Reel Talk: Claire Denis’s ‘High Life’ is a brutal yet tender expedition into space and human spirit

An astronaut is looking into a black hole
Graphic by Katie Erickson

Just as the name might suggest, watching “High Life” — French director Claire Denis’ most recent venture into the depths of the human psyche — feels like being in some kind of horrific, erotic, drug-induced trance.

The film could technically be considered science fiction: It’s set in space, at an unspecified point in the distant future. Earth has suffered some kind of crisis causing people to turn to black holes as a potential energy source, and spaceships are capable of traveling at 99% of the speed of light.

But, these spaceships also come with a metal masturbation chamber referred to by the crew as the “fuckbox,” so it seems too simple to constrain this sensual extraterrestrial enigma within the bounds of a single genre.

Though Denis has been making films for decades, amassing a loyal following of cinephiles who praise her disregard for the conventions of mainstream cinema, it seemed like “High Life” was going to be Denis’s breakthrough to a wider audience.

It’s her first English-language film, as well as her first film set in space. Additionally, it stars the internationally renowned Juliette Binoche and former heartthrob-turned-well-respected-indie-actor Robert Pattinson.

But any illusions that this might be a more accessible film are completely eroded by the time the title appears on the screen, in front of the haunting image of discarded, lifeless bodies sinking into space. “High Life” announces itself as a challenging film from the start, with Pattinson’s brooding voiceover providing just enough information to acquaint the audience with this ill-fated odyssey.

Monte (Pattinson) and his baby daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last remaining members of a crew of convicts who were coerced into joining a suicide mission to Earth’s nearest black hole as an alternative to living out their remaining days on death row. In the meantime, their bodies are subject to the whims of mad scientist Dr. Dibs (Binoche) — also a convict — who collects the men’s semen in an effort to conceive a baby in space.

Though Dibs is a criminal herself, she possesses a degree of authority over the rest of the prisoners, providing medical assistance when necessary and doling out drugs and sedatives when she wants the others at her mercy. The crew also includes a captain, a pilot and a gardener, and together with the other prisoners, they form a kind of morally decrepit micro-society — one that is plagued with many of the same injustices that exist in our own.

The elliptical storytelling slowly reveals how, in a manner reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies,” the other crew members meet their demise — in fits of violence, illness and despair — as well as how Willow was conceived. But just as these prisoners have been discarded by those on Earth, Denis has also discards conventional notions of plot. She is unconcerned with answering seemingly mundane and expected questions like “What has happened on Earth to necessitate this mission?” or “What are the backstories that brought these prisoners to the edges of the solar system?”

In exchange for an orderly plot, however, Denis creates an immersive and tactile atmosphere, bathing her actors in orange and blue light, while letting the camera linger on their skin, their scars, their bodily fluids. The film is oozing with blood, semen and breast milk — unnerving reminders of our enduring human frailty, no matter how invincible technological progress might make us feel.

Indeed, we see Monte teach Willow the word “taboo” at the beginning of the film — a term Denis certainly does not shy away from in this dense study of human desire and carnal impulse, incarceration and redemption, and ultimately companionship and hope — all in the face of oblivion.

There is no question that “High Life” is well made through its stunning visuals (I’m a sucker for hypnotic illustrations of black holes), but the provocative ideas Denis intends to explore feel as untethered as the spaceship itself, often failing to be grounded in the images we see on-screen, no matter how striking they may be.

Although Monte is humanized and grounded through his relationship with his daughter, at times other characters feel oddly robotic (with the exception of a fantastic André Benjamin as the gardener, Tcherny).

This detachment makes it difficult to decipher whether “High Life” is a truly unique science fiction masterpiece or a bunch of weird, meaninglessly provocative, pretentious crap. But at the end of the day, it’s worth embarking on this mesmerizing trip to decide for yourself.

Rachael Diamond SC ’21 is TSL’s film columnist. She is a philosophy major who enjoys ranting about movies to anyone who will listen.

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