In space everyone can hear a baby’s scream. When she first torments Monte (Robert Pattinson), he’s fixing a malfunctioning magnetic panel on their vessel, hurtling through space. Her wailing can penetrate meteors. Later, the audience learns that Willow is Monte’s daughter, although, with Claire Denis’ customary reticence, the how and when consumes more than an hour of screen time. Watching Monte perform a series of menial tasks on this ship, Denis’ camera has the patience of a documentarian. The great writer-director (Chocolat, Beau Travail) is a master of observing men and women in foreign settings doing the best they can in unfamiliar settings. With its English script and a pace that would not have ruffled Andrei Tarkovsky, High Life presents the biggest challenge to Denis’ international fans. That it triumphs is a tribute to her powers of concentration, for, as writer Nick Davis notes, High Life starts “as a lament for the radically alone” before growing into “a weird, sad epic poem about trying and failing to stay isolated.”
Denis’ weird, sad poem also works as a weird, sad ode to Robert Pattinson, as thin and ascetic as Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and as anomic as one of the cyborgs in Aliens. When he plays with Willow, it’s the creepiest sequence the star has ever played. Yet High Life, like many Denis films, is in part about the ineluctability of desire in tight, exotic spaces in which white leads roam, and while on his mission, told in flashback, to the edge of a black hole, most of the female crew conspire to bed Monte — an impossible task for the man who took a vow of abstinence.
Eventually we learn the crew comprises death row inmates or lifers, sent into space precisely because they’re expendable, or because they sport names like Boyse (Mia Goth), Mink (Claire Tran), and Nansen (Agata Buzek). Monte avoids them, as much to avoid temptation (Outkast’s André Benjamin, wasted, also pokes his head out on occasion). Erotomania and the experience of traveling almost at the speed of light exerts a toll; like in Ridley Scott’s Alien films, the crew get dispatched one by one. In an early scene, Denis captures Monte coldly outfitting the remaining corpses before their final ejection into the coldness of eternal space.
Why would the crew suffer from loneliness? Although the vessel might look like a Target shoe box, its creators were wise enough to install what Benjamin’s Tchemy calls The Fuck Box, a chamber that like the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) gives its occupants one helluva of an autoerotic fix but unlike Woody Allen’s quaint vision of a future that never was it comes equipped with the latest in dildos and lord knows what else. In High Life‘s most powerful scene, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the self-styled “shaman of sperm” assigned to keep the crew medicated and in line, straddles herself to one of those gizmos; posed like Lady Godiva astride her horse, with long hair inkily spilled across her back, Binoche gives an uninhibited physical performance that’s the match of her work in Let the Sunshine In, Denis’ funny-sad romance released last year. She almost has to, for Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau’s script treats English dialogue as if translating the mutterings of Venutians. Infatuated with Monte, she knocks him out enough for her to creep into his bed, an incubus with a faded gamine’s smile.
None of these scenes are intended for laughs; High Life has the chill of Solaris, and the images are so clean you can wash your hands on them. Perhaps some members of the audience, in an effort to distance themselves from a project that is already as distant as one of Neptune’s moons, will try to giggle it off, insofar as High Life will attract an audience at all. But not even David Cronenberg, to whose films High Life bears thematic and stylistic affinities, boasts Denis’ rhythms. She treats narrative as a well-kept secret. Yet she has accumulated the craft to make her obliqueness signify on its own. Images linger in the mind, the most searing of which depend on death: the corpse of a certain character, adrift in space like a future age Ophelia; another character quietly — eagerly — digging in his own grave in the garden on which the crew depends for food. High-toned and indifferent to notions of likability, High Life lacks the sense of impending doom characterizing her great films (Chocolat, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material), but she continues stretching the limits of her approach. As for Pattinson, who like his Twilight costar Kirsten Stewart has had an estimable run working with international auteurs, he continues to queer himself in most peculiar ways, throwing darts in audience’s eyes.