Claire Denis’ grotesque, mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind new science fiction movie High Life opens with a series of peculiar images. A lush garden covers the floor and walls of a spaceship greenhouse. A toddler cries from an improvised playpen. An astronaut tries to console her from outside the ship, and accidentally loses one of his tools, which drops down into the void below him — emphasis on down, as it appears gravity is still asserting its will far outside the Solar System. All these elements exist in defiance of what most audiences will assume about both cinematic and real space travel, where humans adjust to unnatural conditions and subject themselves to the punishing rigors of astrophysics. For Denis, baffling the audience early on is an efficient, confounding statement of purpose.
A French director making her English-language debut, Denis has for decades been one of cinema’s great sensualists, known for elliptical treatments of love, like Friday Night and 35 Shots of Rum, or colonialism, like White Material or Chocolat, or something in between, like Beau Travail, her film about the erotic tension between French legionnaires in Djibouti. Her last shot at genre filmmaking, 2001’s Trouble Every Day, converted a story of flesh-eating vampirism into a metaphor for consuming erotic desire. It’s never been in her interests to abide by convention, and if breaking the mold means thoroughly upending the laws of space and time, she’s certainly willing to drive the Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world into certain catatonia.
With High Life, Denis bends science fiction to her will, colonizing a spaceship with roughnecks and chaos agents who couldn’t be further from the sterile, calculating brainiacs who usually get launched into orbit. (To that end, the film would make a fascinating double feature with the Luc Besson-produced action movie Lockout, aka Space Jail, though there’s an exceptionally narrow audience for both.) Though her philosophical approach to the genre places the film firmly in the abstract realm of classics like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey, Denis thoroughly rejects those films’ sterility. Her ship is alive with emotion and conflict, and it practically oozes with organic material — blood, sweat, semen, and spit.
The enigmatic center of the storm is Monte (Robert Pattinson), who opens High Life as a survivor of a space mission gone awry. The other survivor is the child, who was born on the ship under circumstances Denis takes her sweet time to explain. In one of the film’s most haunting sequences, Monte gathers the bodies of his fellow passengers and jettisons them into the void. Denis stages their descent through vacuum as if they were snowflakes in a gentle deep-space snowfall.
As usual for Denis’ work, High Life volleys nimbly back and forth in time, but she eventually fills in the missing pieces. Monte and most of the co-ed crew are death-row inmates who have been sent to space on a long-shot quest to find an alternative energy source for Earth. He seems determined to keep his head down and do his time, as does fellow gardener Tcherny (André Benjamin). But other crew members, played by Mia Goth, Claire Tran, and Ewan Mitchell, stir up considerably more trouble. And none of them seem deeply engaged with the ship’s mission: investigating the Penrose process — a real-world theory devised by physicist and Stephen Hawking collaborator Roger Penrose — which says an abundance of energy could be extracted from a black hole, potentially saving the planet.
There’s no expectation, of course, that the crew will come back alive from this mission, which dramatically affects the mood on the ship. For people already prone to violence and rebellion, the combination of close quarters and their status as guinea pigs on a suicide mission naturally leads to discord. Much of the tension builds around the diabolical Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who has been collecting semen samples from the men on board and trying to inseminate the women, to little avail. When Monte refuses to participate and takes a vow of celibacy, Dibs’ obsession is piqued, and she takes dramatic steps to get what she needs.
Dibs’ interest in engineering a baby on a ship destined for oblivion is one of the many confounding mysteries of High Life, which Denis is content to leave unresolved. Though the film stands to be her biggest ever in America, with a major star, the backing of distributor A24, and no language barrier, it’s also among her least accessible, because she so steadfastly balks in the face of reason. But her previous work is a clue that she considers the messiness of human desire paramount, even in an environment that functions to suppress it.
Life finds a way on this ship, in spite of a crew of prisoners tethered to a suicide mission, and further penned in by the seemingly sterile restrictions of outer space. There’s still room for love and compassion, and rape and murder, and violent masturbatory sessions with a “Fuckbox” — a small room that’s like the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, if it were designed by George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading.
And yet for all the effort Denis puts into demystifying outer space, she’s utterly transfixed by it, too. While there’s plenty of evidence that the black hole will crush Monte and the child, Denis isn’t in any position to say for certain, and stands in awe of the celestial beauty they encounter along the way. Though the superb sound design, and the music by Tindersticks lead singer and longtime Denis collaborator Stuart A. Staples, both thrum with eeriness and dread, High Life isn’t so swamped by oppressive emotion that all hope is eclipsed, too. At a time when the Earth itself seems to be hurtling toward doom, the presence of genuine wonder and new life in the film carries a sliver of optimism. In the face of the void, in the farthest reaches of outer space, humanity persists.
High Life opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles April 5th, and expands to wider release on April 12th. Check the official ticketing site for more information about local screenings.