In an alternative space-time continuum, the premise of High Life — Death Row convicts are sent into space on a do-or-die mission to harness the energy of a black hole — is Jerry Bruckheimer’s quasi sequel to Armageddon. Yet, in French director Claire Denis’ hands, it is pretty much the polar opposite: gruelling sci-fi, high on big ideas, disturbing imagery and narrative longueurs, low on retina-popping CGI, production values and Ben Affleck. It will alienate some — there’s male rape, leaky breast milk and no attempt to spoon-feed — but if you stick with it, Denis’ first English-language film reaches the parts phasers and warp speed can’t reach.
Just as last year’s Let The Sunshine In (also starring Binoche) was a more sophisticated, deeper, messy take on the romcom, so High Life is Denis’ personalised stamp on sci-fi. Its plot core of an expedition to exploit the power of a black hole functions as a jumping-off point to a study in fear and loathing as it becomes clear to the crew they are on a suicide mission. Denis exacerbates the tense mood with a deliberately uneven sense of pacing, slow sections where seemingly nothing is happening punctuated by moments of gory violence and shattering intensity. The latter reaches its zenith inside the ‘fuckbox’, a dark room fitted out with mechanised dildos and straps designed to relieve sexual frustration. The orgasmatron from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, it is not.
Denis mounts a palpable sense of dread.
The ‘fuckbox’ is the domain of Juliette Binoche’s Dr Dibs, a scarred, long-haired mad scientist drugging her guinea pigs in exchange for their bodily fluids. Binoche is terrific here, her unhinged sexuality recalling Louis Malle’s Damage, but this is Pattinson’s film. Operating in a much lower key to everyone else — his character is dubbed Mr Blue Balls because he chooses celibacy — his performance, played out mostly in close-up and without dialogue, provides the film’s singular sense of connection and tenderness, especially in flashbacks with his daughter.
Filling the film with indelible images, such as bodies floating in space over the title card, and a discomfiting drone of a soundtrack by Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples, Denis plays slow and tight with the trappings of the genre. Here an astronaut’s glove, rather than floating away in gravity, hangs heavy in the air while a space spanner drops like a brick. There are trace elements of sci-fi history here, be it Stalker (the sense of mystery), Silent Running (verdant garden-tending), Alien (corridors, lots of corridors) and Blake’s 7 (’70s-styled control panels), but Denis mounts a palpable sense of dread here that has nothing to do with xenomorphs or event horizons. High Life is a film marinated in solitude, anguish and desire. Forget space — in oblivion, no-one can hear you scream.