For her first English-language film, Claire Denis brings her unique sensibility to the sci-fi genre, for a compelling film that's equal parts family melodrama, psychological thriller and dystopian horror
The oeuvre of Claire Denis is frequently a study in the limits of place – the apartment complex in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), the unnamed African country in White Material (2009) – and the curious relationships that emerge between the people who confine themselves there. Denis' latest, High Life, broadly continues this tradition if, ironically, in space, except here she trades questions of nationhood for concerns with humanity and its disposable classes.
Set aboard a drifting spacecraft, the film follows a crew of death row inmates on a fool’s errand to harvest energy from black holes. In fact, they can never go home, their communication with Earth cut off from the start of their voyage. Meanwhile, sex – almost always transgressive sex at that – dominates their daily lives, all save the celibate Monte (Pattinson) who evades the designs of de facto leader Dr Dibs (Binoche), who's obsessed with impregnating the women on the vessel and bringing the babies to term.
It’s clear Denis is less interested in the science that fuels her foray into sci-fi than what the boundless parameters that space entails: namely disconnect, loneliness and, most chillingly, the void. With a symphony of indelible, sensory imagery, she has crafted a tale equal parts family melodrama, psychological thriller and dystopian horror, complete with overarching Biblical iconography and implications. The Eden-esque garden where the sequestered convicts retreat for peace betrays a more uneasy significance by the film’s end.
For all the film’s epic ambitions, mapping intimacy in all its oddness and beauty remains, as with most of Denis' work, at the forefront of this project. The psychic effects of incarceration, too, give the film much of its emotional depth. Even with sometimes shoddy dialogue and frustratingly half-drawn supporting arcs, High Life is one of Denis’ most fascinating films.
Released 10 May by Thunderbird; certificate 18