The films of French filmmaker Claire Denis are elliptical and often sacrifice plot-driven narrative for poetic visuals steeped in humanism. They tend to alternate between dark, like her second-to-last film, Bastards, and light, like her penultimate film, Let the Sunshine In. With her latest release, High Life, Denis once again gravitates to the darker side of humanity. And even though she’s been making thought-provoking art house films for thirty years, High Life marks the first time she’s made an English-language film and the first time she’s worked within the Science Fiction genre.
High Life begins mysteriously with a baby aboard a spaceship being coaxed to utter her first words via intercom by her father, Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, who is outside the craft implementing repairs. After he reenters the ship it becomes obvious that the two of them are drifting through space entirely alone. While he struggles with near-solitude a series of flashbacks give us the backstory of his mission.
It turns out he had been part of a motley crew with one thing in common: they were all violent offenders facing the death penalty back on Earth but they were given an opportunity for redemption by traveling to a black hole in order to harness its energy. As Monte says in voiceover, “We were scum, trash, refuse that didn’t fit into the system, ‘til someone had the bright idea of recycling us to serve science.”
But it’s not entirely clear if their mission is legitimate or if they’ve been tricked into accepting a one-way-ticket to oblivion. And it may not be coincidental that their ship resembles a boxcar, suggesting an earlier time when undesirables were transported to their final destination not by spacecraft, but by train. As we discover the fate of each crewmember, the tone of the film becomes increasingly bleak.
High Life’s title lends itself to multiple interpretations. It might allude to the drug-induced high that most of the crewmembers receive from their ship’s mad scientist, Dibs, played by the great Juliette Binoche. Or it could refer to a higher form of life because Dibs, like all good mad scientists, has a god-complex and wants to create the perfect human being. Most obviously, “high life” is shorthand for living among the stars.
As with the title, High Life’s themes are varied and tantalizingly ambiguous, as they are in most of Denis’ films. The story has undertones of spiritual allegory, and Christianity and paganism are evoked throughout. In one scene, Monte and his baby share a tranquil moment within the ship’s Garden of Eden. In another, Dibs, who previously acknowledged that she looks like a witch, appears to cast a spell as she glides her hand in front of the face of a fellow crewmember and whispers the command, “Sleep.”
Composed of equal parts mystery, thriller and speculative fiction, High Life starts off slowly but will reward your patience, gradually working towards a finale which weaves elements of Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey into something uniquely Claire Denis. If you’re looking for straight-up entertainment then it might not fit the bill. But if you’re up for something a little more challenging, High Life will keep your mind spinning long after the credits roll.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.