French auteur Claire Denis makes her first fully English-language movie, High Life. Fully, because her 2001 vampire film Trouble Every Daywas part French, part English. This, similarly, can also be categorised a genre film. A science fiction tale, peddling that classic lost in space trope, it’s hardly the sort of terrain Denis – director of such human dramas as White Materialand Beau Travail – is known for. But then she’s always been a filmmaker who boldly goes where no man (or woman) has gone before.
As you might sense, High Lifeis light years from your typical sci-fi, and while it might feature Robert Pattinson in the lead, it’s far removed from a commercial Hollywood vehicle. Closest in spirit to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalkerand Solaris, it tells of a group of convicts who are aboard a spaceship outside of our solar system. The mission is to harvest energy from black holes, but gradually the crew members are dying off.
With a jigsaw structure that takes some figuring, we first join Pattinson’s character Monte with a baby girl, Willow. Where did she come from? It eventually becomes clear that the ship’s doctor, Dibs – played by Juliette Binoche – is playing god. Sexual intercourse is outlawed. And Dibs takes it upon herself to forcibly extract semen from the male crew and try to impregnate the female members of the ship. It’s the least of the dark secrets Dibs harbours.
Shot in a studio in Cologne, Denis has crafted some memorable – nay, unforgettable – images here. The sight of Binoche’s Dibs entering into what’s been dubbed the “Fuck-box” – an all-black room with a machine to stimulate users sexually – is certainly eyebrow-raising. But then so is the beautiful lush garden inside the ship, where we first glimpse Monte as he tells Willow about taboos – such as drinking your own urine. The madness creeps around this film insipidly.
The sort of movie that’ll be analysed in film studies classes for years, High Lifedoesn’t yield its answers up easily. It is a work to be debated and puzzled, but there’s something magnetic about its influence. Featuring a cast that includes musician/actor André Benjamin and Mia Goth, an actress it’s hard to take your eyes from, Denis’ film deserves its place amongst the great science fiction films of the era.
High Life screens from 10 May. For more information visit Thunderbird Releasing.
1. Still from High Life.