Though a perennial festival and critical favourite, the ascending of Claire Denis into “canonised auteur” status is relatively new, and more than welcome. The growing cult for her entire back catalogue (but especially Beau Travail, 1999, and Trouble Every Day, 2001) has brought her to a point where a collision with progenitor of art house cool Robert Pattinson was perhaps inevitable. But fortunately, the project is High Life, a splendid space epic that is an easy entry point to her particular style while expanding her aesthetic argument into new dimensions.
High Life has crafted a piece of prestige science fiction that reaches for the cosmos with an ambition to depict not only space itself as a frontier, but also the restrictions that it enacts on the body through systemic, architectural and scientific powers. It’s as transcendent as the technical efforts of recent efforts by Nolan or Villeneuve, but unlike their clinical depictions of space, this is a full exploration of sex and death drives when you’re living in the void. Earth is a red desert, or the switch to film like the stalker in/out dynamic. Earth looks alive in a way that space isn’t.
In space, no-one can hear you enter the Sex Box. Yes, in a characteristic touch of transgressive, sex-into-violence energy, there is a giant black box where the prisoners of this ship go to let out their angst. It’s already the most talked about part of the film, with big meme potential. But it also ties into the entire web of the film’s free associative narrative pattern. Between this Foucauldian prison paradigm which reaches into the metaphysical bounds of space, the black hole the ship approaches is framed as an eye, a spiritual void which Denis heavily equate to the fuck box; what will entering these spaces do to you?
Having learnt that the original idea for casting in these roles was Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patricia Arquette, one sees a remarkably different film from the one that exists. Robert Pattinson’s energy radiates sexuality in a different way. The stoic Pattinson cuts his statuesque beauty onto everyone surrounding him, who project their fantasies on the one man not enticed by the Sex Box. They call him ‘blue balls’, then rely on him for all kinds of support.
Binoche against type with hip length hair, she calls herself a witch, giving an uncharacteristically menacing turn that’s a far cry from her romantic plight in last year’s Let the Sunshine In (2018) but cements her collaboration with Denis as pure alchemy.
Denis has talked about how she structures her films as they might appear in her mind, then growing from there. So we begin with a father and daughter in space and gradually details are given which fill in the blanks of the situation and character relationships. But as ever with Denis, this isn’t obliqueness for the sake of restriction or Brechtian portent. Rather, her tactile style draws the viewer further inside of her vision, as we let her patterns of information flow
In this case, it is the rhythm of prison life and of losing agency over one’s own body, as her oppressive close-ups and sensuous stroking of the characters with the camera magnifies their own inability to contact. This rhythm is apparent in her approach to architecture and orienting the viewer with the topography of the spaceship. As Denis said in a masterclass earlier in the week, “It is very special because the corridor is the spine of the jail where the guard can walk. This is how I rendered a jail in space.”
We experience the spaces in the same order that the characters do. Denis’s use of on and- off-screen space spreads the film throughout your inner eye, giving it otherworldly dimensions. The sound design, for example, is sparse and direct. A baby’s cry in the first scene for instance is rhymed later on with the sobs of another character, in both instances we see the same empty corridor and identical camera moves.
A film that unfurls and grows like the garden paradise that beguiles the ship’s inmates. High Life will be one of the most talked about films of the year, and I already can’t wait to give myself back over to it’s mysteries.
High Life showed at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It is out in cinemas across the UK on Friday, May 10th.