“Sometimes bleak is good” — Claire Denis
Veteran French director Claire Denis is nothing if not versatile, having directed a range of films in multiple categories including war drama, romantic comedy, documentary, and mystery. With High Life, her first English language feature, she delves into science fiction, presenting an outer space adventure so different from any other, it almost defies description. It is not only a harsh and disturbing film (some shocked audience members walked out on its Toronto premiere), it is challenging to the viewer, definitely not something you can follow while leafing through a magazine. Like another distinctive outer space movie, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is part mystery, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions to a large extent; Claire Denis does not spoon feed her audience, but makes them work.
High Life opens on a vast spacecraft of dreary industrial design, its hull labelled simply #7, providing a first, flimsy clue: the ship is not unique, but one of a series. Only two passengers seem to be aboard: a man named Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl, named Willow. The man checks equipment, sees to repairs, tends an onboard garden which seems to provide food, and when he has the time, cares for the baby. Details are revealed slowly; we eventually discover a number of people in sealed containers. Science fiction conventions lead us to assume they are a space crew in a state of suspended animation, but perhaps they are merely dead, and the man and toddler the last remaining survivors aboard this vessel, whose purpose is as yet unknown. Only one semblance of outside contact seems to exist: the man enters daily updates about the ship’s condition into a computer, which automatically responds by granting “an additional 24 hours life support.” There is no indication of direct contact with other humans, only an onscreen message that appears to be automatic. The absolute isolation of the crew is further brought home by a scene in which the man, outside the ship in a space suit doing repairs to the hull, drops the tool he is holding; in an eerie, vertigo-inducing shot, we see the object go spiralling out into infinite black space.
Monte is conscientious in maintaining the spaceship and life support systems, in making his daily reports, and in caring for the little girl. In spite of his rather gloomy manner, he seems to give the child a great deal of attention and tenderness. Early in the film, we see him quietly talking nonsense to her – interestingly, repeating the word ‘taboo’ over and over to her as part of his baby-talk.
The situation is gradually explained, mainly through an extended flashback. In the near future, ships like #7 are used as alternative prisons. Long-term convicts are given the opportunity to work as crew members rather than die in prison. The central character, Monte, has chosen this option, and is one of a large, diverse group of criminals on board, both men and women. We meet them five years into their journey through space. Their destination is a black hole, which they are meant to approach and obtain data – presumably at enormous personal risk, hence the need to employ convicts for this kind of work, but with the additional promise that the information they retrieve can have great benefits to mankind.
As the background story continues and we gain more information, one member of the crew stands out: Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who seems to hold some sort of authority over the others, although it emerges that she is a criminal like the rest, one who impishly boasts that her crimes are far worse than those of the others onboard. Dibs’ outwardly benign personality conceals a twisted mind; a former researcher, she turns out to be something of a Dr Mengele to the ship’s passengers as she carries out the research which is apparently a secondary function of the prison ship. We slowly learn about the crew and the background of this strange surrogate prison. The eventual revelation of the nature of Dr Dibs’ crimes reveals more about her character, just as discovering Monte’s crime, terrible but rooted in a certain warped moral decency, reveals more about his.
The black hole study, which is ostensibly the main function of the ship, is given relatively little attention. Instead, the story of the passengers and the journey itself unfolds, growing more grim and chaotic as it goes. There is, understandably, an ongoing problem with depression, instability, and eventually violence among the passengers. The arrangements made to keep the passengers occupied, healthy, entertained, and well balanced are ludicrously inadequate. Worst of all are Dr Dibs’ series of experiments on the passengers, done at least partly for her own amusement or sadistic gratification – experiments which involve human reproduction, and which result not only in forced pregnancies but in several passenger deaths. We get the first hint of where the mysterious baby girl may have come from. Most of the passengers participate in her demeaning experiments in exchange for drugs. Monte, however, has chosen to remain aloof, not only from Dr Dibs and her bizarre research, and the temporary comfort of drugs, but from the crew at large. Quiet and solemn, spending his time maintaining the ship and its garden, he is dubbed “the monk,” and is left alone for the most part – until Dr Dibs begins to see his reserve as a challenge, and forces him into her largely imaginary study. This is the beginning of a series of catastrophic events which lead to the opening scenario: Monte alone on the ship with baby girl Willow. We occasionally return from the lengthy flashback to the present day, for another glimpse of Monte and the child, entirely alone on the ship.
The scenes of prison-ship life, especially after Dr Dibs’ delusional activities are in place, are horrific. We see violent attacks, various forms of rape, and a grotesque scene involving Dr Dibs and a particularly nasty space-age sex toy which presumably is part of the onboard equipment. Bodily fluids are a constant, inescapable presence onboard ship #7. To begin with, human waste has to be recycled into soil for the vegetable garden in this closed environment, while urine and wastewater must be purified and re-used as drinking water, unpleasant facts that the passengers must learn to live with. But as the flashback storyline escalates, we are also inundated with blood, vomit, semen, overflowing breast milk (in a sad and shocking scene that reveals what Dr Dibs is really up to), and every other bodily substance, to the point where the ship almost begins to feel like the inside of a human body. The tight, focused camera work during this part of the story tends to make the interior of the ship seem narrow and claustrophobic. It is a ghastly but effective part of the film, making the long journey seem like a particularly earthy and graphic depiction of a group descent into Hell.
The fate of the other prisoners having been dealt with, we return to the final version of the ship, occupied only by Monte and Willow. The years pass as they slowly approach their goal of the black hole, and Willow (now played by newcomer Jessie Ross) grows older, reaching her early teens. We see Monte begin to ponder their fate, what to do with and for the child. He gains some insight into his own situation, and the less than honourable intentions of his captors, when they encounter, by chance, an identical ship, labelled #6, and Monte explores it. Finally, they approach the promised black hole in space, and come to a poignant concluding scene. In a decision combining Monte’s dogged efforts to be fully human in spite of the cynicism and hopelessness, his experiences have forced on him, with the innocent optimism and unspoiled philanthropy of young Willow, together they choose their destiny.
Claire Denis’ selection of actors for this film was a bit convoluted. She had chosen Patricia Arquette to play Dr Dibs, but when Arquette became unavailable, Juliette Binoche requested the part. The director had just worked with Binoche in Let The Sunshine In, a very different kind of film, but the choice worked out beautifully. Juliette Binoche plays an outwardly charming and serene but inwardly twisted villain with a subtlety and calm that is chilling. As for the lead role of Monte, Denis had originally hoped to have the late Philip Seymour Hoffman for the part (the film has been in development for some time). She was resistant to the idea of casting someone she described as virtually the opposite of Hoffman, and whom she saw as working primarily in a very different type of film. Denis was also concerned about the unhelpful attention a matinée idol might attract. After meeting with Pattinson, however, she changed her mind, and concluded that he was exactly the kind of actor she liked to work with; and in fact, he does an excellent job with a difficult and complicated role. Combined with a strikingly original script by Claire Denis and her longtime co-writer, Jean-Pol Fargeau, in collaboration with horror screenwriter Geoff Cox (Evolution), the result is something strange, intense, frightening, moving, and entirely new. Sci-fi may never be the same.