Claire Denis is a French film director known for her work with “Beau Travail,” “Trouble Every Day,” “35 Shots of Rum” and “White Material.” Specializing in provocative cinema that very expertly allures the arthouse crowd, Denis has never really achieved success in the United States — or the mainstream crowd for that matter. If I’m being completely honest, “High Life,” being her first English language film and all, isn’t a frightfully tolerable or gratifying effort for mainstream viewers to seek comfort in. “High Life” is relentless, cheerless and introspective cinema, and on the contrary of what many will believe, being in the vastness and quietude of space doesn’t stop Denis from probing the cruelty within us all.
Drifting trillions of miles from Earth at the speed-of-light, Monte (an enigmatic and exhausted Robert Pattinson) is trapped within confined walls of a deteriorating (and quite unsightly) space ship, weathering the tranquility and seclusion of space. As it turns out, he has a baby daughter named Willow. Trying to maintain a crumbling spaceship and struggling to care for his daughter, Monte is essentially on a space journey to a black hole, not knowing what the future will hold. Although death is lingering beside him, Monte has accepted his unfortunate circumstances. Despite being left to his own devices and forced to raise a daughter in a precarious environment, his daughter illuminates this sudden glow of hope in an otherwise soundless setting: The baby lets out a raucous cry that reminds Monte of his daughter’s purity. As Monte and Willow are ensnared in space, the film alternates back in time — only to divulge the details behind Monte’s isolation in space.
As it turns out, Monte was originally part of a group of inmates serving death sentences while being used as scientific guinea pigs. The criminals are reduced to tools, a bunch of nobodies meant to participate in screwy experiments and to ultimately venture to a black hole to extract an alternate form of energy. Initially unaware that none of them will return, the group of prisoners is stuck within the claustrophobic walls of the spaceship, offered food, supplies and air when they continue to send a daily report and follow all experiments. When you have all of these hotheaded and deprived inmates forced to live together, however, with a weirdly heinous doctor named Dibs (played by a frighteningly awkward Juliette Binoche) to sustain order in a hellish environment, chaos is bound to unravel — and my god does it shock and bewilder.
Denis paints an outré picture during the opening scene: an unwavering shot of Pattinson in space, fixing a problem on the outside of the ship, and a shot of a baby, tucked in a crib while Pattinson’s character sings a bizarre lullaby to the baby via speaker, that goes like this: “Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.” “It’s what we call a taboo. A taboo. Ta-boo-oo. Ta-boo.” The hypnotic sound of Pattinson in space persuades watchers of the stillness of space, but Monte’s cognizance and focus are damaged by the rasping cries of the infant, who seems to yearn for the attention of Monte. These shots render the circumstances Monte is enduring all the more stress-inducing and palpable. The horror is in Monte’s isolation; the sheer agony is found in the baby’s hankering for a father’s love while being stuck in a spaceship heading toward oblivion.
Monte is taking care of an infant and trying to breathe life in a ship heading to a black hole, so, going off the introduction, Monte’s actions are pure. He exhibits some kind of humanity and comprehension regarding the fragility of life; he perceives the infant as his daughter and recognizes his duty as a father. A lyrical shot of the crew’s bodies floating down through the inky nihility of space now occupies the screen, already implying to the crew’s devastating doom. The lurking questions that emerge throughout, however, plead for a viewer’s patience. Why was Monte ever part of the mission in the first place? And what happened to the other inmates stranded on the ship? Where’s the infant’s mom? These questions will be answered — but I’m not going to lie to you, the thorny subject matter is handled rigorously, luridly and subtly. “High Life” is rebellious and unwonted that way. And Denis is admirably weird that way.
With “High Life,” no character is wholly likable. Monte may exhibit snippets of empathy and solicitude, but he’s still a minacious, despondent and inscrutable individual, passively letting life unfold. Monte has come to terms with his unsavory situation, but he’s in the company of ruthless criminals, whose state of minds are corrupted by captivity and whose actions are triggered by sexual profligacy and the baseness of human nature. The prisoners are trapped in strait rooms together, forced to endure the soul-crushing vacuity of space and their restricted personal space. The inmates can escape their dismal surroundings by visiting the ship’s luxuriant vegetable garden, emulating a gorgeous and unearthly Eden, or spending some me time in an ill-defined chamber known as the “Fuck Box,” which possesses a sensuous central machine for enhanced pleasure. The symbolic core of the garden and “Fuck Box” is quite perceptible: The garden entitles inmates a scenery that reminds them of responsibility and their time on Earth, while the “Fuck Box” is a hedonistic device meant to indulge inmates of their sexual appetite.
Denis is an oddly sensual filmmaker, embracing visual art as the primal form of expression. In “High Life” (and in our actual, earthbound life), sexual cravings are part of being human — and as susceptible humans, enraptured by the physicality of other men/women, none of us can escape our hunger for physical contact. I will say this: Experiencing an older woman practicing in prurient acts, and at one point, forcing out ejaculation from a man (through extreme sedation and rape), extruding semen from her own vagina and impregnating a younger woman with both constituents, is utterly unpleasant to watch, but I honestly would expect nothing less from Denis. Symbolism is an ample portion of “High Life,” and although it’ll take a rewatch to fully digest the material, even a tiny scrap will gratify an arthouse lover. Stuart Staples’ haunting score, alone, will keep one invested in the lingering ambiguity of the characters and what they will do next — or why they did what they did. Staples’ score deftly elevates the panic and apathy of a scene, the production design inspires a quaint sci-fi look (in the realm of “Alien”) that’s suffocating, and Guy Lecorne’s editing meshes the present-day and the past in a gentle manner.
“High Life” highlights the quiddity of birth, incarceration, rape and sexual aspiration. It’s a dangerously arresting film that detects the characters’ self-created walls, constructed to keep empathy and hope out and to let self-deprivation take effect — advancing the characters to react in ire and frustration. Yorick Le Saux (“Personal Shopper”) and Tomasz Naumiuk’s (“Nina”) picturesque cinematography is restrained and intimate, upholding a story told through an objective lens while rendering the chaos tactile. Despite Monte being the center of everything, the perspective is constantly shifted between prisoners, arranging the bedlam in various angles. However, don’t expect to thoroughly understand the characters’ actions right away; you have to let everything sink in.
Tinkering with human indecency and the insufferable anguish of being human, Denis ties the knot with a conclusion so awfully modest and earnest, I walked out feeling awfully relieved. Strangely, I adored Denis’ sense of hurt and repression because she doesn’t hold back. Sounds like shock cinema, and it may very well be, but it’s shock cinema that has a vigorous, naturalistic coloring. It’s extremely difficult to expound “High Life” to somebody expecting a space-travel movie or a space thriller; if anything, “High Life” is misleading, and it can get lost in its plodding course. But even if you try to objurgate the depravity and barbarity untangling on-screen, as repulsive as it can be, “High Life” acts as some kind of twisted, ill-natured cautionary tale, that feels far too personal and grounded for a space movie. That’s where Denis hooks you in, though. You have an ugly spaceship, fiendish criminals, grotesque rape and violence, yet, the final shot is optimistic, and makes the movie worth the trip. The concluding shot engenders why hope is still feasible. Even in the shadowy depths of space, entering a chasm of pure darkness, you can find purpose.
A fractured narrative drives “High Life,” alluding the viewer to Monte’s isolation by compiling flashbacks to the crew, knowingly progressing their demise while evoking a shred of intrigue to how Willow, Monte’s daughter, came to be. It jumps all over the timeline, practices a very transgressive execution in human nature, and moves along at a gradual pace, which pretty much makes “High Life” another Claire Denis picture tailored to the high art crowd. Surprisingly, hopping from the past and to the present-day (whatever day that may be) doesn’t muddle the surreal beauty at the center of Denis’ glance at physical and emotional repression. If anything, the scattered plotting amplifies the woolly procedure of Denis’ alien fashion in which she exhumes the value of life. After all, aren’t we all mired in life’s misgivings and our carnal desires? Even in the immensity of the world, sometimes it can make us feel so small, tractable and isolated. “High Life” kindles an implacable voice regarding imprisonment and turpitude, we all inherit, in one way or another. We’re all prisoners of life, and like Monte, drifting in the void of space, vacant of emotion and optimism, we tend to unlock our cells when faced with ambiguity and hardship.