High Life is a slow and strange film that functions like poetry. Marking Claire Denis’ first English language film, its a cerebral meditation on sex, second chances and the human condition that only truly comes together in its final, enigmatic scene. Alternating between horror, existential inquiry and creation myth, High Life sees the legendary French director at the height of her powers. It’s one of those films where you take out what you put in. Look for genre thrills and you will be bored, attune yourself to its unique rhythms and it becomes a form of philosophical meditation. I was completely enthralled.
High Life is uninterested in conventional narrative, using its central character’s memories as a means to take us back and forth in time. It starts with Monte (Robert Pattinson) alone in a spaceship with only a tiny baby for company. He is the only person left of a dozen-strong crew. To help balance the ship he has to get rid of excess weight. In a methodical opening sequence, he enters the cold storage room, unzips bodies from their packages, carries them across the ship and dumps them into the infinite reaches of space.
Spanning a cool fifteen minutes, it’s a brave opening indeed. As the movie unfolds in its own Escher-staircase way, we slowly learn how and why these people died. The results are much stranger than you could possibly think. These are prisoners, outcasts who took the opportunity of a space mission to finally make something good of their lives. Their mission is to harness the power of a black hole, which could provide boundless energy for humanity (if, thanks to the laws of relativity, there is any humanity left by the time they succeed). Initially, they were only supposed to travel for a few years, but soon it becomes apparent that this will be a one-way mission.
To make this journey worthwhile, Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), attempts to produce the first baby in space. Dubbed the “shaman of sperm” by Monte, her women remain infertile or produce stillborns. But this does not stop her from trying. Suspected of killing her own children, there is the sense that she is trying to atone for her sins by creating more life. This means that the human chain doesn’t end and gives her mission a sense of godlike purpose.
The only man she cannot compel to provide his seed is Monte. In order to strengthen himself during this endless voyage, he has made a commitment to chastity. By adopting a monk-like lifestyle, he believes he can finally make something better for himself. As others go insane while he remains entirely lucid, it feels like Denis is portraying repression as a type of holiness. Are humans merely defined by their basest instincts? Or are we capable of something purer?
Claire Denis is really unafraid to go somewhere weird in search of higher truth. For example, to help make the prisoners journey a little more, er, pleasurable, the ship is equipped with a room dubbed the “fuck box”. The fuck box is akin to the playroom in 50 Shades of Grey, a hermetically sealed space with all manner of sex toys. This includes a Sybian saddle emphatically used by Dr Dibs. What is Denis trying to do here? Turn us on, make us feel pity, or to make us pay attention to older women’s bodies and their pleasure? It’s hard to say: like everything in this movie, it’s open to interpretation, making High Life one of the most thematically rich films of the year.
Denis is in no hurry to tell us what to think. She really likes to take her time. Often, her films reveal themselves only in the final moments, like the great release of energy at the end of Beau Travail. High Life ends on a similarly enigmatic note, bringing all its themes into focus while not limiting itself to any one interpretation. It’s so refreshing to see a medium budget movie that doesn’t fix itself to just one meaning, but functions as a kind of blank template to pin one’s own feelings on. Ambiguity can be a difficult thing to get right. Done poorly, a film can lose energy. Done correctly, it can leave one in an endless state of contemplation. High Life is definitely the latter.