“I’m holding up. I’ve held up. I never caved in”, says Monte (Robert Pattinson) early on in Claire Denis’ High Life, a strange, amorous, and ultimately unflattering foray into sci-fi. Unflattering in that Denis, in her first English-langue film and her most star-studded, paints an ugly view of the future, one where technological advances have not been joined by harmony, but by depravity. It’s a unique journey into the realm of psychological science-fiction, but for all of its early similarities to Moon or Solaris, Denis’ grim perspective reaps few rewards.
In the beginning it seems as if Denis will hand the reins completely over to Pattinson, her biggest star, really the first time she’s ever cast a star quite this big. When we first meet him as Monte he appears to be the only other person on board a decaying spaceship, along with a crying baby girl we realize is his daughter. But how did he end up there? Why is he the only one performing what look to be very intricate repairs? And who is he sending these status updates to, proclaiming that he has “never caved in”?
Fragments of the past intrude in, and we learn Monte is a violent convict sentenced along with other criminals to be human guinea pigs on a suicidal space mission into a black hole. But there’s clearly more going on than that, as Monte and the others are subject to grotesque fertility experiments at the hands of the demented Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who sedates them, extracts semen from them, and fertilizes the women, some willingly and others less so. Monte fights it; which only makes Dibs want to use him more. The bodily fluids (milk, sweat, blood, semen) flow endlessly (the squeamish need not apply), clashing with the ship’s cold, sterile environment. The only escape from the physical and sexual violence (one of the men is a rapist always on the prowl) is a robust garden, an oasis of serenity as this sliver of humanity degenerates all around them. Well, there’s even a masturbation chamber which may sound like a nice escape…until you see it put into action.
There is very little happiness to be found in High Life, but Denis isn’t saying anything about it which is unusual for the director of such films as 35 Shots of Rum and White Material. She fills the screen with many disturbing images, whether it’s the aforementioned body fluids, rape, or violence, observing them from a distance without comment. The same goes for the narrative structure by screenwriters Geoff Cox and Jean-Pol Fargeau which see-saws through time unconvincingly, obscuring Denis’ themes under a fog of mystery.
It’s another gritty-but-grandiose performance by Pattinson, however, which may explain why he and Denis will be working together again very soon. Monte is no angel; he’s prone to violence and quick to anger, but all one needs to see is the gentleness in his eyes whenever he looks at his daughter. The rest of the principle cast, which includes Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin, ably play the roles of the other specimens crammed into this movable intergalactic orgy.
Cinematographer beautiful, blue-tinged imagery radiates despair and loneliness, as well as the score by frequent Denis collaborator Stuart A. Staples. It’s with Staples and his band Tindersticks that Pattinson performed the movie’s signature track, “Willow”, named after Monte’s daughter. Pattinson’s performance, both as an actor and singer, aren’t enough to shake High Life out of the void it’s trapped in.