It would be inadvisable to see “High Life” on a day when you also need to be able to think about anything else. Claire Denis’s latest work is that provocative, its exploration of human behavior under duress destined to infiltrate your every moment of solitude in the hours following a viewing.
Solitude itself plays a major role in “High Life,” the 72-year-old French director’s first film shot on a set and the rare one whose characters speak in English. They’re convicts who unknowingly traded one sort of death sentence for another, having volunteered to be sent on a space mission to harness energy from a black hole, seemingly in exchange for their freedom. One of the prisoners, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), takes advantage of their isolation and uses the others as guinea pigs in her attempts to incubate human life on the spaceship. The characters instead meet their demise one by one, until the only humans left are a jaded man named Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a young baby, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), who was born on the ship.
None of this constitutes a major spoiler, as the bulk of the plot is told through nonlinear flashbacks. In one such scene early on in “High Life,” Willow sits in front of a television playing footage of Earth. She cries, seemingly alone until we hear Monte try to calm her down through the spaceship’s loudspeaker. The decision to anchor the film with this particular relationship never changed, according to Denis: “It is something that you carry for a long time, you know?” she recently said of the idea behind the movie. “I always wanted to do a film like that.”
Willow serves as a blank slate onto whom the big questions are projected. What does a bond between two people look like when they’re an unshrinkable distance away from all other known forms of sentient life? Who does a young girl become when she is raised by a man given that responsibility by default? Monte struggles to raise a teenage Willow (Jessie Ross), who in turn struggles to understand the feelings of shame and fear that Monte learned on Earth. She doesn’t understand why he refuses to let her lie in bed next to him, or why he hesitates to investigate another spaceship they encounter en route to the black hole.
Critics largely agree that Pattinson, who pivoted to indie films after the “Twilight” saga, shines in the artfully shot “High Life.” He boomerangs between surly and tender as Monte, whom Denis initially imagined as “older and more defeated by life in the death row.” She wrote the script’s first drafts years ago, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. Pattinson ultimately landed the role after Denis realized he could bring something youthful and “very pure, like a Knight of the Round Table.”
“I wanted that in the end, very much so,” Denis said. “He is a great actor. I was completely mesmerized by his intelligence and his talent.”
Binoche wasn’t the director’s first choice, either. Patricia Arquette was initially cast as Dibs but scheduling conflicts led her to drop out of the project. Denis had just wrapped the romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In,” starring Binoche as a divorced painter, and felt the French actress would fit well into a “femme fatale in space” movie. (“The femme fatale being the baby, of course,” Denis joked.)
But it’s difficult to imagine “High Life” producing the same intoxicating effect on audiences without Pattinson and Binoche in the lead roles. They previously starred together in David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” and their electric chemistry supports the suppressed eroticism present throughout Denis’s film. Binoche’s intense standout scene takes place in a crudely named area of the spaceship reserved for self-pleasure. Monte, the sole prisoner who remains celibate, never uses that part of the ship and continually refuses Dibs’s advances, which eventually turn violent.
American audiences might fixate on the vast amount of sexual activity in “High Life,” not all of which is consensual. The harrowing depictions of assault are designed to startle. Denis, who frequently explores transgressions and their aftermath in her work, is not one to shy away from the taboo, a word we witness Monte teaching baby Willow. Peace can only be found in the spaceship’s dewy garden, where the wisest prisoner in the group, Tcherny (André “3000” Benjamin, whom Denis handpicked because of her love of OutKast), spends the bulk of his time.
The film’s opening scene takes place in this garden, which, without context, seems as though it could be on Earth. Denis and her co-writers, Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, purposefully kept “High Life” rooted in what they knew to be real. The physical challenges that generally arise with films set in space are nowhere to be found because, even with its mesmerizing depictions of space — including a black hole that looks remarkably similar to the real thing, thanks to cosmic consultant Aurélien Barrau — this isn’t what Denis would consider to be a sci-fi film.
“A sci-fi movie, it’s a sort of structure that creates other planets, other beings, things like that,” she said. “I was more interested in what we know.”
And what we know is that prolonged isolation can influence humans to behave as they normally wouldn’t. The prisoners increasingly disregard the societal rules that once governed their behavior as they stray farther from Earth, outwardly expressing their feelings of fear and futility. Feelings that, as we come to realize, could also lurk in the darkest corners of our own minds.