French filmmaker Claire Denis, one of the great living directors, has not lost her edge as she’s coasted into her 70s. Her latest film, “High Life,” which debuted last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now making it to theaters, is as stimulating and challenging as anything she made in the ’90s. But here, she’s taken us not to post-colonial West Africa or modern-day working-class France, but to the outer reaches of space to drift around an ominous black hole with Robert Pattinson and a baby, daring us to piece together how they ended up in such a precarious situation.
The only thing that’s immediately clear is that they are alone on this spaceship, which is hardly the most advanced-looking rig. Instead, it seems straight out of a 1970s film, and it is slowly and surely shutting down. Designed by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, it sets a perfectly unnerving mood, and every day Pattinson has to convince a low-tech computer that he is healthy enough and the ship is stable enough to justify systems running for another 24 hours. It’s an existential chore, to say the least.
Pattinson, as a character named Monte, doesn’t have much dialogue to work with. But there is a world of fear and anxiety in his eyes as he tries to tend to the needs of the creaky old ship and the adorable little infant in his care, soothing her through a speaker as he tries to fix something outside the ship. He has a few flashbacks to a moment in his youth on a gray fall day with a young girl and a dog near a desolate pond in the woods, but it will take some time for the film to reveal what happened then and why it’s relevant.
Although it is oddly peaceful and compelling watching Monte and this baby, Willow (played by Scarlett Lindsey), go through their routine, which requires some inventiveness to deal with some of her bodily functions, eventually you start to itch for the why and the how and Denis doesn’t disappoint with her patient reveals. First, you realize, there were other crew members on board, but they’ve all died. Then things get even weirder – just take a peek at the rating description and you’ll start to see why; however, it certainly doesn’t compare to the visceral horror of watching much of that transpire.
It seems a little strange that a Denis movie might contain spoilers, but it also feels wrong to describe in detail what happened before Monte and Willow were the only ones left. Suffice it say that Monte was part of a strange program with inmates, all testy and violent and withdrawn in their own way, who find themselves under the watch and experimentation of Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, a witchy, serious and haunting on-board physician with some interesting sexual preferences.
This kind of moviegoing experience is a full-body one and totally transfixing from start to finish, but it’s also maddeningly confounding, leaving the audience always a few steps behind in discovering and integrating into this bleak little micro-society. I’m still not entirely sure what it all adds up to, but it is provocative, difficult and bleak and leaves you with a precise feeling of despair and aloneness – just like the best of the space independents do.