High Life is Claire Denis’ first sci-fi movie, first movie in English, and the first of her movies to be seen by yours truly (I’m sure she takes the most pride in the last of those three milestones). I can’t say whether this is movie is a good point of entry into her filmography, but I can say that you should try to learn as little about it as possible before watching. Some of the most notable moments have been spoiled by trailers and reviews, to the point where I went into the theater thinking “this is the space movie about something called ‘the fuckbox’.” Despite what overeager critics would have you believe, the word “fuckbox” is uttered only once. To be fair, it’s uttered by André 3000, which would make any line more memorable. I expect there’s a forthcoming soundtrack album called “Fuckboxxx/The Fuck Below.”
In addition to Mr. 3000, the film stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as space voyagers aboard a doomed vessel careening towards a black hole. The crew consists of prisoners, condemned on earth to death or life imprisonment. Pattinson and 3000 play Monte and Tcherny, crew members enduring the medical experiments of Binoche’s deranged Dr. Dibs, whose determination to grow a baby in space drives her to scientific depravity.
There aren’t many emotional layers to these characters, but that doesn’t stop the actors from giving fantastic performances. In their movements and facial expressions, Denis the Director finds complexities of experience that Denis the Screenwriter didn’t seem to have in mind. The only problem is that André 3000’s character is a bit of a black male stereotype, in exactly the way you’d expect a black guy to be in the first English-language film of a well-meaning white septuagenarian. Despite Denis’ good intentions and 3000’s nuanced deliveries, it’s cringey when Tcherny says things like “I’m sick of all this space shit.”
Early in the movie, it’s suggested by a scientist that, when they accepted their mission, these prisoners thought they would be coming home. Normally, I’d think that this scientist just had an unfairly low estimation of prisoners’ IQs. But in the context of this screenplay, by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, I have to take his words at face value. Nearly every line of dialogue in the movie exists to convey expository information to the audience, often with a healthy dosage of angry swear words sprinkled on top, just in case any viewers might struggle to grasp the idea that individuals who live in a metal space box and are subject to the whims of an insane sex scientist aren’t particularly happy with the way things have been going for them.
Freed from the constraints felt by those auteurs who aspire to narrative and verbal excellence (or even adequacy), Denis and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux enter a realm of pure visual sensation. There are surprisingly few shots of space in High Life, but that only makes it more terrifying when the camera does pull out and remind us that all of this is happening in the endless emptiness of the void. The sight of lifeless bodies, jettisoned from the ship and floating into oblivion in their spacesuits, is no less eerie for having been spoiled in the trailer. And the proceeding moment, in which the bodies are released, is equally chilling in its suggestion of a dark expanse lurking at the edge of the frame.
Still, for the most part, Denis keeps things tight and interior, making the spaceship feel frightfully claustrophobic. More of the movie’sruntime is devoted to the intimate horror of bodily violation than to the cosmic horror of the unfathomable universe; Dr. Dibs is a collector and injector of semen, and when the two parties necessary for such a transaction don’t consent, she sedates them against their will. The more pleasant thematic parallel of this moment is the spaceship’s garden, which flourishes in verdant contrast to the cold metallicness of the ship, while still having a certain uncanny artificiality to it. What Denis accomplishes, in images both ugly and beautiful, is an exploration of what happens when natural processes are controlled by science and confined to the least natural environment possible.
Ultimately, this is more of a sex movie in space than a space movie with sex. Viewers who, like me, enter the theater expecting 2019: A Space Odyssey are bound to be somewhat let down, but the mild disappointment will be more than offset by how visually imaginative and thematically intriguing this movie is. And when it ends in the spaciest, least sexy way it possibly could, you’ll know you’ve seen something you won’t soon forget; who would have guessed that the first thing one sees upon breaching the borders of our universe is the name “ROBERT PATTINSON” in enormous gold letters?