Claire Denis, the French filmmaker, has established her international reputation over three decades as a director of art cinema: social dramas with a vast range of subject matter, from the politics of race, sex and class, to crime, colonialism, and the nature of love in the modern era. Now she’s made a science fiction film called High Life. And why not? At this point I’m convinced she can do anything, but of course her version of science fiction isn’t like anyone else’s.
We open with a lonely spacecraft traveling beyond our solar system. There seem to be only two people on board—Monte, a young man played by Robert Pattinson, and a baby girl that we assume is his daughter. The space ship is not sleek and shiny. It looks more like a box, moreover one that has seen some wear and tear. The shabby interiors of this lonely ship are littered with junk of one sort or another, but Monte maintains things as best he can, even going outside at one point to make repairs. Otherwise he spends most of his time with the baby: feeding and changing her, talking to her, watching her sleep.
The prelude to this situation is gradually revealed through flashback. It turns out that there will originally nine crew members: all of them death row inmates recruited, in exchange for their lives, to make this intergalactic journey, ostensibly to study a nearby black hole. At the speed the ship travels, the crew ages more slowly than the people from Earth who sent them, so that after three or four years in the ship, thirty or forty years have passed in Earth time. Apparently, they were told that eventually they would return, but they’ve long since seen through that ruse. And the black hole study is perhaps a lie as well. In any case, a doctor with the weird name of Dibs, played by Juliette Binoche, is performing experiments with the crew, getting sperm from the male crew members to try to impregnate some of the female ones in order to have a baby born in space. These rather primitive experiments have the effect of amping up everyone’s hostility towards the doctor, and one another.
If all this sounds disturbing—well, it’s meant to be. Denis is exploring the darker side of human nature and its relation to sexuality—among these prisoners in space, consent is not even part of the equation. There’s a big chamber that people can use that has an apparatus for creating sexual pleasure—I was reminded of the “orgasmatron” in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, although this version is not funny, but creepy.
Dr. Dibs’ mission is to objectify everyone, including herself. The impersonality of sex without intimacy is the subject being dramatized, and it’s almost a horror movie. There are no monsters, but the attitudes and actions of the people are awful. Monte is the one crew member who chooses to abstain from sex altogether, and Dibs lets him alone, showing a kind of strange deference to his position.
The feeling of High Life is not of jumping back and forth in time so much as slowly gliding between different periods and moods. It’s like a theorem on the alienation of sexuality. In dramatic terms it could be summed up as Sex and Death in capital letters. This is Denis’s first film completely in English. Andre Benjamin from the rap group Outkast plays one of the crew members, and in fact each actor has unique qualities put to good use, given that there is no psychology in the film, just a glimpse into the naked substance, if you will, of human nature.
High Life is a film haunted by a premonition that our species is doomed. Yet by the end, Denis offers us a glimmer, not of hope necessarily, but insight.