As the vampire stud of the Twilight franchise, Robert Pattinson hit multiplex paydirt. Since then, he’s been raising his personal bar in the indie sphere (Good Time, Damsel). The star does himself proud in this elusive but bracing brainteaser from Claire Denis, the great French filmmaker (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day) who’d much rather challenge audiences than coddle them. High Life is the writer-director’s first film in English, and the only one set in space. In the script she wrote with Jean-Pol Fargeau, her concerns about existence in all its ferocity and folly remain the same. Humans are hurtling toward a void they can’t fully comprehend or evade.
Pattinson, in a role once planned for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays Monte, an astronaut alone on a prison ship, except for an infant girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) and the lifeless bodies of a doomed crew. He coos and sings to his infant daughter while offering advice she couldn’t possibly grasp: “Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.” Such practices are “taboo,” a word and a concept that holds no fear for Denis, whose attraction for the forbidden is a hallmark of her art.
High Life raises questions that Denis perversely, and with sustained provocation, rarely bothers to answer. Take the crew members and the circumstances under which they died. There are flashbacks, but the movie is less interested in explanations than in elliptical clues. We know the ship is meant to extract energy from a black hole. That’s the suicide mission that drives the plot. The support systems on the ship must be renewed every 24 hours, and if eventually there’s no one alive it to do the job, the word is kaput.
For a science fiction film, High Life keeps its distance from the usual bells and whistles of the genre, preferring the minimalism of Yorick Le Saux’s spare cinematography and the near-subliminal hum of Stuart Staples’ score. It’s left to the actors to provide whatever vestiges of humanity remain in these travelers who quickly realize that space is the ultimate prison. Andre Benjamin excels as Tcherny, the one who obsesses over the ship’s greenhouse as if the dirt beneath his feet can somehow ground him in reality. And Mia Goth brings a striving urgency to Boyse, a woman whose natural desires are subverted by a system that sees her only a guinea pig for reproductive experiments.
That leads us to the French sorceress Juliette Binoche, braided up like Rapunzel in the role of Dibs, a doctor tasked with caring for all the prisoners on board. Instead, this unforgettably unhinged woman is obsessed with harvesting their eggs and semen for her own nefarious purposes. The celibate Monte, known to the crew as “Monk” or “Mr. Blue Nuts,” is having none of it. “I keep my fluids to myself,” he insists. Not while Dibs is around. The mad doctor has her methods. She also has the “Fuckbox,” a chamber of sex toys that would bring a blush to all 50 shades of Christian Grey; it’s also filled with body-horror implications Denis delights in unpacking.
Yes, there’s a chill in the French filmmaker’s intellectual precision. Yet this brilliant innovator offers the sight of Monte connecting emotionally with the grown Willow (Jessie Ross), the child he never wanted, as the years take them closer to oblivion. The actor even sings a lullaby to Willow over the end credits. Is that a glimmer of hope poking through this bleak space odyssey? With Denis there’s always more than meets the prism of snap judgements. Let the movie mess with your head.