In High Life, Claire Denis’ 2019 science fiction drama, a group of convicts travel towards a black hole on a one-way mission offered as an alternative to their sentences on earth. Overseeing them is a doctor obsessed with fertility experiments and generally disinterested in respecting personal autonomy. As the film begins, we can already see that the outcome of their journey is oblivion for most of them. They are gone or soon gone in the first minutes of the film, from which we will flash back. Remaining are one man and a baby, whom he is raising either by biological relation or simple necessity.
This film shifts times and locations but maintains a bleak, masterfully presented series of tableaux contrasting bodies and machines, hallways and minds, planetary motion and biological conception, states of incarceration and binding, and wounds as both generative and obliterating. It’s the sort of film where a fair many shocking things happen, but none serve the purpose of tension or release, but rather all add to the careful and oppressive atmosphere. The journey here is into the heart of mankind, et cetera. The black hole is an eye is a womb is an ovum is a mouth is a handcuff, and such. There’s a point being made about states, individuals, bodies, control, and violation. It’s more or less Brazil, theme-wise, in the prison film genre, dedicated to Alien’s innovative retelling of the entire concept of being a passenger in space as one in which the vessel, the body, all bodies, and all vessels are necessarily compromised. It is a contaminated, contaminated film in which everything leaks, seethes, froths, and drips.
Sci-fi and high art are - despite what the scads of schlocky space flicks would argue - easy bedfellows. Space is quiet, the stakes are existential, and bodies in motion must be meditatively approached. In High Life, there is all of this and more, including the inspired (the ponderous idea of parenthood as a lone cosmonaut) and the exhausting (one finds the words ‘vile’ and ‘repellent’ used in multiple leading published reviews, and not entirely negatively). And yet, director Claire Denis’ supreme skill aside, the film has less to say than it has to show. It’s a shame that we can’t be waiting, with a thrill, for the next thing her characters will say, as we are for the next thing they will do, be, or emote, beginning and ending with the every move made my Robert Pattinson’s Monte.
Claire Denis is an auteur of a different sort. She is not the kind of master filmmaker who just comes up with one nifty premise after another. Nor is she Strictly for Freaks: offering up something difficult and bracing every go-around. And it’s neither a visual pallette nor topical consistency that makes a “Claire Denis film” recognizable. Instead, she operates fascinatingly with a dash of your formalists (Haneke bears mention, in a surfaces, textures, and pace conversation, at least) and your problem children (say, the Vincent Gallos of the world — not for nothing, a man she’s used as an actor several times). She is one of the most significant filmmakers alive.
One hesitates from replacing significant with “best” only because her work is so demanding as to narrow the people to whom one can recommend a great deal of it. This is not a critique so much as a shame.
Plenty of her fellow (male) filmmakers are no less lauded for brutalizing their viewers while harping on about life, bodies, sins, and transformations through challenging or repulsive imagery. But in categorizing Ms. Denis, for those new to her canon, it ought be mentioned: when she composes in the key of pessimism, it seeps and saturates. She does not sell relief.
Denis is a humanist. Documenting inhumanity always has a purpose for her, and the cleanest textual view of her work on the whole proposes White Material as the key to all of it. In that film, with its pungent autobiographical roots, she fleshes out her great themes with tremendous humanism and clear-sightedness. These have to do with statelessness, the comfort and anxiety of power structures, and the way our concept of commodities begins and ends with the body we operate.
High Life, her first English language and first science fiction film, abstracts Denis’ tender idea that all identity is immigrant to the coldest possible scenario: that of convicted criminals with life imprisonment or execution awaiting them sent into space to — well, it doesn’t much matter.
In one way or another, we’re eventually conveyed through the film’s stripped and witless expository dialogue, these people are being harnessed to collect energy in a way that will cost them their lives, which they’ve already forfeited as far as Terran life is concerned.
That the only one of them who volunteered for the one-way journey in order to support his family is black is no coincidence.
That is Tcherny (Andre Benjamin), who we meet along with the rest of the passengers after a long prologue focused solely on Monte (Robert Pattinson) and the baby Willow. After we meet them, the film doubles back. And back, and back, with a plot that moves non-linearly. Some writers have described this as creating a hypnotic or disorienting effect. I do not find this spell woven for the viewer, but rather somewhat the opposite. Denis’ cosmic voyage is purposefully drab, clanking, damp, and — time-wise - somewhat smashed to shards.
The main promise of deep-space sci fi has often been the fun of observing some high-stakes problem solving.
At the heart of things, what we’re really enduring (and it does often feel more like enduring than, say, being entranced by) is the instructive opposite of a typical heroic fable. In those, a group is whittled down to its various archetypal mettles, each member’s revealed through ordeal, and the survivor at the end of all the clatter being proven worthy. In High-Life, we’re given Denis’ cheeky challenge to that: the idea that the last body standing might not be the person with the guts to stick it out, the brains to plan through it, or the heart to see hope where there is none. Instead, he’s still there because he’s still there. And while we’re given signals of his decency, (he’s a murderer, but had a reason; he is patient with a baby; he intervenes during a horrendous attack) there is no pathos draped over him as he drifts inevitably closer to his fate.
Much has been written of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who conducts sexual research, manipulation, and more on her convict crew. Obsessed with fertilizing the women on board to full term, Dr. Dibs looms as the kind of Important Force that one wants in a would-be body horror film set in the infinite blackness: one where her pummeling motivation is to utilize every fleshy, fluid, forceable part of these people’s personal vessels in service of her own. Given her own nasty backstory straight out of mythological origin-story villainry, Dibs is coded immediately and memorably as “monster by way of transgressing the flesh/machine divide that society requests we bear in mind”.
The scene in which she manifests this (it involves just her and a very specialized set of personal equipment) is one that has earned High Life labels of erotic horror, space horror, body horror, etc. None of these is correct. The scene is both the film’s silliest and least fun passage.
To that end, the infamous sequence is a great and concise summary of the film’s proposed view of the the reductiveness of corrupt power: all things become tools, all tools become bodies, all bodies and tools and things leak and twist and penetrate and ooze and break and fail and yield. It is also — shame, shame — like the film as a whole, without grandeur, compelling perversion, or insight.
It is something of an unforgiveable sin to suggest that in a Claire Denis film, Juliette Binoche should be the most faultily cast character and Andre Benjamin the best, but there you have it. Not that anyone would be surprised at this stage by his skill: he possesses the same mature, alien charisma as did David Bowie, who also was therefore found ripe for deep space by cinema the moment it could.
But via the usually magnificent Ms. Binoche, the character of Dibs is unfocused in a way hard to pin down, but which eventually spreads into the script’s overall inability to sum up its own parts.
She’s neither a committed locus for maternal deviance, nor the tragic perverse slave to her own needs, nor the stand-in for God As Captor that the film seems to want the character to represent. Binoche is also given some of the most egregious of several lines that ought to rise to poetry in such a spare and haunting setting, but instead fall flat.
In High Life, its not so much the case that madness sets in, as it is that underlying frustrations about being there in the first place ignite. The violence, violation, and matching obsessive imagery of vessel-as-body, body-as-vessel are present from the start. Therefore, we are given no such crumb as a compelling analogy of society crumbling through increasing tension. Nor are we simply shown the sustained anguish of compression and inhumanity.
For some, the pulsing, evocative brutality will be enough for the film to settle into greatness in their estimation. For others, no matter how it writhes, scrapes, and slashes: High Life will be a bit of a bore. It opens and closes with its strongest proposition: Pattinson as a con, stranded on a ship, bound to an identity that he didn’t sign up for: fatherhood. In those passages, as in Pattinson’s scenes in the ship’s greenhouse with Benjamin, and in gorgeous flashbacks to the pre-voyage indigents on traintops, under bridges, and such: we taste a portion of the powerful alchemy of filmmaker to material that some critics seem to be willing onto this film. It’s not insubstantial. Neither is the rest, only, as our protagonist Monte warns early on, not everything fit for preparation need be consumed.