I’m sure there are all kinds of space movies I haven’t seen, but the big famous ones have certain patterns. You know it well: something goes haywire with the noble astronaut’s mission, then there’s a desperate, spine-tingling journey to stay alive amidst malfunctioning equipment, and all the while, one lodestar is guiding our heroes: Can they make it back home to Earth? To safety and family and love?
I will tell you almost nothing about filmmaker Claire Denis’ (Let the Sunshine In, 35 Shots of Rum) new space-drama High Life, because I don’t want to spoil the wild plot and magnificent surprises. But I will tell you definitively, that space-movie plot I mentioned above – that is not this movie. Not at the beginning, not in the middle, and not at the end.
The first shot of High Life is beautiful; the camera pans slowly over the vegetables, foliage, and dirt within a lush garden – but we soon find out that garden is housed within a strangely quiet spacecraft.
(Sidenote: Denis confided to the media at a press conference at the New York Film Festival that that garden was incredibly significant to her. She always knew, even years before shooting, that it was going to open the film. I absolutely loved hearing this, and it makes sense that the garden was such a stirring image to her. It’s a vision of life where it shouldn’t logically exist. Could anything be more striking?)
Shortly thereafter, we hear the cries of a baby, and we meet Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) who whines alone in a makeshift playpen while Monte (Robert Pattinson, Good Time, the Twilight series) floats calmly outside the craft, tightening bolts on a metal plate and reassuring her gently through a two-way radio system that he’s piped into his helmet.
As if just the man, the baby, and the garden aren’t enough to dissect, the movie is relentless in its twists, its captivating performances, and its overall eerie script. The narrative jumps both backward and forward in time, giving us piecemeal who this man is, why there’s a baby aboard the spaceship, where they are going, and why. None of it is by the book – from its exploration of human violence and sexuality, to the dreamlike candor with which the characters speak. (Denis wrote originally in her native French, and later worked with a team to morph it into English because according to her – hilariously – “there was no way people in [a] space [movie] could speak French!”)
Each sequence and element is richly layered, atmospheric, and felt as if creepy poison ivy was winding its way around my leg. Most especially, the music by Stuart Staples (longtime collaborator of Denis) is haunting and memorable, and works in tandem with spot-on lighting and costumes in a way that really made me feel like I was on the ship with these characters – who, I might add, are portrayed robustly by Pattinson, the magnificent Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In, Ghost in the Shell), and others.
As a fair warning, it isn’t a movie that made me smile. I had my “worried” face on for most of it, and there were moments so disturbing and horrifying that I wanted to look away or cover my face. But as the newest gem in the crown of such an acclaimed, veteran director (and her first totally English-language film to boot!) I was game to weather the bizarre storm, and I’m glad I did.
Don’t come to High Life for action, romance, or even sci-fi. Don’t come to see humankind’s “conquest of space.” You won’t find it. This one isn’t about going home, about a hero barely escaping with her life. Although it’s certainly about life – just not in any way you’d expect.
Check out the teaser trailer below!