Outer space is humiliating — an ever-expanding reminder to humanity of the fundamental pettiness of its self-preservation. Claire Denis’s tantalizingly oblique “High Life” puts our developed species on trial, sending a tin can containing a handful of passengers hurtling through the cosmos to study what remains other than the primordial soup we came from. It is a positively petrifying sensory experience that stops just short of cynicism, finding comfort in compassion when faced with oblivion.
The film’s opening reverts humanity to its most primitive form, beginning with back-and-forth babble between a grown man and an infant. The man is Monte (a sly Robert Pattinson), the baby is his daughter Willow, and the two are the only surviving members aboard a cubical prison drifting toward a black hole. Over radio, Monte reciprocates and repeats Willow’s staccato sibilants with a doting, soothing tone while performing a mechanical operation along the ship’s exterior. Later, he files a breathy log into a computer which then announces life support systems will remain online for another 24 hours.
From there, the film looks backward to track how the ship arrived at this desolate point. Revealed to once be occupied by inmates who had volunteered for space travel, the blunt design of the ship’s tight bunking areas and corridors become the suffocating spaces of a prison. They are overseen by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a foxy mad scientist hellbent on conceiving a child within the heavy radiation of space travel.
Even the ship’s two anomalous chambers serve to tranquilize and surrender the occupants to Dibs’s agenda. A dewy edenic garden wherein fruits and vegetables bloom in vibrant, bulbous shapes, provides a meditative escape from the fluorescent caverns. And then there’s the “fuck box” — a private room containing a metallic dildo contraption within a midnight-black void — which is introduced in a droning sequence of celestial awe. From the box, Dibs, “the shaman of semen,” harvests the male members’ seed to inject into the women prisoners like livestock.
Seen in Monte’s later solitude, the jail adheres to a life-support system that enforces maintenance rituals and daily check-ins to keep the oxygen online. This elliptical routine reflects the striking sense of normalcy that oozes from even the most abominable instances of abuse in “High Life.” Once the bodies begin to drop, the ever-incomplete list of arbitrary tasks keeps the crew bottled in their rhythms. A tranquilizing shade of dark blue meant to signal sleeping hours ends up dulling the senses during a violent assault; the cognitive dissonance that emerges is completely overpowering.
Denis’ vision of space as a lifeless ocean where dead bodies sink like rocks and her attention to corporeal bodies — and all the fluids bubbling inside them such as blood, cum and mother’s milk — directly inform the ongoing lab rat abuse inside the ship. Both space travel and the human body are uniquely inescapable, and the film alternates between this Russian doll arrangement, three different prisons contained within one another, to generate oppressive, intimate textures.
This foray into science-fiction provides a natural evolution of Denis’ tradition of investigating the horrors of colonial exploitation, leading her to a speculatory fear about its natural endpoint: a vision of a dying earth turning to the final frontier, hoping to save itself by harvesting energy from a black hole, and burning up in the flames of its own cruelty.
Yet, once the crucible is complete and only Monte and his test tube daughter remain, the film finds something worth preserving in them. As terrifying as “High Life” is, it often feels beholden to an externally determined trajectory toward self-destruction.
It’s Willow and Monte’s isolation that the movie feels most alive for; they’re what ultimately clicks the film’s tender inclinations and apocalyptic premainitions together. A freak encounter with another ship late in the film leads the two to argue over the sanitary hazards of adopting a dog — a classic dispute between family transformed into a bastion of paternal protection when transplanted to the far reaches of the unknown. Always hypnotic, it’s only once “High Life” extends its hand outward from the void that it becomes truly inspiring.