By Liam Lacey
High Life, veteran French filmmaker Claire Denis’s first English-language film and a space movie to boot, stars former Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Anyone expecting a crowd-pleasing crossover movie from the French director of modern art-house landmarks like Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum may be ill-prepared for this perplexing, repellent/fascinating vision of bodies in tight spaces.
The passengers on the ship aren’t your usual elite star fleet. They’re violent prisoners who got a delayed death sentence for their crimes by agreeing to an eight-year mission to the edge of a black hole that may provide an energy source for Earth’s survival. The details are as vague as the time scheme. Pattison’s character, Monte, is first seen in a space suit on the outside of the ship looking through a window at a year-old baby girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsay), who appears to have been abandoned. Later, inside the ship he talks to her about the “taboo” of eating excrement. Taboos and body leakages are a theme.
In flashback, we eventually understand how, like Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest, the stranded father and his infant daughter reached this point. Originally, there were a handful of these youngish, healthy death-row inmates, including Monte, Dr. Dibs (Binoche) and others in background roles (André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eideinger, Agata Buzek) who have ordinary ship functions as captain, pilot and crew. They spend their days exercising, eliminating, eating and sleeping for prolonged periods.
The inmates are forbidden to have sex with each other but frequently partake of a special masturbation closet of restraints and automated dildos. There’s a long scene in which a naked Binoche writhes ecstatically in The Box, though “erotic” is not quite the right description of what she does. Ecstasy and agony aren’t easy to distinguish from the outside.
With long hair down her back and a manic energy, Dr. Dibs is a witch figure, tranquilizing the other inmates, taking sperm and performing artificial insemination on comatose subjects. This may be the first movie where I’ve seen a cut from a woman carrying a dripping handful of semen to another with a new mother weeping as milk leaks from her breasts.
Monte, who insists on staying celibate to preserve his energy, is brooding and taciturn, though Pattison’s head, like the stone bust of a Roman emperor, is fascinating to watch in profile. His performance is brooding and internalized, warming up in scenes with his daughter. Occasionally, he mutters fragments of voice-over dialogue, introducing us to flashbacks.
Long periods pass without much happening, punctuated with spasms of churning violence. As the ship approaches the black hole, more bad things happen: There’s sickness, rape, murder, and a Hail Mary attempt to send a single-passenger shuttle through the molecular cloud around the black hole. Bodies suspended in their cryochambers are dropped into space, like babies dropping into the birth canal.
The fast-forward button is hit by an invisible hand: The baby girl, Willow, is a gawky teen-ager (Jessie Ross) who learns about humans from images sent from Earth on a TV screen. Father and daughter even encounter another space ship, though not one of those exciting Star Trek type scenarios. The container’s inhabitants are part of another kind of failed experiment. Dad and daughter travel on. The girl sees images from Earth of people praying and mimics them.
High Life evokes other science fiction films — Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris may be the closest, in its time-bending psychological intensity and green shimmering images. There’s also some of the clinical dread of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and, in space, harrowing image of the black hole “like a crocodile’s eye,” as one character says. There even something of Alien in the film’s theme of gestation, but High Life’s world hovers in its own strange dimension.
One could make a case for the film as an allegory of Michel Foucault’s philosophical themes (confinement, institutions, discipline, the management of bodies) but there’s also a vestigial longing for the religious, something Boschian in Denis’s images, a medieval vision of the body reduced to its compulsory functions of consumption, elimination and reproduction.
“The clearest symbol of the natural body, life imprisoned in death, is the furnace,” wrote literary critic Northrop Frye in Fearful Study, his study of the poetry of William Blake. “This image of the furnace or the prison of lightless heat is the core of the orthodox conception of hell which traditionally has heat without light and it exactly fits the eternal torment of life of the Selfhood, ‘the being shut up in the prison of corporal desires which shortly do weary the man,’ which is Blake’s hell. As the natural man is born in this kind of furnace, he is born in hell. And if he has any intelligence, he looks for a way of escape.”
High Life. Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau. Starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Opens in select theatres April 19, including Toronto’s Varsity Cinema.