Here’s a sample scene from the new R-rated science fiction film High Life: Juliette Binoche, the nice French lady who won an Oscar for The English Patient, has just mounted a drugged Robert Pattinson, ridden him until he’s ejaculated, and crouched down to extrude the semen from her vagina, and she’s now racing down a corridor to impregnate a sleeping Mia Goth. On a spaceship. How is this happening? The answer is Claire Denis.
The 73-year-old Denis, who has never had anything you could remotely call a hit in the United States, is one of the art-house circuit’s most revered directors. Raised in numerous African nations, she returned to France at the age of 14, studied film, and worked as an assistant to many greats including Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras, and Wim Wenders. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp one), was set in Cameroon and drew from her experience as a civil servant’s daughter. The theme of her filmography might be unpredictability and an aversion to conforming to the typical beats of a given genre. High Life proves that science fiction can still be sent on an irregular orbit with someone idiosyncratic at the helm.
Denis’ output is all over the map. Beau Travail (1999) is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd set among French Foreign Legion soldiers in Djibouti, and features long stretches of men engaged in physical training exercises in gorgeous locations. Trouble Every Day (2000) is her spin on a horror movie with sexed-up cannibals (or vampires, maybe) devouring victims between scenes of marital frailty (Vincent Gallo plays a doctor with communication issues). Friday Night (2002) is something of a date movie, with stirred-in passages of existential despair in bad Parisian traffic. Bastards (2013) kicks off like a juicy crime story, then sinks into moody, alarming scenes of violence. 2017’s Let the Sunshine In (also starring Binoche) was a world-weary, but still très drôle, look at late-in-life romance. The only thing you can predict about Denis’ movies is that you can’t predict them. And now comes High Life.
Unlike the term “elevated horror,” the two words in the English language that most quickly give genre buffs hives, “art-house horror” is an inelegant phrase that still, basically, works. You know it when you see it. You can look to recent films like Upstream Color or Cloud Atlas or go further back to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Stalker, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are movies with a mandate to take you on a trip, to get you in the zone. In the case of Stalker, this is, in fact, the actual plot.
But for a movie to have resonance, as High Life does, it can’t just be a psychedelic freakout. You can go to Laser Floyd at a planetarium for that. Denis’ film, like the best sci-fi, has its share of social commentary. This isn’t just a movie about faster-than-light travel; it’s about prison reform! In addition to rich characters in extraordinary situations, High Life is literally dripping in rarely shown screen images that are ubiquitous in life: the aforementioned semen, as well as breast milk, menstrual blood, urine, and feces (these two are reconstituted into food and drink), plus various fluids that ooze from ship systems. The universe-crossing vessel includes a “fuckbox,” the stripped-down, tactile version of Star Trek’s holodeck devoted exclusively to letting off libidinal steam.
High Life’s story jumps all over the timeline. This makes sense for a ship that is, at least partially, devoted to the exploration of black holes. We begin in confusion: Robert Pattinson is alone on an ugly, not-very-futuristic-looking ship (the computer screen runs DOS!) with an infant. We bounce forward and back, even visiting Earth for a quick, inelegant “interview” with an expert who explains that some prisoners were shot up into space to run experiments, unaware that they will never return. This seems like it would be a key plot point, but it isn’t addressed much. No one is getting out of this alive but, hey, isn’t that true for humans everywhere?
None of the main characters are likable, per se, but some are vile whereas Pattinson and André Benjamin’s character seem like criminals who have accepted their surroundings and would like to find redemption. Pattinson decides on clean living and avoids the fuckbox. They go through their medical tests, they grow plants, and once in a while, they look out at stars. Binoche’s Dr. Dibs (aka the “Shaman of Sperm”) is a criminal herself, placed in a position of power to study the conception and early life of infants in the high radiation of deep space. The prisoners/guinea pigs are vicious to one another, but they also gather in awe to watch (via a weirdly cheap-looking monitor) as one woman rides into a singularity and experiences what is actually termed spaghettification.
This sequence, even though it involves someone liquefying in a spacesuit, is one of the most beautiful moments you’ll see in a movie this year. It has something to do with the weirdness, yes, and the music by Denis’ frequent collaborator Stuart A. Staples and his band Tindersticks, but also the faces of doomed people scratching for hope despite knowing with absolute certainty that their situation allows for none. It’s a very confusing set of circumstances that leads to this scene — I’ve seen the movie twice and I’m not 100% sure of the motivation — but the human qualities leap out, especially considering the setting outside the reach of humanity. The fractured timeline adds confusion, which works well to have us empathize with a group of characters kept in a stupor and ignorant about the realities around them. To not fully get what’s happening is, in a much more important way, to truly get it. And that’s a risk that only a certain class of filmmaker is willing to take.
High Life has its critics. It’s slow, it’s weird, and it doesn’t explain itself. None of this is untrue. But it’s something we see very rarely, an expression of an auteur expressing herself in science fiction; something that, unfortunately, producers and distributors seem increasingly resistant to let happen. You may not love the ride, but you should at least take it and see.
High Life is now out in select theaters.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist, and elsewhere.