It’s hard to think of another recent space-bound science fiction film as assuredly mystifying as Claire Denis’s High Life, a work that marks two firsts for the legendary director – her first sci-fi and her first in English. As expected, it’s not a particularly romanticised view of space – most looks out of the ship only show an endless void. Denis takes a fairly minimal approach to space – the craft is shaped like a box, the rudimentary space suits look like used work wear. That said, she is not averse to mixing in intimidating, spectacular images of the universe alongside those of bodily fluids.
It’s sci-fi that’s as concerned with nature as it is the desolate vacuum of space, opening on close-ups of plant life, before slowly introducing us to the vessel and the main character, without context. We find Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter alone and adrift on a box-shaped spacecraft. The film soon takes a bewildering journey into the past to detail the miserable lives of Monte and the rest of the dysfunctional crew of prisoners.
Having accepted a commuted sentence, they have been sent into space in the direction of a black hole, and left in the care of a cruel scientist (Juliette Binoche) who at one point is called a “shaman of sperm”, conducting sex experiments on them when she’s not spending time in what Denis has since named the “fuckbox”.
There are shades of Lord Of The Flies in the set-up, as the isolation of space from the rest of humanity reveals base desires and amplifies anxieties. Denis ponders this as well as the prison-industrial complex, the dehumanisation of criminals no matter the background or reason for their actions. Monte may as well be addressing us when he breaks down the meaning and intonation of the word ‘taboo’ to his baby daughter.
We’re clued in as to where the story will eventually end up practically from the very start. But, the thrill of the film is found in its construction and sensory onslaught, as Denis’ minimal approach communicates more through image and sense than dialogue – backed by bewildering sound design and score from Stuart A. Staples.
Beautifully shot and beguilingly constructed, High Life will linger in the mind and demand rewatches. It’s sci-fi in the tradition of Tarkovsky, enigmatic and inherently tied to memory, nature, Denis paring down humankind’s purpose to the functions of the body – there’s seemingly no greater destiny that awaits us, other than the void. It’s a crazy genre exercise for Denis, and one of the most provocative and enigmatic films of the year.