High Life is the English-language debut of French director Claire Denis, and it’s a difficult film to wrestle or grab onto, occasionally mistaking ambiguity for profundity. It’s also a true form of art and science fiction, with stark photography and elliptical structure highlighting the distant, lonely odyssey of life in space.
High Life follows a tanker carrying death-row inmates to the farthest reaches of our solar system (and beyond), for the purpose of only God knows what. Juliette Binoche is a doctor tasked with propagating the species via test tube babies and incubation, but she’s failing miserably and the rest of the crew are fed up with her mission. Making up the crew are Rob Pattinson, Mia Goth, and Andre Benjamin, among others. Pattinson’s quiet monk is a squirrelly gentleman from the South, labeled a criminal under dubious pretenses. He’s the only man on board refusing sperm or the seedy room built for self-gratification. His only goal is survival, but to what end? When does the journey end? Will it end? Half of the film is simply observing human behavior when people are forced to co-exist, in the vastness of space no less. Denis spares nothing and no one, offering up a brutal yet hopeful treatise on humanity, our capacity for both good and evil, often at the same time. More than that, High Life is plumbing the depths of human desire and procreation, pitting metal and flesh, mechanical and biological against one another. Perhaps that was the mission all along, the experiment of it all. Leaping back and forth in time, Denis places her audience at a remove, unable to connect with or invest in these sordid characters, beyond maybe Pattinson. His sympathetic past and empathetic future paint a man with love to give and nowhere to put it for now. There will be.
For moviegoers, there will be a light at the end of this dark tunnel, a song by Tindersticks with vocals by Rob himself. An elegy to humanity, “Willow” is so far the best song of the year in cinemas, a heartfelt and melancholic poem to our kids and our time in this wondrous, unforgiving world. Willow, in character and song, gives meaning to an elusive film.