For fans of Claire Denis, this year has been blessed. Let the Sunshine In, which premiered last year at Cannes, was recently released by IFC Films and is available for streaming. And she already has a new film, High Life, which just premiered in Toronto and has been picked up for distribution by A24. Watching two new Claire Denis films, in theatres, in a single year, has sent me over the moon—cheesy space puns fully intended. I said in my review of Let the Sunshine In that it was a minor work; I was waiting, and hoping, for the long-gestating High Life to prove major, and it met those expectations and even surpassed them. High Life is Denis’s first foray into the science-fiction genre and also happens to be one of the most fearsome and challenging films of her entire career.
Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, a convicted criminal aboard a spaceship heading to the farthest reaches of the solar system. The entire crew is comprised of convicted criminals, and the cast is impressive; it also includes, notably, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth and André “Ice Cold” 3000. They have all accepted a deal to be part of a two-pronged mission into space, a set of experiments designed to research and understand the possibilities that exist for the human species beyond their home planet. The first part of the mission is to harness the power of a black hole. I’ll leave the details of the second part for you to discover yourself.
The film begins with Monte nurturing his infant daughter, and these scenes are warm, tender and understated. But Monte teaching his daughter the word “taboo” is a pretty obvious clue as to where this film is going. As Monte roams the halls of the ship, it becomes clear nobody else is onboard. In an early sequence, he drags some (unconscious? sleeping? dead?) people to an escape hatch and tosses them out. The world of High Life is so oppressive that nothing can be bothered to float in space; bodies simply plummet downwards, endlessly. If they ever end up in Hell, they should be so lucky.
The sci-fi setting of High Life proves a necessary canvas for Denis, who is charting a course to the limits of human experience, diving into the deepest, darkest recesses of our souls. The film is full of binaries and explores the tensions between them: life and death, love and hate, nurture and murder, man and woman, etc. Denis wants to know what makes us tick, and pushes herself as hard and as far as she ever has, crafting a powerful film revolving around biological imperatives and the process of creation, a film obsessed with genes and cells and procreation and bodily fluids, the mechanisms and building blocks of life itself. Denis’s penchant for elliptical narratives is thoroughly uncompromising here, focusing on the most extreme and uncomfortable emotional moments in the lives of her characters.
The narrative structure is cruel and relentless. The opening passages of Monte and his child are frequently punctured by cuts to images of Earth and memories of Monte’s past. And as Monte wanders the empty corridors of the spaceship he calls home, the moments onboard that led him to this isolation slowly fill out the narrative with a growing sense of horror. As with the starship in System Shock 2, these corridors are haunted by prior traumas, and flashbacks occur like the ghostly apparitions of the Von Braun. Less a conventional narrative and more a psychological nightmare, High Life is a movie haunted by the sadness and horror and grief of human existence, struggling to make sense of our role in the universe.
High Life finds its characters at their most vulnerable, weakest states, and returns to these moments over and over again. Denis finds in these moments a pathetic loneliness, and an even more pathetic, even wretched and ugly and helpless, drive to fulfill biological imperatives. Characters resort to rape and murder to survive. On his deathbed, one character spends his final moments begging for the woman who is about to perform a mercy killing to suck his dick. The focus on the most fundamental aspects of our biology results in a film grounded deeper in the experiences of the human body than anything Denis has made before. The film is obsessed with bodily fluids, from blood to semen, and at one point Binoche gets in something called a “fuckbox” and the camera travels all the way inside of her (yes, really).
But the film also contextualizes all these bodily fluids within the existential vastness of the universe itself. If we are all stardust, then our beginning, and necessarily our destiny, is literally out there among the stars. Denis subtly and deftly explores these connections through her minimal, calculated use of special effects and her editing and shot selection. High Life suggests cosmic births and transdimensional rebirths, and at one point features a shot that almost directly resembles one of the more bewildering and terrifying moments in the third season of Twin Peaks. So if you’re worried that Denis may not fully engage with sci-fi concepts, worry not. The film’s plotting is directly impacted by the realities of space, as the effects of radiation in outer space are fundamental to driving the story, and Denis depicts, at various points in the film, what it would look like to travel close to the speed of light, and even what it would be like to die by approaching the event horizon of a black hole and being stretched into infinity (yes, really).
Claire Denis has always been a formidable, uncompromising artist. With High Life, she has delivered one of the most unapologetic experiences of her career. The film is often difficult and disturbing to watch. Denis, for her part, considers High Life to be a heartwarming story about a father and a daughter. It’s actually hard to argue with that. The film does not have a happy ending, per se—it’s as perplexing and ambiguous as you would expect—but it does end like it begins, in a way, with a gentleness that rarely exists anywhere in between, with human bonds forged and surviving through space and time. It’s hopeful in the way only Denis could be, working her way through pain and violence, and I daresay she has offered up one of the most singular science-fiction films in all of cinema.