Starring Robert Pattinson and released by A24, High Life, is a two-hour body horror jumble masked in artful close-ups and pastel light leaks. French director Claire Denis (Let The Sunshine In, Trouble Every Day) has been known for taking viewers out of their comfort zone with films that burrow into taboo topics in grotesque and discomforting ways. And while it may be true that many moments in High Life reemerge with new candescence after the shock value has settled and the visual metaphors have been mentally mapped, the film never frees itself from its own portension.
Pattinson (Twilight star turned indie-powerhouse) plays Monte, a father alone with his infant daughter on a spaceship hurtling through deep space towards a black hole, on a mission from Earth to compile data on the unknown energy of dark matter. The film never explains how this data will be compiled and shipped back to Earth, nor does it bother with the physics of near-lightspeed travel or any realistic component of living in space. High Life inhabits the sci-fi realm of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, more interested in the psychological mindfield the closed setting of a spaceship allows than staying true to any realistic depiction of space itself.
And what a psychological mindfield it becomes! Monte and his baby hurtling through space are quickly revealed to be the exterior frame narrative of a long second act of backstory on how Monte and the child ended up alone. Here, we spend the majority of the film learning how the six original crew members were enlisted for this suicide mission off of death row, and are subjected daily to the mental and graphic physical abuse of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a death row ex-doctor who has been put in charge of administering calming meds and harvesting the male crew member’s sperm to test for the possibility of conception within the female crew members in the radioactive ether of deep space. If you are waiting for the explanation of why a team of convicted felons in charge of saving Earth through documenting the power of a black hole also need a fertility clinic onboard, don’t hold your breath.
To look with forgiving eyes at the mess of High Life’s poorly digested (or maybe overly digested is a better term, as Denis is said to have worked on this project for over 15 years) overlapping parts, is to see a work interested in exploring the psychological repercussions of incarceration and the harm inflicted through systemic power systems on the innocent and the shamed. There are moments that shimmer with metaphorical value: Monte and his crew of low lifes stare out a window where the stars appear to be rolling in reverse and Monte’s voiceover explains traveling at light speed is like “the sensation of moving backwards even though we are moving forwards, getting further from what is getting nearer.” Or a disconcerting moment where Monte encounters a spaceship of rabid dogs and we, maybe only in retrospect, link his reaction as a resolve to a detrimentally formative memory from Monte’s past.
If the function of a frame narrative is for the outer and inner stories to play against each other—adding meaning through juxtaposition—little is gained from the long, grotesque, and graphic middle act that we don’t already know from the outer narrative of Monte and his child.
In the opening few minutes of the film, Monte watches his child watch a screen of newsreels and clips of video broadcasting from Earth. The way his eyes change from delight to disgust as he switches his gaze from his daughter to the projected reel portends his declaration that society is a virus eating away at the universe. This baby, we are made to understand, is a new chance to redeem the wrongs of the past.
For a film that seems consciously built on an ending where darkness can be reborn into light, the film’s framed structure ultimately works against that message. By embedding the horror of backstory into one long, unbroken core narrative, the viewer is left with the overwhelming weight of that trauma and Denis’s ending of hope rings resoundingly flat.