Sex is a curse in Claire Denis’ High Life—a burden to bear, an urge to satisfy, a sticky means to a reproductive end.
This is bleak stuff, far removed from the ecstatic, carefree connection chronicled in Denis’ Friday Night. Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, one of a handful of convicts who have volunteered to be launched into space as part of an experimental journey across the galaxy. As they hurtle through the stars, the doctor on board (Juliette Binoche), who is also a convicted criminal, subjects them to reproductive tests in hopes of generating a space-born baby. Sex surfaces more carnally as well, mostly in a “f&*$ box”—something like a big telephone booth, where the passengers enter alone to technologically indulge their fantasies. Binoche’s Dibs comes out looking traumatized, not fulfilled, as Monte observes. To avoid all this, he’s taken a vow of chastity, which seemingly saves him from the misery—until the taboo twist of the film’s final act.
Binoche gives a wild performance. Dibs describes herself as a witch, and I can’t think of a better analogy. A sensual sorceress with cascading black hair, she summons strange life from the concoctions in her lab, using violence and deception when necessary. Pattinson shows warmth and life when the movie needs him to (I won’t spoil why), but in this central section he lets those glassy eyes go dead in a disturbing way. If Monte is a monk, as one character calls him, he’s not of the peaceful variety.
Anyone who’s seen Beau Travail knows that Denis is a master of color. Here she uses the ship’s lighting system to shift between cool, medical blues and warm, arousing reds. And in the “garden,” a lush conservatory space where the crew grows their food, the deep greens evoke a primordial Eden, a place where nakedness carried no shame. The goings-on in High Life—including two instances of sexual assault—are like a crash landing into the Fall.
This biblical imagery, along with the way Denis and editor Guy Lecorne interweave Monte’s earthly memories, recalls the spiritual, science-fiction aesthetic of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially Solaris. Yet the exterior scenes are more Kubrickian—stark, silent tableaus that paint human effort as meaningless amidst the vastness of the universe. Sex isn’t exactly meaningless in High Life, but it is reduced to either an animal urge or a clinical necessity. Any hint of love is swallowed up by the movie’s black hole.