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 cell block 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 pre-recorded 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 (Ewan Mitchell, “The Last Kingdom”) 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 all drift slowly into nothingness and die off one by one. Monte describes it both functionally and figuratively as “moving backwards, even though we’re moving forwards,” which effectively grounds the film back in the anxious reality of living on Earth in 2019.
The script (by Denis, Geoff Cox and Jean-Pol Fargeau) 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. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“Personal Shopper”) frames the ship’s bodies, living and dead, in a blue fluorescent state of unease so that at rest, during strange calisthenics, and during moments of violence or contemplation, they’re permanently trapped, resigned to their fate.
And Denis’ direction is, as always, one that prioritizes atmosphere over explicit explanations, here transforming cold, drab, spaceship hardware into a living yet crumbling environment — the ship’s interiors were designed by contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson for dour functionality and anti-utopian effect — one that mirrors the physical and spiritual human decay taking place among its dwindling number of inhabitants.
She’s a filmmaker well acquainted with human cruelty, having explored the dire, destructive side of life in earlier films like “The Intruder,” “Trouble Every Day” and in what is regarded as her masterpiece, 1999’s “Billy Budd” adaptation “Beau Travail.” Her work is characterized by a strict lack of sentimentality, unsparing even as she refuses to give up on the possibility of tenderness. Here, the most gentle moments are reserved for Monte and Willow, who ages to adolescence and begins to mimic the seemingly alien activities she sees transmitted from Earth. With her hands clasped in prayer, Monte asks, “What god are you praying to?” Her response: “I saw it on the video. I wanted to know what they feel.”
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.