The first English language production by French auteur Claire Denis, High Life uses the conventions of a science fiction film to tell its rather bleak story, though there is little in the way of the kind of visual splendour you might expect to find in this genre. Here is a nuts and bolts future where space ships look like packing crates and space suits resemble things you might pick up in Gap. Monte (Robert Pattison) is a former Death Row inmate who, when we first meet him, is alone on a space ship with a baby. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the two of them came to be there.
Monte, it turns out, was part of a team of prisoners, sent on a journey to a black hole deep in space in order to harness its energy. This crew of misfits is presided over by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who – presumably spurred on by the knowledge that the mission is going to take longer than the average human life span – has become obsessed with the idea of starting new life aboard the ship. But instead of letting the crew just pursue things in the usual way of procreation, she keeps everyone heavily sedated. The male crew members have to submit a daily sperm sample to her, which she, in turn, administers to the females.
Hardly surprising then, that deep resentment begins to simmer, and it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.
Denis has quite a reputation and it might be this, more than anything else, that has initiated the slew of glowing reviews this film has already garnered – but for the life of me, I can’t share this enthusiasm for it. It soon becomes apparent that, while the film’s setting might be futuristic, its sexual politics remain deeply entrenched in the stone age. And this prompts some worrying questions.
Why does Binoche’s character wander around the spaceship in a nurses’s outfit that is clearly several sizes too small for her? And why, in the extended sequence when she pleasures herself in the ship’s ‘fuckbox,’ does it look as though it has been choreographed to please some unseen male gaze, even though it’s been co-authored by Denis herself? There’s also a particularly nasty rape scene, later in the film, which culminates in the bloody death of the perpetrator, but which adds precisely nothing of value to the story. Presented as it is, it just feels salacious.
These are not the only problems I have with High Life. I learn very little about Monte and even less about his crew mates, which makes it hard for me to care about them when they end up as so much flotsam. I think that Monte has some feelings for Boyse (Mia Goth) but can’t be entirely sure – and what exactly is the story behind Monte’s childhood crime, only partially revealed in flashback? Finally… that harnessing of the black hole’s power… how was that supposed to work exactly? It seems a bit cavalier to use the conventions of a genre without properly thinking it through.
If High Life was the product of a debut director, it would be panned and quickly forgotten. But I fear it’s become one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ movies, with few people prepared to step up to the plate and denounce it as the wrong-headed, misogynistic muddle that it surely is.
Unless I’m missing something? Answers on a postcard, please…