By Jordan Cronk
Dir. Claire Denis, France/U.S./U.K., A24
Claire Denis’s fourteenth feature, High Life, opens with a slow tracking shot across a garden of heavily saturated moss and assorted greenery. At once transfixing and palpably balmy, this scene-setting image is one of many to patiently establish mood, atmosphere, and environment before the introduction of any kind of plot or character. As a storytelling device, it’s not an uncommon one, but given the context—Denis’s first science fiction film and first English-language production—it’s curious and perhaps instructive to note that High Life, surely one of the most singular and uncompromising films of its kind, would begin with what appears to be a direct callback to the opening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), in which the camera similarly drifts across a clearing of water-logged reeds and overgrown grass. Indeed, like the Russian master’s existential space opus, which Denis has cited (along with 1979‘s Stalker) as a spiritual totem and inspiration, High Life’s opening immediately sets the film’s dialectical coordinates somewhere between the terrestrial and the cosmic, a familiar enough point of departure from which she proceeds to slowly upend any and all precedents and preconceived notions.
High Life was written by Denis, her frequent scenarist Jean-Pol Fargeau, and the British writer Geoff Cox, and the intricately nested plot reflects the associative construction of much of Denis and Fargeau’s prior work, as well as the metaphysical interests that marked Cox’s sole previous credit, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution (2015). Told mostly in flashback, High Life glides between past and present with few temporal signifiers to mark the narrative’s timeline or trajectory. In the extended opening, punctuated by the unceremonious ejection of what we soon gather are the crew’s dead bodies, the film’s star, Robert Pattinson (continuing to bolster his art cinema bona fides following recent collaborations with David Cronenberg, James Gray, and the Safdie brothers) is seen caring for the ship’s only other survivor, a baby girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). How we arrived at this point is initially unclear. In typical Denis fashion, she presents the story through an unfolding series of sensory details: a humid garden, a pile of lifeless bodies, a gathering puddle of sweat and semen.
Set aboard a battered spaceship in some unspecified future epoch, High Life stars Pattinson as Monte, one of a group of death row inmates sent into space as guinea pigs to investigate and extract energy from a black hole. Led by Captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger) and Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, sporting a lustrous and humorously long hair braid), the mission is soon revealed to be, at least in part, a front for Dr. Dibs’s more sinister dealings: she’s a kind of mad scientist midwife who harvests semen from the male convicts and forcibly inseminates the females. Opting out of the operation is Monte, whose celibacy makes him an especially alluring object of sexual obsession for Dibs. Proper sex is banned, so with nary an outlet for such urges, the crew is permitted occasional use of the “Fuckbox,” a large metallic chamber outfitted with bondage harnesses and a piston-powered dildo. In one of the film’s most carnal and feverish sequences, Binoche gamely mounts a large leather saddle, her bare back set against a pitch-black void as she writhes in unadulterated pleasure. As shot by Denis and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (a regular of Olivier Assayas, replacing Denis’s longtime collaborator Agnès Godard—another first), the scene resembles nothing so much as French provocateur Philippe Grandrieux’s deeply impressionistic use of nude bodies and chiaroscuro lightning, and places the film’s dueling impulses—between the mind and the body, repression and release—in stark relief. (The Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson is one of several credited production designers, and his sense of geometric contrasts is evident in many of the film’s more abstract sequences, as well in the intrepid use of practical effects, which make recent space odysseys by Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve looks like the gross overindulgences they are.)
If this recalls the similarly lurid concerns of Denis’s divisive vampire film Trouble Every Day (2001), her previous foray into genre cinema, then the feeling is reinforced by High Life’s deeply sensuous rhythms, as well as the gravitational energy of the performers, whose characters seem in a constant state of suspended desire, their bodies imperfect vessels for harnessing their innate urges. (In this way the two films, apart from even their more obvious genre correlations, feel like overt companion pieces, dual investigations into the nature and contradictions of the unstable human form.) Rather than fall victim to Dibs’s tests, Monte spends much of his time tending to the ship’s garden, a sanctuary of sorts where the male prisoners are able to commiserate in semi-privacy. It’s here where we meet Tcherny (André Benjamin, aka André 3000, light years removed from even OutKast’s own astral excursions), who’s taken an opposite approach to survival, indulging whenever possible in the pleasures of the flesh. His health, in turn, appears to fluctuate, growing weaker as the mission wears on, as do the women (played by Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek, and Gloria Obianyo), who are kept incubating in a locked chamber that eventually plays host to a few disturbing instances of sexual violence and abuse. Denis stages these overlapping dramas as a push and pull between extremes, lulling one minute only to erupt in lust or bloodshed the next; as one might expect, her weightless montage and elliptical approach to narrative prove especially conducive to the film’s deep space setting.
In the absence of traditional exposition, extended passages fall almost totally silent, guided largely by Stuart A. Staples’s typically rich and evocative score and Denis’s intensely circumscribed dramaturgy, which oscillates effortlessly between the dense and the diaphanous. At points the film’s cyclical, claustrophobic construction appears to mirror the characters’ mind-numbing routines, a procession of activities that incrementally strip away any semblance of self or dignity. And it’s in these moments of methodical degradation that Denis’s casting proves particularly inspired. We’ve watched in recent years as Pattinson’s skills have been salvaged and enriched by a roll call of celebrated auteurs, but few have subverted the actor’s presence and persona to such a perverse degree as Denis. In her hands, Pattinson’s body is reduced to its component parts, his face, eyes, and close-cropped hair severe with spartan detail, his arms and legs bastardized tools with which to stave off the inevitable.
In any other setting we’d call the character a cipher; here he’s endowed with the weight of infinity, Kubrick’s star child achieving full form. It’s telling indeed that the most expressive figure in the film is not our hero, but the baby Monte is tasked with protecting and whose paternal origin sits at the crux of the film’s mystery. Monte’s soul has been shorn to such a point that his conversations with an infant have devolved into such risqué subjects as eating and drinking one’s own piss and shit. “Taboo. Taboo,” Monte enunciates to his last remaining confidante, reinforcing in no uncertain terms the increasingly fundamental role that moral depravity has played in much of Denis’s recent work, a theme that finds an additionally useful point of reference in Bastards (2013), her unnerving portrait of incest and corruption in contemporary France. Like Trouble Every Day, Bastards presents a decidedly bleak and damning vision of the modern condition. High Life, as an extension and expansion of these concerns, strikes me as perhaps the culmination of a certain trajectory in Denis’s cinema—after all, where is there to go once you’ve reached the end of the universe? While the film arguably posits more questions than answers, offering little on which to gain a foothold, it also provides the viewer the thrillingly rare opportunity to become truly untethered.