High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone.
Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. He shuts down the locker to conserve energy; getting rid of the spacesuits might’ve just been an aesthetic choice, like he’s de-cluttering.
High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Jumping back in time, Denis introduces us to the people who once occupied the ship, death row convicts like Monte expunging their sentences by getting on an intergalactic prison boat on its way to a black hole to apparently “collect” its “energy,” a mission that otherwise spells utter annihilation for the passengers. And yet, though humanity’s abandoned them, no one aboard the flying metal box gives up on life. They survive by proxy, the disturbed Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, an equally startling and woozy presence) even going so far as to conduct artificial insemination experiments on them, dropping sedation into the water supply to soften their compliance. The only one who resists—even the negotiable captain (Lars Eidinger) of the ship mewls to Dibs about how much he wants to “fuck” her, between dying from radiation poisoning care of the approaching black hole—is Monte, who, between flashbacks and his eventually teenage daughter’s (Jessie Ross) questioning, we learn first went to jail for a quick, young, savage reason. He is a man who must sublimate every primal feeling that makes him human to survive.
Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness.
Everyone on the ship but Monte and his daughter dies, the child the last remaining of Dr. Dibs’ experiments to actually work, however harrowing and unethical her methods. On a ship of thieves, Dibs is as much a villain as Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), the tall blonde sure-to-be-a-rapist, or Boyse (Mia Goth), the child’s mother prone to manic outbursts, or Mink (Lars Eidinger), ready with a shard hidden under her pillow to stab whomever she needs to in the face. But Dibs is a force of sustained menace, the fluids she collects and transports and spreads throughout the ship laced with the plague—vice or original sin or whatever—she carries in the core of her. When Dibs confesses the crime that got her a one-way ticket in the first place, there it no surprise in its brutality. When she mounts the phallic contraption in the so-called “fuckbox,” a little room with a gadget intended to relieve the sexual build-up the crew, Denis and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux film her in jarring, grinding shadows, as if she’s consumed by debilitating pain as much as a climax. Death and misery haunts the crew relentlessly: Why would anyone want to bring a child into this world?
Denis feels her way through the dark to answer, crawling through every claustrophobic, clinical space on the ship but at times touching the sublime. When Monte first sees his daughter, Pattinson wordlessly wades into the headspace of fatherhood, or so we imagine it for a man as doomed as Monte, the look on his face shifting with astounding control between resignation and revitalization. When his daughter first confronts him with her knowledge about his past crime, Pattinson responds with so much compassion behind his forehead alone, one wonders where this forehead’s been one’s whole life. By the time the two reach the black hole at the end of their journey, their fates hardly matter. Boyse (Mia Goth) already proved to Monte that flying a ship into a black hole probably wouldn’t be a good idea, but then he went and raised his daughter anyway. Denis pings us back and forth in time to confirm that, yup, Monte doesn’t give up even though he has no reason to go on—even though they will still head towards a black hole, negating all that life he once preserved so well before. Preserved for nothing most likely. It’s admitted early in the film that getting any usable information or energy from the black hole’s impossible. Actually transferring it off the ship’s unimaginable. Still, Monte and his daughter press on, and he keeps them alive.
Though its ending is obvious and unresolved, High Life isn’t concerned with the surprises or gasping revelations of science-fiction—Denis models her futurescape as an anachronistic nowhere, khaki and old-timey like World on a Wire’s office interiors—but instead enraptured by the way the genre can push its characters to test the bounds of their own existence. To justify themselves. In moments of vulnerability and strength, Denis argues that, even if in a few short years we’re going to be wiped out, such beauty is worth pushing forward, enduring, lasting longer. It’s not always clear that Denis’ film is convincing enough to prove a point, or if any point it would prove is inevitably consumed by the nihilism at the core of its narrative. It simply exists, finds a moment of empathy now and then, is maybe pointless in the end. Like every one of us.
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Ewan Mitchell, Claire Tan, Gloria Obianyo, Jessie Ross
Release Date: April 11, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.