similarly non-conformist; it is one of many parts, with its first absolutely dripping with the influences of early science-fiction films, while another replaces the soft but sharp brass instruments with a deep mechanical thrumming, which is later drowned out by a crash of erratic noise and vocalisations during the film's remarkable 'fuckbox' scene. The most significant sound by far, however, are cries from Monte's young daughter Willow, which seem to dominate the first 20 minutes of the film and generate an almost unbearable sense of discomfort as her shrieks and wails echo around the empty chambers and corridors of the quiet spacecraft.
Nothing about High Life feels normal, and even its very structure manages to cause a distinct sense of unease which, when mated with the unfamiliarity of the setting and the oddly sensorial story, creates an atmosphere which is so saturated with tension that the foreboding terror of space - which is often the ultimate challenge in other sci-fi thrillers - seems to fade away.
While heavy on the symbolism, High Life can be a little light on the science. Overall the film's technical elements are generally well explained, but some seriously complicated scientific processes are explained away with single lines and are hitherto never explored again. Admittedly, the inner workings of the vessel's life support system or the artificially generated gravity are not the primary focus of Denis' film, but those audience members who have been drawn to High Life due to its sci-fi allure may find some moments frustrating. Hopefully, however, some of the spectacular external shots of black holes and nebulas - each as vivid as the last but all distinctly different - will do well to quell some of that frustration.
Robert Pattinson is, in many ways, our guide through the past, present and future of this mysterious story, as we see much of the film from the perspective of his character Monte. It is a delicate but powerful performance that Pattinson gives, often wordlessly, as he juggles the affection he feels for his daughter with the sorrow of their inevitable future, as well as the psychological impact of isolation and increasing social depravity, and the guilt or regret he harbours in relation to his past life on Earth. The amount he conveys through his limited dialogue is staggering and his effort can be added to a growing list of nuanced and thoughtful performances.
The only other character of great significance in High Life is the aforementioned Dibs, portrayed for us by Juliette Binoche through an astonishingly committed and intoxicating performance. As she continually tries to bring new life into the isolated and cramped walls of 7, her increasingly degrading and desperate attempts drive her to do incredible things, which are not only shocking but also dare to explore the nature of sexual violence, and the understanding of what such an act entails. While Monte represents restraint, Dibs represents something far more primal, lustful and perhaps dangerous.
Other members of the cast are afforded far less attention, with several appearing to be little more than fodder that can be removed at a later stage of the film. No one gives a bad performance, but none are given a distinct role or personality other than through a brief line or two of dialogue which alludes to either their responsibilities on the ship, or their reasons for being there in the first place. Mia Goth provides a passionate performance as the furious and turbulent Boyse, one of the more vocal presences on the ship, but truly this film belongs to Pattinson and Binoche.
High Life is a space-set drama like no other, telling a graphic and explicit story which bravely explores concepts that many of us would prefer to shy away from. Its sci-fi influences are boldly displayed through some inspired and stylish set design and special effects, while its steady but pulsating story refuses to let the audience settle into a rhythm which is even vaguely comfortable. High Life is a film that requires you to watch carefully with both eyes open, but often challenges you not to look away.
In one line: Challenging and unnerving, Claire Denis' sex-fueled science-fiction drama is a remarkable and provocative tale which takes us out into the depths of space in order to explore the deepest parts of ourselves.