TIFF Review: Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’ is breathtaking science-fiction

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

There’s an element of Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s 1999 masterpiece, in her latest work, the high-minded but deeply entertaining and satisfying High Life, though they’re about as different as a ripe banana and a huge black rubber dildo.

They’re both about isolated groups of people in harsh circumstances, the sexual machinations of the leaders of said group, and the politics of existing as a part of a unit. But where the former was about a group of French Foreign Legion soldiers on the coast of Djibouti, High Life is about a throng of death row inmates trapped on a spaceship that’s heading towards a black hole in the center of our galaxy. It’s Denis’ first foray into the world of science-fiction as well as her first English-language film, and it’s proof positive that no matter the genre or the language or the actors she uses, she’s one of the most capable masters of the craft that we have working today.

The plot of High Life can be summed up thusly: Imagine Christopher Nolan not only had an active sex life, but at one point, he was a member of a BDSM community so hardcore and creepy that he had to hop out for a bit and join r/nofap right before sitting down to work on Interstellar. I say this because there’s a link between the two films in substance (they’re both films about parenthood) and in style (the black hole imagery remains arresting in both films). However, instead of a good-hearted Matthew McConaughey, we’re introduced to Monte (Robert Pattinson), a murderer who was sentenced to death before receiving the offer of a lifetime. Instead of being put down here on Earth, he could do something good for our species and explore the frontiers of space: Namely, whether or not the energy caused by a black hole’s rotation could be used as an alternative source of energy. He agrees, and he, along with a crew of other convicts, is shot into space. Their ride for the journey looks like a giant nine-volt battery, and it’s interiors are lit like the “Hotline Bling” video, except for the wild and misting garden at the heart of the vessel.

It’s onboard the ship that Monte finds a purpose in his routine of hard work, avoiding the ill effects of radiation because of his “good genes.” The ship lends itself to routine, as the prisoners are required to check in once a day with a computer or the life support will be turned off. However, he’s often brought into conflict with the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who wants him to provide her with semen samples so that she can use them for her experiments. Dibs wants to create a child that can withstand being born onboard a starship, given the numerous health hazards that might impact the process, though this isn’t an entirely altruistic pursuit.

She, like other members of the crew, works out her kinks in the process in the ship’s fuck-box, a black room full of sexual pleasures meant to alleviate the crew’s carnal desires. It’s her experiments that will ultimately begin to bring the downfall of the ship itself, and it’ll produce Monte a daughter (via artificial insemination), whom he’ll grow to love as his own as the years pass and they get further and further away from Earth in space and in time.

Pattinson is magnetic as usual, taking the kind of well-meaning (or at least he thinks) sociopath vibe that he’s amplified in films like Good Time and Damsel over the last couple of years, and he marries that well with an existential angst befitting the plight of one trapped on a vessel heading towards a fucking black hole. As good as he is, however, it might be Binoche who is the real MVP of the film, as she takes a character as well-worn in the science-fiction genre as the Mad Doctor and transform the part into something empathetic and deeply upsetting. She has her own reasons for wanting to create life — perhaps as a method of atonement for prior sins — and her machinations, while as suitably evil as you might expect, are plausible enough.

The only real weak link in the ensemble might be Mia Goth, who never quite manages to do anything other than her schtick whenever she’s cast in something, but this may just be my personal dislike for the way she navigates the emotional spectrum (though Denis uses her particular talents to beautiful and horrifying ends in several scenes). Each brings a grounding element to the live wire that is this movie, and they help reinforce the aspects that could, potentially, be seen as somewhat goofy.

Denis’ psychosexual approach to this particular space voyage has shades of Robert Heinlein, Angela Carter, Philip K. Dick, and the recently-passed Harlan Ellison within its borders — one character’s black-hole plunging fate feels like it could have been ripped from one of the latter’s edited Star Trek screenplays. Her visual cues pull from the masterpieces of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Trumbull and others, yet it remains entirely her own.

It is a fascinating and intoxicating mixture that enhances and amplifies her characters’ plights, and I can’t wait to dig further into the meanings and structure of the film (I have a running sci-fi nerd theory about the film’s time-out-of-joint plotting that I look forward to sharing with pals over a few beers once this bad boy hits theaters).

It is perhaps the most French science-fiction film in quite some time, even more so than Valerian: The spacesuits are ripped straight from Jules Verne, the ship lovingly homey in its interiors. Yet, some will undeniably focus exclusively on the more lurid aspects of the plot — the fuck-box being chief amongst them — and some of the haunting imagery, but there’s so much more to High Life than that. It’s about the process of finding yourself growing a soul and nurturing a new one as you begin to reach the end of all things, as grand a metaphor for parenthood that I’ve ever seen depicted in cinema.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.