Sci-fi horror High Life lacks the life of Claire Denis’s previous works

In this film shot entirely in a studio, Denis sacrifices a crucial component of her range.

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“In space, no one can hear you scream,” warned the poster for Alien. Tell that to Monte (Robert Pattinson), who is repairing the hull of a ship near the start of High Life when his infant daughter Willow wails over the baby monitor inside his space helmet, causing him to drop his screwdriver into the starless void in fright. “I could drown you like a kitten,” he says later, as she gurgles obliviously. The point is that he chooses not to: no small matter in a movie that emphasises the duty of care human beings have to one another even thousands of miles above the earth.

Science-fiction cinema since the late 1960s (2001: A Space Odyssey) and early 1970s (Silent Running, Dark Star) has undercut the allure of space travel, pointing out instead its capacity for the mundane, and High Life reserves affection for all things routine. We see Monte picking potatoes from the ship’s garden, whipping them into baby food, tidying the kitchen; each evening he goes to “feed the dog”, his phrase for filing the daily report that will extend the ship’s life-support system for another 24 hours. For this is no pleasure cruise: Monte is one of a group of Death Row prisoners offered the chance to serve science by undertaking a mission from which, unbeknownst to them, they will never return. The others didn’t make it this far – the picture begins with Monte lugging their swaddled corpses out of the airlock chamber, leaving them to hang in space like cocoons, and the rest of the film picks over the events that lead to this. Its curiosity is both anthropological and erotic, the unmistakeable signature of the 73-year-old director, Claire Denis, who has never met an actor she didn’t want to photograph in panting, painstaking close-up.

There is Pattinson, with his delicate features offset by those plank-like eyebrows; the young newcomer Ewan Mitchell, all jutting chin and flat, defiant face, as the thuggish Ettore; the pale, elfin Mia Goth as Boyse, one of several women forced into a reproductive experiment by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the doctor trying to cultivate a foetus that will survive childbirth. Working for the first time in English, Denis (with her regular co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau) is happy to flirt with the preposterous. Binoche is at the centre of the most outré scene, which takes place inside “the Box”, a booth that provides the user with instant and frenzied sexual gratification. Imagine a souped-up version of the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, or the Tardis with a dildo.

Binoche copes admirably with the script’s maddest lines, announcing “Douching is for amateurs!” or declaring to Boyse mid-gynaecological exam: “Not so easy to get inside you, is it?” But there’s plenty to go around. Monte tells Dibs: “You’re the shaman of sperm.” Tcherny (André Benjamin) sighs, “I’m tired as a bat,” while Monte claims: “I was raised by my dog.” In fact, dogs feature heavily throughout. Monte’s terrible crime turns out to be connected to one, while another space vessel is populated solely by ill-tempered mutts. It’s no coincidence that man’s best friend should play a recurrent role in a film so concerned with loneliness. Monte at least has Willow (“She’s mine, I’m hers”) but other characters try to connect through brute force, or when one of the participants is incapacitated. Tending to a colleague who has suffered a stroke, Dibs says: “I’ve got no one to help me like I’m helping you.” An abyss more terrifying than space seems to open up before her.

High Life contains many of the elements that make Denis’s films so incantatory, including a score by Stuart Staples which amounts to a kind of churning melodic reverb. The picture’s necessary interiority, though, starves it of the oxygen of previous works such as Beau Travail or White Material, where the interaction of bodies and landscapes generates a unique charge. In working without exteriors, Denis sacrifices a crucial component of her range. The ship’s on-board computer warns of a “Connection Error” and that’s partly the film’s problem. For all its intimacy, it says less about the isolating expanse of mortality than it does about the limitations of a Claire Denis movie shot entirely in the studio. 

“High Life” is in cinemas from 10 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes