Leaving High Life after its Thursday night premiere, I experienced the rare sensation of having no idea what to make of what I’d just seen. I suspect the other attendees felt likewise. Claire Denis’ latest film is alternately infuriating and tantalizing; it’s bound to repulse casual moviegoers expecting Robert Pattinson’s The Martian and equally certain to satisfy those up for a challenging piece of small-scale science-fiction.
Challenging is really the operative word here. High Life’s actual narrative is relatively straightforward; however, its nonlinear structure, perverse subject matter and frequently bleak tone could make it a hard sell for many. Then again, Denis has always been a filmmaker who’s seemingly only made films for herself. Whether dabbling in romantic comedy (last year’s Let the Sunshine In) or revenge thriller (Bastards), Denis continually upends genre expectations by parsing out story details in slow, deliberate fashion and sprinkling them with unusual thematic flourishes.
In those regards, High Life is decidedly on-brand for the director, and this time, her lead is more high-profile than ever while the cosmic setting unveils what must be the largest budget of her career. Despite all its disturbing depictions of space madness and sexual taboos, the film is essentially a tale of the enduring bond between father and daughter in the face of human extinction. It also features the prominent use of a device called the Fuck Box, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Monte (Pattinson) and his infant daughter are traveling at near-light speed through deep space toward some unknown destination. There were others on board, once, but whatever caused their demise is unclear. In a gorgeous early sequence, Monte suits up and releases the bodies of the other deceased crew members into space. Of course, we eventually meet and learn about these others, and who exactly Monte is, yet Denis is in no rush to do so.
The cast portraying the rest of the crew includes Juliette Binoche as a scientist with a sinister agenda, OutKast’s Andre Benjamin as Monte’s sole friend and Mia Goth as a volatile loner. It’s not revealing too much to say Binoche’s character, Dr. Dibs, is driven by a desire to impregnate a female passenger to create life in an area with high levels of radiation. Her repeatedly unsuccessful experiments instill dangerous sexual dynamics between the people onboard, and their isolation only further removes their inhibitions. A great deal of their frustration is taken out on the Fuck Box, a futuristic sex toy. The scene where Dibs uses it is one of the film’s most frightening and visually striking. Lit in malevolent red with dark shadows, the details of how the box works are not entirely clear, and that makes the encounter seem all the more alien and horrifying.
Piecing together High Life’s plot is intentionally disorienting, as it’s often difficult to make out just when in time certain events are happening, and once the film goes full-tilt crazy in its second act, that fluid structure adds to the film’s unease. Its primary function is nonetheless an emotional one. By placing that depraved second act between the comparatively quiet first and third, Denis emphasizes the warm sensitivity at the story’s core. These acts are comprised of the emotionally worn Monte finding new significance in his doomed existence.
High Life doesn’t behave quite like any sci-fi film you’ve seen before. The spaceship, with its lush botanical garden and bizarre erotic apparatus, is a wholly singular environment. The nimble balance of the horrific and heartfelt is something only a genre disruptor like Denis could so effectively manage. It’s a reminder how even among the most desperate situations, when morality and civility have gone out the window, hope can still be salvaged.