Going by the trailer for Claire Denis’ High Life, you’d get the impression that the film was an unsettling science-future thriller about criminals launched into space believing themselves to be on an important mission to investigate a black hole—when in reality, they’re the subjects of twisted reproductive experiments. In reality, the movie is about prison.
High Life’s opening scenes establish the story being told in such a stark, distressing way that when the actual plot begins to unfold you have to make the effort to both hold onto the pieces of the narrative puzzle being dropped and try and interpret the visceral emotions Denis is trying to evoke.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the only surviving crew members of a rectangular spacecraft that’s capable of sustaining human life for long-term periods. The ship’s equipped with an area capable of generating an artificial biome where crops can grow, has a water recycling system…and a freezer full of preserved, dead bodies.
As Monte goes about his daily routine taking care of his daughter, High Life takes on a sinister atmosphere borne out of Pattinson’s disconcerting performance as an unhinged man left alone with an infant. There is something wrong with Monte, but it’s unclear whether the thing that sets your teeth on edge about him was part of him before he left Earth, or if what you’re sensing is what being stuck virtually alone in space can do to someone’s mind.
The answer’s a little from column A and a little from column B. Like all of his crewmates, Monte was once a death row inmate awaiting execution on Earth who chose to participate in the mission as an opportunity to get out and perhaps become something of a hero for the planet. Boyse (Mia Goth), Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), Chandra (Lars Eidinger), Tcherny (André Benjamin), Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), Mink (Claire Tran), and Nansen (Agata Buzek) are all capable of terrible things, but they dutifully follow the directions of the unnerving Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who keeps them all mildly sedated with a solution kept in the water.
Binoche floats through the ship’s halls with a deranged, tragic presence that makes you question just how much control Dibs really has, and how much of her authority is the result of her fellow crew members being constantly drugged into a state of semi-agreeability. Pattinson’s brooding, celibate Monte is stoic and looming all throughout the film, subconsciously aware of the threat Dibs is to everyone and that she’s utterly obsessed with him because he resists her sexual advances.
Pattinson’s chemistry with Binoche is electric and drives much of the movie forward, but in the moments focused on him as a new father, it’s impossible not to recall that at one point, the role was meant for Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Pattinson’s more than capable of bringing the right energy to the screen, but his youth does put the tiniest cracks in the fantasy of the film. “This guy…should be a bit older,” you might find yourself thinking.
While High Life centres Dibs’ fixation as its earliest sign of the film’s horror element, the movie really only uses it as a means of establishing the darker psychosexual themes running all throughout the film. After having long since given up any hope of ever reaching the black hole they’re meant to somehow harvest energy from, the crew’s settled into a numbing daily rhythm that’s punctuated by Dibs’ newfound obsession: orchestrating the first successful birth of a child in space.
Methodically, Dibs collects semen from the men and inseminates the women on the ship, and while the women are able to conceive, the intense radiation causes them to repeatedly miscarry. After each failed attempt, Dibs soldiers on and her fellow crew members are left feeling like the numb, used lab rats they are to her, and they loathe her for it in one way or another.
Humanity is the dark, dangerous monster in High Life that rears its head repeatedly throughout the film; it gradually tears the crew members apart as they descend into one of the most startlingly artistic, if inscrutable, depictions of space madness in film history. Everything about the crew’s circumstances seems to be designed to result in the worst case scenarios: Why would a government program confine a co-ed group of dangerous criminals into a small space for years at a time and not consider the likelihood of sexual assaults?
Why send them out into space with no real means of keeping their sanity aside from “enjoying” one another’s company, or spending their time in the ship’s “fuckbox” — a room filled with all manner of mechanised sex toys?
Functionally, the room’s meant to be a space for release. In one arresting scene, Dibs does a kind of carnal interpretive dance atop the fuckbox’s equivalent of a sex chair, and it’s as mesmerising as it is brutal and animalistic. Narratively, though, High Life frames the fuckbox as a bundle of twisted, burning nerves down in the bowels of the ship — a manifestation of how the crew’s sexual urges have become warped and turned inward as a result of their spacefaring confinement.
And that’s the thing about High Life that makes it more a commentary on the way prisons dehumanize convicts rather than a straightforward story about humans travelling through space. Like any prison, the ship is an isolated microcosm of the world that’s designed to give them the barest of minimums in terms of things necessary to sustain their lives.
They have food and water, yes, but it is quite literally the product of their own waste, recycled countless times over. They consume and bathe in one another, albeit in a deconstructed, precise way, but Monte teaches Willow that it’s a taboo all the same, or would be had she been born on Earth.
For all intents and purposes, everyone on the ship’s been left to wallow in their own filth in a program masquerading to be the hope of humanity’s future. But in time, it becomes clear that the program’s not at all concerned with the crew’s livelihoods or whatever contributions they might have made to society. Worse than an experiment, they’re a fleeting spectacle from Earth’s past, long forgotten.
But, like anything that passes a black hole’s event horizon, High Life’s messages are often too torn apart and deconstructed to keep proper track of, as the movie assaults you with its graphic depictions of all kinds of horrific but believable violence.
High Life is its own black hole of sorts: A growing mass of disparate, yet interconnected concepts that you’re drawn into despite the sense of danger you get from coming too close to it. The singularity is the crystallization of ideas Denis wants us to reflect on, but it’s so dense that, by the time you leave the theatre, chances are solid that you won’t fully understand what you’ve just seen, or whether you want to watch High Life again in an attempt to figure it out.