Eschewing the gravity-defying sleekness so easily attached to the genre, Claire Denis’s new space film, “High Life,” is grounded. Opening on a panning shot of a lush, misty greenhouse (which just happens to be located on a spaceship staffed by prisoners on a death mission to capture energy from a black hole), the film’s portrayal of space and the physics that govern it work to tease out the prisoners’ relationship to loss, time and hope. Here, the prisoners are “outside the solar system so far that time on Earth is not their time,” said Denis at a screening of the film earlier this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “I think that was important. Not space, really, but [the] jail thing. The ultimate jail.”
On this floating correction center, Denis explained, “there is not even hope to escape, which could happen if you’re in juvie or in jail.” The sheer expansiveness of space — and the inability to return to Earth at will as a result — lends a claustrophobic feel to the film that underscores the punitive aspect of the prisoner’s mission. In this way, rather than escaping to a new life, the prisoners cycle into yet another system of oppression. Ostensibly, the payoff for volunteering for such an endeavor (beyond escaping prison in the most traditional sense) is the advancement of science. But as Monte, played by an endearing Robert Pattinson, jettisons the corpses of all his deceased crew mates (after first placing them carefully in their astronaut suits) out into space during the opening scenes, we learn that this moral redemption and “freedom” comes with a steep price.
As the film progresses, time reverses to reveal life on the ship four years into the project, just before the grim mission reveals itself to be truly hopeless. Among the prisoners staffing the spacecraft is the long-haired Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who performs “reproductive experiments” on the rest of the prisoners and serves as a foil, in many ways, to Monte. Eventually, the physical and psychological effects of the mission wear on the characters in such a way that causes rapid-fire chaos. And it is amidst this turmoil that Willow, the only remaining soul accompanying Monte at the start of the film, is born. “Probably, the character, at the beginning when he’s alone, he thinks the best would be to jump, to die,” said Denis of the importance of the father-daughter bond to the story. “But then he cannot. He has this responsibility of this little baby.”
And while the ensemble performance culminates into a gritty, fluid-filled plot that is as enthralling as it is repulsive, it is Pattinson’s enigmatic performance that weaves the narrative of the film, sowing the loneliness that pushes it forward. “There is always something that is hidden. He does not give everything,” said Denis, explaining her draw to Pattinson. “Something stays behind his face, behind his skin, inside. A sort of… it’s not resisting any direction, no. It’s existing.”
Top Image: Robert Pattinson in "High Life" Courtesy of Claire Denis