There’s a line of voice-over narration that I think helps to unlock “High Life,” the great French filmmaker Claire Denis’ mesmerizing, occasionally inscrutable foray into science fiction. The picture takes place on a prison ship rocketing out of our solar system toward a black hole, where death row inmates have volunteered as guinea pigs for all sorts of bizarre experiments in exchange for the commutation of their sentences.
As the vessel approaches the speed of light, our crew gathers to watch through a window as the stars appear to bend and distort. Robert Pattinson, playing a surly, closed-off convict named Monte, describes it as “the sensation of moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer.”
That is a pretty good way of describing how it feels to watch “High Life,” an elusive and often shocking movie whose meanings sometimes seem to hover ever so tantalizingly out of reach. Despite the genre trappings and presence of popular stars, this isn’t the slick, crowd-pleasing sci-fi of modern franchise films, but rather a throwback to knotty, 1970s head-scratchers like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” It’s the kind of movie that’s definitively not for everybody but downright thrilling if you’re into this kind of thing. I am very much into this kind of thing.
The movie begins in the middle of the story with Monte and a baby all alone on the ship. There’s a pile of dead bodies he’ll eventually end up blowing out the airlock, but first we’re going to spend an awful lot of time just observing Pattinson with the child, moved by his tenderness and warmth in a film that’s about to become quite short on both qualities. The tale of how that baby wound up being born while everybody else on board perished is not an easy one to watch — nor particularly easy to follow a lot of the time — yet well worth the effort.
Juliette Binoche gives a deliciously daft performance as Dr. Dibs, a mad scientist who murdered her children and is now obsessed with reproduction, attempting to engineer a perfect organism out of her fellow convicts’ damaged and defective genetic material. We’re so accustomed to Binoche’s elegant understatement that it’s wild to watch her vamp it up here in a witchy, waist-length wig, stealing sperm samples from sleeping subjects and gyrating atop a mechanical sex machine during the movie’s most audacious set-piece. (The Orgasmitron from Woody Allen's future-spoof "Sleeper" has got nothing on this rig.)
Denis has never been a filmmaker particularly fond of telling you what’s going on in her movies. Characters don’t have conversations for the benefit of the audience, and she’s admitted to deliberately excising stage-setting expository scenes from her screenplays before shooting. (Like most of Denis’ films, “High Life” was co-written with her longtime collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau.) You’re left to suss things out for yourself by watching the characters go about their business. This film’s structure is stubbornly unstuck in time, without clear demarcations as to when flashbacks begin or end, so you wind up putting it together in your head like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing a couple of pieces.
“High Life” eschews any sort of sleek, Kubrickian sci-fi futurism in favor of tactile, workaday textures. The exterior of the spaceship looks like a junky storage container, and the first thing we learn is how it recycles urine and feces for consumption. Monte pointedly notes that he and his fellow prisoners are also recycled material, human trash being repurposed for scientific research. The movie is obsessed with the sticky building blocks of life — semen, breast milk and menstrual blood jockey for screen time along with various other secretions — to the point that I was reminded less of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more of the “Dr. Strangelove” monologue about precious bodily fluids.
As far as Claire Denis pictures go, “High Life” is probably closest in tone and approach to her previous English language film, 2001’s melancholy cannibal vampire love story “Trouble Every Day,” which had a similar viscosity and simmering aura of sexual violence. But thematically it pairs rather nicely with my favorite of her movies, the gentle 2008 family drama “35 Shots of Rum,” about an emotionally withdrawn father preparing for his daughter to leave home.
There’s a very good reason that we start off spending so much time with Monte and that baby, setting up the contrast between Pattinson’s glowering, monosyllabic murderer and the doting dad he grows into over time. It’s yet another excellent performance from this young actor, who like his “Twilight” co-star Kristen Stewart has parlayed YA superstardom from an unfortunate franchise into a savvy career boosting international arthouse pictures. (He’s why they’re advertising a new Claire Denis film at the mall. Team Edward.)
For all of the crazy sex stuff and cryptic, sci-fi world-building, I feel like the movie might secretly be a good deal simpler than it lets on. “High Life” is ultimately about a despairing, violent man who had shut down and was resigned to his fate, but in having to care for a helpless child he learns how to live and love again. Even though they might be the last two people in the universe, that still counts for something.
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