Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth
Space is a great place for directors to make some decent money, while also, often enough, delivering a star-splitting experience. Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) and Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) are the chief auteurs in this intergalactic arena, with JJ Abrams flying high with his sequels to Star Wars (Episode IX coming later this year).
But the French filmmaker Claire Denis proves she’s from a different universe altogether, with her English-language sci-fi debut High Life.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a brooding astronaut with a baby
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, a brooding astronaut with a baby. It’s just him and her in a spaceship, which is designed to harness energy from black holes. Wide angles float through massive, spatial corridors – capturing its emptiness. Monte's voice-over is ponderous, existential, as if composed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, First Reformed).
The crew, we realise, are all dead. And, back on Earth, they were all on death row. As an alternative to execution, this gang of criminals are sent up to the stars. What could possibly go wrong? Denis floats gently back and forth in time, examining the crew as they hunt black holes for the Earth’s benefit.
But Dibs, played by Juliette Binoche in one of her most disturbing roles to date, has her own agenda: to make babies in space, using male and female crew-members (Monte calls Dibs 'the shaman of sperm').
Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, in one of her most disturbing roles to date
There’s no plot as such, the images seem to move on their own like a dream – following feelings rather than a conventional structure. In doing so, timelines are skewered and they bleed into each other. Much of the crew’s background, mostly Monte's, is revealed through Earth-bound flashbacks, which glance a wooded, industrial dystopia - clearly drawing from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Denis spawns a nebula of strong and complicated emotions, which warm as much as shock. The film starts with Monte taking care of his baby, washing her, feeding her, helping with her first steps. But it’s not long before Denis turns to Dibs, plunging the film into a tortured nightmare of sexual need, almost mythical in its execution.
This is facilitated by the aptly named ‘f***box’, specifically designed to fulfil a passenger’s urges. Given the crew’s convictions, that’s probably a wise idea, but that doesn’t stop their inevitable psychological downfall.
Mia Goth also stars as another convict-astronaut, Boyse
This is not a typical, spectacular voyage into the unknown. Despite many beautiful images detailing the cosmos, some worthy of surrealist paintings, High Life is about In Here rather than Out There: the people, not the journey. It’s difficult, enigmatic, and dark, but the humming consciousness inside the ship is entirely immersive. Around every cylindrical corridor, something strange is waiting.
Entering this movie is like entering a black hole – stretching time and space and light to its own mysterious purpose, with no idea where you’ll be spat out.
|High Life review
10 May 19 – 10 May 20, Times vary
|£ determined by cinemas
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