*. High Life is the first English-language film by director Claire Denis, and I have to say up front that I think something was lost in translation. The script, which was apparently just an outline with little dialogue, was originally written in French but had to be translated because Denis couldn’t imagine people speaking French in space. So that may explain the sense I had of something not making it all the way through.
*. Beginning with the title. High because we’re in space and Life because the doctor in charge of the mission is trying to make babies up there. But who speaks of space as being “high”? It has no up or down. And when we say “life” do we first think of the nuts and bolts of reproduction? High Life sounds like some stoner comedy, and I’m not sure it wasn’t at some point. (A quick check and it turns out I’m right. High Life was the name of a 2009 American film about junkies robbing an ATM.)
*. That title, by the way, doesn’t appear until 17:36. And there are no other opening credits. Oh, come on.
*. The title is only one bit of the awkwardness that’s felt here though. Nothing about the dialogue feels really natural. And there are moments that are downright weird. What does it mean when Dibs (the doctor, played by Juliette Binoche) is accused of having a “plastic pussy”? Beats me, but then I’m not as hip as I used to be. I wasn’t even sure if something was getting scrambled in the following quote from Denis about what the movie’s theme was: “The film is about sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. Sexuality is about fluids. As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it’s all about fluids – blood, sperm, etc. I thought if I wanted that fluid subtext to work, we had to reduce the sex act to masturbation. I forbade myself any naked scenes. No erect cocks, no gaping pussies. We did it another way – High Life speaks only of desire and of fluids.”
*. So then, desire and fluids it is. Hydraulics, if you will. There’s a story, but as Agata Buzek says in the “making of” featurette included with the DVD, “I don’t think the story is the important thing.” A bunch of death-row inmates is sent into space on what looks like a shipping container to harvest the energy from a black hole. They’re an international, multiethnic bunch, including Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth. Binoche appears to be the captain, but it’s not clear if she isn’t another convict as well, or how she is maintaining her authority.
*. If the black hole is the ship’s main mission, it’s not something Dibs appears interested in at all. Instead, she’s into running some kind of breeding experiment, becoming a “shaman of sperm” while riding some weird kind of furry sex contraption that looks like something David Cronenberg dreamed up. It’s located in what the crew call the “fuck box,” but we know from Sleeper as the Orgasmatron. For some reason it also leaks fluids post-climax. It’s all very weird.
*. Pattinson’s character, named Monte, doesn’t want to play any of these semen games. He wants to remain master of his domain. Like General Jack D. Ripper, he will be with a woman, but withhold his essence. He’s known on board as Mr. Blue Nuts. He’s gone into monk mode. He’s accepted this mission as a no-fap challenge. Do I need to say more? Because I’m running out of ways of describing this sigma edgelord.
*. Stooping to the use of some date-rape drugs, Dibs finally gets a sample from Monte and makes a baby with the use of Mia Goth’s womb. Then the mission sort of goes to hell and everyone dies but Monte and his daughter, Willow. They arrive at the black hole and decide to check it out. The end.
*. It looks good. It moves very slowly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pattinson has to do most of the heavy lifting but he just projects as blank, like he’s on some kind of tranquilizers throughout. I’m still not sure there’s much to him, but I do appreciate his choice of difficult roles. There may be some sort of theme being developed but I can’t figure out what it might be. Is it a feminist film with something to mutter about female bodies and birth? Is it concerned with prison reform? Environmental issues? The garden made me think of Silent Running but apparently Denis saw it as an homage to Solaris.
*. It does have a couple of moments — the sex machine, Mia Goth turning into spaghetti in the first black hole — but they’re not spectacular and the rest of it feels like a long deep-space haul indeed. And the ending just sort of fizzles out. If you’re in the mood for a very quiet change of pace then you might find it hits the spot, but I think the more likely response will be a confused shrug.