Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Claire Denis’ stupefyingly smart film High Life, the first she has directed in English, starts ahead of its main events, without any set-piece exposition, in and around a barren spacecraft inhabited by a father, his baby daughter, and zippered corpses that used to compose the rest of the crew. Robert Pattinson, who plays the father and reportedly sought out the role, has become one edgy actor. His character Monte repairs a panel, feeds the kid, Willow, and coos at her plangently, then grimly sits down at a console and dictates a false message to mission control indicating that everything is fine, which earns them another day of life support. The ship is converging on a black hole to which the crew has been morbidly dispatched on the pretext of providing research that might benefit mankind – as opposed, more probably, to getting sucked into a vortex of other-worldly terror never to be heard from again. (The screenplay’s science and engineering are lax and eccentric, but, like perspective to a cubist painter, that is of pedantic rather than substantive concern.)
The great French director parcels out back-story casually and incidentally. The entire crew consisted of prison inmates convicted of crimes that carried life sentences, including infanticide and rape, who were offered relative freedom as interstellar guinea pigs. Monte murdered a friend over a dog, which in comparison to his colleagues makes him something close to noble – as implicitly reflected in his singular coolness and poise – and ethically superior to everyone else in it except the child, who has no moral baggage. That is not to say that others are feckless. Tcherny (a soothing Andre Benjamin) is wistful and idealistic. The admirably vanity-free Juliet Binoche’s Dr. Dibs keeps her charges alive as long as she can, seeking consolation only in the “Fuckbox” – a gnarly version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron. More importantly, she bucks the presumption of expendability shrouding the crew in her determination, unalloyed if earthily vulgar, to perpetuate their little clan.
As Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) defrocked soldiering and her White Material (2009) stripped bare colonialism, High Life deromanticizes the jaunty space travel of The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and Gravity – its tonal progenitors are the calamitous Alien movies and the tragic Europa Report – by unmooring her characters from social constraint. Here, circumstances compel them to try to reconstitute it, but their criminal foibles and the very direness of the situation hobble the effort. Thus, the film marries Lord of the Flies’ gloomy specificity about the ruthlessness of humans’ instincts for self-preservation with 2001’s profound uncertainty about their cosmic significance. In Monte, a relentless survivor who keeps moving forward as decently as he can muster, damn the depression and the temptations of fatalism, Denis has created an anti-hero whose mastery of dystopia inspires not merely individual respect but at least a grudging love of species. There are no aliens in this movie as such: his adversary is human nature, and he fights it to a draw.
High Life, Directed by Claire Denis, written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, and Geoff Cox.