Film

High Life

Lost in space

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

It begins in a lush, green garden, but High Life, the quiet, bracing and ultimately moving first English-language film from acclaimed French director Claire Denis, is the antithesis of a creation story. A science-fiction parable of despair, filled with more brutality than kindness and more pessimism than hope, its optimistic title is a sliver of bitter irony.

The garden, bursting with vegetables and shrouded in mist, sits housed inside a shabby spaceship containing Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), the last two living people onboard. In a series of flashbacks, the vessel’s function becomes somewhat clear and significantly more ominous: Formerly a cellblock full of death-row inmates, this floating utilitarian prison box is on a one-way trip to a black hole.

Monte, in for murder alongside other violent criminals (played by Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin, among others), but assuming the role of the ship’s most monk-like crew member, delivers narration explaining the task. They will enter the void for the sake of science, sacrificing their lives for Earth’s greater good.

But communication from mission control is spotty—consisting mostly of prerecorded videos—and then silent. Is there really a reason for the mission? Is anyone on the ground actually receiving the ship’s reports? Have they been forgotten? Is there still an Earth?

And then there’s the complicating matter of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), deranged and diabolical in ways that are both horrifying and occasionally camp. Having murdered her own children back home, she spends her time “devoted to reproduction,” conducting mad science experiments on the inmates she controls and refers to as “specimens.” These violent exercises involve forced sedation, semen extraction, involuntary fertilization and the harvesting of fetuses. In other words, she facilitates rape, sometimes performing the deed herself, sometimes allowing one favorite male prisoner to roam the ship. Then she incubates the results.

Monte, by virtue of his resistance and his “good genes,” is now Dibs’ prize victim. But resistance in this claustrophobia-inducing shipping container is, of course, futile, as is everything else, as they drift slowly into nothingness and die off one by one. Monte describes it both functionally and figuratively as “moving backward, even though we’re moving forward,” which effectively grounds the film back in the anxious reality of living on Earth in 2019.

The script similarly moves back and forth in time for maximum push and pull, dropping hints and narrative gestures, demanding the viewer fill in blanks. Meanings become clear, then obscure again, and the only certainty is that something even worse is just around the corner.

Observing humanity’s disintegration from a cool distance, refusing to intervene on behalf of the virtuous, Denis lets her people drift. So it’s appropriate that, as space battles between good and evil go, her murderous mom and penitent dad locked in mutually assured destruction is the flip side of an epic Star Wars-like clash. Instead she gives us an intimate struggle for, if not victory, then a few more moments of peace and quiet before the inevitable end.

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