Director Claire Denis’ “High Life” is almost never silent. When there is no dialogue, there is a deluge of sound. The creaking of old machinery, the crying of an infant, the pulsing and drowning of Tindersticks’ experimental score. The bubbling waters of memory. The sound mixing of the movie should remind audiences why this aspect of filmmaking is considered an art form.
This sound design has many purposes, but two spring instantly to mind: to put audiences in a headspace of isolation first, then never-ending tension. The story opens on a man and a very young girl wandering the remains of what appears to be a broken-down space station. The film’s spiraling narrative goes back from here, explaining that this craft used to be a sort of experimental prison, using death row inmates for deep space experimentation. The main mysteries of the film, then, are the questions of what those experiments are for, how the child came to be, and how she and her guardian came to be the only survivors.
First, isolation. Denis has never made a science fiction film before, and it feels like some of this story could take place in a regular, earthbound prison. The genius of placing a prison in space, from a storytelling perspective, is that there is no hope. In a prison on earth, there is always a chance of release or escape. In space, there is nothing. Science fiction can glamorize the stars and the darkness of outer space, but here it is an ever-present and oppressive void and a reminder that there is nowhere to go.
If this sounds dark, that’s because the film is. This is not for the faint of heart. The film is often quiet, slow and purposeful, but it has a tendency to erupt into a cacophony of noise, rage and bodily fluids. If that sounds grotesque, that’s because the film often is. Proceed with caution.
This is a story about the darker side of humanity, and what happens when we are left to our own devices. It’s about power, sex, control and the hierarchy that emerges when violent and impulsive people are alone with each other for too long. If William Golding somehow saw this film, he’d quiver.
This brings us to tension. Everyone on the ship with a bomb waiting to go off. Denis is fascinated with the human body and the primal urges within it. Some of the prisoners can find ways to control these urges. Others can’t. None of them trust each other. Pressure builds, and the audience is kept on the edge of their seats, knowing that something terrible is bound to happen.
However, while terrible things make up a large part of the movie, there is some beauty to accompany it. The aforementioned man, Monte (played to near-but-not-quite perfection by Robert Pattinson, who has become quite the indie darling), may still be holding back violent instincts, but he cares desperately about this child. Their relationship, while sometimes strange and shaky, is the heart of the story.
The film’s visuals are almost always stunning, highlighting both the starkness of space and the beauty of anomalies in it. That sound design plays well with thoughtful, near still close-ups of both the natural and the artificial. Scenes in the ship’s greenhouse create a sensuous atmosphere in the equilibrium of sound and sight, drawing viewers in with hypnotic attention to detail.
Denis is constantly striking a balance between ferocious and thoughtful. Violence is present, but violent scenes usually go by quickly. Close shots of water dropping onto the floor, plant life blowing in the artificial wind, hands and feet tapping or gliding on or across metal is played slowly, almost meditative.
Denis wants you to feel how the inmates feel –– claustrophobic, taking the time to appreciate detail so you don’t lose your mind. If the film were to come at you all at once, you might lose yourself. The pacing is a virtue.
The film is a triumph, but it isn’t perfect. Performances are good, for the most part, but inconsistent. Denis doesn’t always work with an ensemble cast, and there is a tendency to forget about some players in favor of others. We see far too little of a weathered and gentle Andre Benjamin (yes, from OutKast) and perhaps a bit too much of the wild (and admittedly very good) Mia Goth. This is also Denis’ first foray into English-language cinema, and at times it’s hard to tell if the dialogue is stilted for stylistic reasons or due to some issues in translation.
Despite all this, “High Life” is a must-see for any who can stomach it (I stress once more that this is an explicit film on all fronts). It’s destined to be a small, boundary-pushing classic, one whose lack of clarity will infuriate some and enlighten others. It will be divisive, but so are all the best works of science fiction.