At one point during High Life‘s opening sequence—an extended, eerily serene passage that floats through the aftermath of the movie you’re about to watch—Robert Pattinson gently cradles an infant and tries to teach it the word “taboo.” “Break the laws of nature,” he advises, “and you’ll pay for it.” It is a quick narrative lodestar. But the better question, examined by the film as if it were an alien object, is what the laws of nature are, and whether you could ever break them in the first place.
High Life is science fiction as done by the French director Claire Denis. It is her first film in English, a decision she charmingly explained by saying that no one speaks French in space. It has a very Denis-like structure, slipping in time with dreamy edits, and a very un-Denis-like voiceover to keep you oriented, which just places it in sturdy sci-fi traditions that have somehow been hijacked by arthouse kink. Indeed, after last year’s fairly bourgeois Let the Sunshine In, Mme. Denis is back in her transgressive mode, willing to go far enough that a genre hook, a Hollywood celebrity, and a dissolved language barrier still bend any notions of commercial appeal into an only vaguely recognizable shape. It is as if, in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella had had a scrappy pagan lovechild, then raised it in a venereal 21st century apocalypse. And while the result has a few rough edges even on its own idiosyncratic terms, this handcrafted trip grabs quite a lot of the subversive, unsettling, intriguing, and fascinatingly dangerous potential of such mad science.
In the not-too-distant future, a group of criminals, bums, and undesirables are rounded up and shot into space. Ostensibly, it’s to gather research—something about fertility and black holes—but there’s no plan to ever bring them home. All of these exiles, male and female alike, are made to take part in scientific sexual experiments, with their spare time spent wandering the halls, tending to a small arboretum, and taking turns in “the fuck-box”, a room on the ship that provides a frustrated individual with mechanized release. It’s a festival of base instincts, and the only one in this voyage of the damned who seems to rise above it is Pattinson. There is something quietly virtuous, even saintly about his character—which, of course, just makes him more alluring to the ship’s twisted scientist, played with dark secrets by Juliette Binoche. (Who’d have thought, ten years after Twilight, that fetishizing Pattinson as some sort of elusive ideal partner would end this way?).
It is not exactly a pleasant viewing experience. In fact, it is frequently and with great purpose the opposite, spilling any bodily fluid it can in ways that only a female director (and a provocative one at that) would think to film. But no one should miss the lucidity of its arc: an inescapable microcosm where taboos and dark side effects of human sexuality—violence, self-loathing, infertility, compulsive self-gratification, a mother’s resentment of her children, a pregnant woman’s disgust towards her own body—rattle around profanely before yielding the purity and clarity of a new life. This all flows in a movement of tones, with an atmosphere built from modest elements: an interior lit in tender hues; FX sequences used as measured, abstract visual art; and actors who reveal themselves in ways that count. And so the L word of the title is a symbiotic relationship between repulsion and beauty, neither denying the latter nor judging the former. Kubrick had his Star-Child. And Denis, simply a child—no more or less cosmic than basic biology, portending nothing but the momentousness of parenthood at a time when the next generation may not have so much to hang onto. This is one of the strangest, most disturbing movies of the year, and in the end one of the most ecstatic. Any film that can be both deserves to be treasured.
High Life is now out on Blu-ray and VOD streaming services, accompanied by Amazon customer comments calling it “boring”, “degenerate”, and “the worst 2 hours of my life.”