Claire Denis’ “High Life” will probably elicit descriptions like “mind-bending” and “mind-blowing” from her admirers, but “mind-bruising” would be more accurate—a more pretentious and benumbing film would be hard to imagine. Of course similar brickbats were thrown at another ruminative sci-fi film back in 1968, but Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” defied detractors and has stood the test of time to become an acknowledged classic. One doubts that Denis’ outer-space oddity will fare nearly as well fifty years down the road.
Though set in the enormity of space, the atmosphere is deliberately claustrophobic. The characters are all members of a crew aboard a vessel that, from the outside, looks like a storage crate that’s fallen off a terrestrial cargo ship and on the inside is cramped and uninviting. (François-Renaud Labarthe was production designer.) The lack of amenities may be explained by the fact that all the occupants are criminals, convicts who have volunteered for a mission that could end in their deaths but, should it conclude successfully, can mitigate their sentences. Their purpose is to investigate whether, as some scientists believe, energy can be extracted from a black hole.
The crew consists of both men (Robert Pattinson, André Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell) and women (Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo), but among them two stand out. One is Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, a creepy scientist in a white smock who conducts experiments on procreation by collecting semen from the males (who provide it in what’s called the vessel’s “F***box”) and inseminating the women, who are tied down for the procedure; the results are radioed back to earth.
The other is Monte (Pattinson), who insists on remaining celibate—a decision he reached at least at some point in the journey. At the beginning of the film, he is the lone living adult on the craft, caretaker to an infant (Scarlett Lindsey), whom he cares for obsessively while going about the business of keeping the ship operating. From this point “High Life” tells its story—or fragments of a story, which the viewer is expected to piece together as best he can–via scattered flashbacks.
Much of that narrative is simply tedious, just as “2001” is thought to be by many unsatisfied people. But there are elements that are deeply disturbing, like the material dealing with what the crew experience in connection with Dibs’s experiments or a long, truly ugly sequence in which one of the women, strapped to her bed, is violently attacked by one of the men before other crew members intervene to stop him with an equal measure of violence. The deaths are more discreetly handled, but the sight of bodies piled up, waiting to be tossed out of the airlock to swim in the void, has a kind of hallucinatory power.
Set against the episodes of human depravity are the scenes in which Monte coos lovingly to the baby, although even here his banter has a strangely perverse quality: after all, one of the first cheerful bits of advice he mouths jovially to the child is “Never drink your own urine, or eat your own shit, even if it’s been recycled,” adding that doing so represents “a taboo,” a word he then repeats as a kind of jingle. The film’s close, with the child grown into a young woman, has an air of triumph as the black hole is reached (one of the occasional images, in a film that’s generally prosaic—indeed, positively unpleasant—from a visual standpoint, despite being shot by Yorick Le Saux, that really catches the eye), even though it presages doom.
Denis’ devotees will undoubtedly detect profundities in “High Life”—about the alienation that characterizes the human condition, the penchant for violence in mankind, the peculiarities inherent in material things (especially the human body)—but to most whatever messages she wants to convey will seem muddled and opaque, particularly since she and editor Guy Lecorne have chosen to present what passes for narrative in a chronologically scrambled sequence that feels totally arbitrary. It must be admitted, though, that Stuart Staples’ muted, droning score adds to the weirdness of what is only in the most general terms a genre piece.
Still, one has to respect the continuing dedication of Pattinson and Binoche to challenging material that would doubtlessly drive other actors to flee. None of the other cast members particularly distinguish themselves, though Lindsey is undeniably cute.
With a small body of work, Claire Denis has built a cult following, who will probably praise “Life” highly. In reality, though, this journey into space is not just obscure and unpleasant, but extraordinarily dull besides.