'High Life' hones in on the psychological horrors of being alone in space


High Life opens with shots of lush greenery: vegetables growing in the dirt, water dripping from the leaves. We soon learn this is the garden aboard a spacecraft, an attempt to create something natural amidst the artificial. That idea is one of the many strands in the new film by Claire Denis, the French filmmaker behind Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day and, most recently, Let the Sunshine In, which played at Melbourne’s ACMI earlier this year. With High Life – Denis’s first English-language film – she embarks on a voyage that’s frustrating, vague and varying stages of horrific.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is one of the ship’s crew members. They’re rumbling towards a black hole in the effort to find Earth an alternative energy source. As grainy, washed-out flashbacks give us glimpses of life back home, Monte tends to the ship and cares for Willow, the beautiful baby on board. Early scenes of Monte and Willow are warm and intimate; his care for her is palpable. The scenes are also tinged with melancholy, sparsely including an eerie score by Stephen A. Smith (of British band Tindersticks) as Monte’s isolation becomes more apparent. What has he – and the rest of the crew – had to endure to get here?

As Denis gradually reveals, their existence is one of emotional, physical and sexual violence, boredom, and misery. The crew – which also includes Boyse (Mia Goth) and Tcherny (André Benjamin of OutKast, excellent in his small role) – are subjected to experiments by Juliette Binoche’s witchy Dr. Dibs; she, for mysterious reasons, is attempting to create life of her own. With Dibs (and her strange relationship with Monte and the crew), Denis wrestles with difficult questions of body autonomy, creation and assault in ways that are frequently baffling, sometimes anxiety-inducing.

The film is effective at conveying Monte and the crew’s inescapable situation, trapped on a ship with only vast nothingness outside. An especially terrifying sequence depicts space as a horrifying black void, capable of overwhelming, warping and rattling our bodies until we can take no more. Yet, for some, launching themselves into space is preferable to enduring cabin fever aboard the ship. By imagining the ship as a futuristic prison – an enclosed setting complete with bunk-beds and loose-fitting, orangey-red uniforms – the film is critical towards a system that confines people in such an oppressive way. Some of the crew, when they’re not cruel to each other, turn to violence (perhaps out of boredom), leading to some of the film’s most shocking scenes. One teeth-gritting sequence sees the ship bathed in blue as violence erupts, making the blood look black. They’re not easy moments to shake.

The futility of the crew’s mission makes it easy for High Life to feel futile itself, especially when Denis’ intentions are buried so deeply. Mileage will depend on how in-sync you are with her filmmaking. It’s a challenging work, but one unlike any other sci-fi you’ve seen before.

High Life runs until Tuesday April 16 as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival.