Few storytellers exist between the lines like Claire Denis. The French filmmaker thrives in the grimy, grey areas of the human experience that make such fertile breeding ground for genre cinema, complex characters, and taboo — a subject at the heart of her English-language debut, the subversive sci-fi drama High Life. Set on a spacecraft where former death row inmates volunteer for a suicide mission straight into a black hole, the film slips through time as they fly through space.
The non-linear narrative centers on Monte (Robert Pattinson), who we first meet patching up the side of a space ship, trying to calm the crying baby screaming in the ship below through his intercom. The sole survivor of the original mission, Monte now careens toward the black hole, his inevitable end, with his daughter Willow. From there, High Life unfolds like an elegant, erratic puzzle, slipping through Monte’s memories to reveal the who, what, and how of what brought us here, all while courting the unknowable cosmic expanse waiting at the end of the journey.
Pattinson pulled off one of Hollywood’s great career reinventions over the last decade, launching off the platform and popularity he built in the Twilight series and using that momentum to pursue riskier material. As a result, he’s one of the most compelling, least vain character actors of his generation. Pattinson continually hunts down projects with filmmakers that inspire him and High Life marks yet another fantastic, challenging performance for the actor, who skulks through the space ship with the knotted physicality of a too-old tree, fits of mental anguish peeking through his stoic, monklike calm. One particular reaction shot near the end of the film demands that Pattinson cover an astounding range of emotions in a single look, and the actor carries it with grace, landing an absolute wallop of a moment.
He’s surrounded by a supporting cast of equally impressive players; foremost among them Juliette Binoche in a powerhouse performance as Dr. Dibs, the onboard medical doctor who wields an inordinate power over the bodies of her fellow prisoners by way of fertility experiment. She’s also a woman with her own reprehensible history of crimes, whose obsession with reproduction makes for one of the film’s most poetic perversions. Mia Goth, André Benjamin, Lars Eidinger, Ewan Mitchell, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, and Gloria Obianyo also co-star as fellow death row astronauts, each with their own violent, desperate predictions.
High Life is a sci-fi movie insofar as the plot hinges on scientific endeavors, but Denis isn’t particularly interested in space, (though she does take pains to respect the science itself,) except for the extent to which the endless void becomes another form of imprisonment. She’s more interested in biology and the organic matter that makes a human a human. Monte and his fellow shipmates aren’t just prisoners headed to all but certain doom, they’re also lab rats, subject to experiments on human fertility during space travel — something that proves incredibly challenging due to radiation. We know it’s going to pay off somehow; after all, Monte ends up with Willow but the details of the against-the-odds conception are, of course, disturbing and provocative.
Monte’s circumstances are impossible to fathom and his relationships are similarly difficult to read, tangling with taboos — sexual, physiological, spiritual, the whole gamut — in a way few films have the courage or delicate touch to explore. Not that Denis is always delicate (as anyone who’s seen Bastards or Trouble Every Day will tell you). There’s a lot more sexual transgression, violent repercussion, and, well… semen… in this meditative sci-fi film than you might be expecting. See also: something called the “Fuck Box”. But High Life‘s provocations aren’t aimless, they’re part of what makes the film such a searching
Pattinson has been open about how he pursued a project with Denis, who once thought he was too young for the role, and his persistence paid off. The pair make for spectacular creative collaborators, delivering a singular film that sinks deeper into your psyche with each passing frame. There’s nothing easy about High Life, from the subject matter to the film’s most brutal moments of body horror and psychological terrors, to the ultimately unanswerable questions.
It’s challenging and unrelenting material that’s bound to leave some filmgoers cold, but offers a unique and rewarding experience for audiences willing to lean into the weirdness and challenge themselves to think beyond the confines of a traditional character arc. Plus, High Life is one of those blessed films that get better with a second watch, the gift that keeps giving. On first watch, High Life is a gorgeously shot, salacious sci-fi puzzler that dares you to keep up and pick up the threads as they unspool. The second time around, High Life is a profound, grief-stricken experience, and knowing how the pieces of Monte’s story stitch together makes every moment more sublime, more haunting.
High Life casually slips through time, the past and present stitched together through Monte’s psyche — his years on the ship with Willow (toddler and teenager), his time with Dr. Dibs and their fellow prisoners, his childhood trauma on earth, High Life overlaps them all, making the middle the beginning and leaving the ending a mystery. Once again, Denis thrives between the lines; between hope and despair, on the intersection of countless genres, with characters that wholly reject moral binaries. Through it all, High Life tangles up horniness and desperation into an existential nightmare, where we are all blood, and semen, and mother’s milk — nothing but bodies floating through space towards the unknowable and unavoidable, desperate for another warm body to cling to.