Some of the buzz around High Life, writer-director Claire Denis’ first English language film, would have you believe that’s it’s either a kooky, kinkier Barbarella or a traditional thriller in space. In fact, High Life is just as severe and tricky a film as one would expect from Denis.
Set aboard a drifting spaceship, we’re introduced to Monte (Robert Pattinson) who tends to his infant daughter as the pair float further into the abyss, seemingly the last survivors of a mission to reach a black hole. After a lengthy sequence of Monte trying to be a good single Dad in space we are shown the earlier section of his journey in flashback. Since we obviously we know how this ended for the supporting players these sequences serve as intriguing context but the film isn’t concerned with thrills. With non-linear storytelling and an often icy tone, High Life feels like a film moving sideways through the genre.
The mission, crewed by convicts, sees them attempt to harvest the energy of a black hole for the people back home. A second task is for the tiny group to overcome radiation levels and breed in space. The cruel irony is that, rather than this trip being the promised second chance, those planning it know that they are sending these expendable people to their doom in a high-tech coffin ship. The surrounds are less Star Trek and more akin to an underfunded lab. Grainy snippets of time spent on Earth provide both some very clunky exposition and a few moments that feel like a Vice photo shoot as R-Patz rides the rails with Mia Goth, the most photogenic drifters in history, smiling down the lens.
While the terrestrial scenes might be a bit uneven, the time spent aboard the ship delivers on the promise of the premise. As years roll by, tensions grow and mania develops. The ship’s doctor, played by a scene-stealing Juliette Binoche, acts as a focal point for resentments and sexual tensions. Sex is treated as something sensual but often desperate and greedy. It’s one of the very few pleasures these people have left to them. When the ships bespoke wanking chamber grows tiresome you can feel the already creepy tone sour and the countdown to the inevitable series of assaults begins.
The shocking moments (and there are many) might come across as cheap shots to some. However, they’re in keeping with the overall tone of the film and are largely de-aestheticised. For all the shock factor, High Life is more concerned with contemplating futility than titillation. ‘Why go on living with such minor rewards?’ is the question. It’s a difficult one. Maybe that’s why this film feels so rewarding.