The opening moments of High Life are jarring in their dissimilarity. Here we are on a hollow, nearly abandoned ship in deep space with a set design echoing the third act of Alien, and renowned French filmmaker Claire Denis chooses to first expose you to a lush garden aboard the craft, dripping with life and potential sustenance. From there, we hear a baby’s coos ringing through the empty hallways, and only a distant voice over the radio — belonging to Monte in a lead role by Robert Pattinson — can hear the infant’s wails as he’s outside in a spacesuit repairing the hull, only one fatal mistake away from falling into oblivion and dooming not just his own life, but his daughter’s.
When films capture a mood, what they’re after is hypnosis, specifically aimed at the audience. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done that day or where you’ve been; a master filmmaker can brainwash you into immersion with the simple act of a well-realized screenplay. Your past experiences are therefore part of the story, constantly clashing against the film’s blunt and bleak themes of humanity’s futile struggle to justify living in an existence apparently devoid of meaning. Where we find that meaning, the film suggests, illuminates what it probably means to be human, no matter where we may live or how much hope may be lost.
Eventually, the story of how Monte found himself aboard a prison ship with an infant several lifetimes away from his home is detailed through extended flashbacks, often cutting back and forth in its chronology with a purposefully offbeat pace. There were other people onboard, of course, one of them played by the mad reproductive scientist Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who also commands the ship and enforces a strict set of rules related to the prisoners’ sexual activity in search of a deeper truth even she doesn’t seem quite aware of for the majority of the film. Their initial mission is to harness alternative forms of clean energy hiding in black holes, but the doom of such an enterprise is understood by all, Binoche especially.
Though it is set in space and at times resembles science fiction, High Life is by no means a genre film. It’s an Andrei Tarkovsky film unlike any other Tarkovsky film, simply because Denis is one of the most individualistic directors working at the moment. All of her films are distinct in their unconventional storytelling, despite sharing contemplative themes of raw emotion and the human pursuit of redemption in the life imperfect.
Science fiction often strives towards forward-thinking stories, bent on using future progress as a measuring stick for society as it already is. But High Life wholly exists in the present, or perhaps outside of any time period. The ideas at play surrounding humanity’s metaphysical desires (from sexual gratification to parenthood) are too universal for a film to fit into any one genre or set of expectations. This is not a film that inspires a solution to what ails us but rather exists to remind of the problems that will never be solved. To cope is to either ignore and let fester, or accept and step forward with courage.
For that reason, High Life requires too much from the average viewer to be considered broadly appealing. If not for its key performances from Pattinson and Binoche, the film would utterly fail to register as more than an inconsequential exercise in abstract experimentation for a director who has nothing left to prove. The simple touches of a doomsday clock that force the lead character to affirm his life every 24 hours is a particularly potent mechanism made possible by the slow, deliberate performance Pattinson offers. He invokes a cold sympathy, first beggared by his role as a father, then confirmed by a decidedly celibate demeanor amongst his fellow prisoners. But it’s his electric dance of silence with Binoche that infuses the film with a sense of regret and perverted dimension.
This is the first film from Denis to be spoken entirely in English, but her first language will always be the movement of expression. Spoken words only emphasize what’s been clearly communicated in the nonverbal, which is the unmistakable value Denis offers as a director and co-writer along with Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox.
Despite being a film cast so firmly in the recesses of empty nothingness, Yorick Le Saux provides an organic cinematography that avoids the sterility of most other films that go to these sorts of futuristic depths. And composers Stuart Staples and Tindersticks only add to the spellbinding efforts of this script by underpinning every moment, from the most quiet to the most sporadic, with methodically rapturous pronunciation.
To call High Life a perfect film would be going too far, because no such thing likely exists. But High Life is perfect in what it offers to its captive audience and how it’s willing to do so in the first place. For film lovers, even the ones who may find High Life to be a bizarre and pretentious slog, this is one Denis film they can’t afford to miss.