If there’s a single design choice that could give us the key to Claire Denis’ challenging, esoteric science fiction High Life – her first English-language film – it’s the space suits. Invariably, the suits found on the starships Enterprise and Nostromo are sterile things made of sleek, impermeable material, shielding their wearers from the void.
The suits in High Life, however, serve a different narrative function. Made of thick cotton and coloured muddy beige, they have an organic, vulnerable feel. In contrast to the sleek futurism of other sci-fi films, the suits that Denis’ crew wear could have come from some forgotten future of the 1970s. It’s a design choice that informs the aesthetics of the film and its central theme of tactile, embodied experience.
Think of iconic cinematic sci-fi and the first film to come to mind is invariably 2001: A Space Odyssey with its sleek white interiors, HAL’s glowing red-eye and the cold, infinite void of space. And while High Life pays its due homage to Kubrick as surely all films set in space must, there is an all-too-rare viscera to Denis’ vision of space.
The premise is that a crew consisting entirely of convicts has been sent on a years’ long mission to draw energy from a black hole, travelling at 99% the speed of light, with the fraudulent promise of returning home one day. It doesn’t hold up under much logical scrutiny – why waste resources exiling such individuals, and how are they to retrieve the energy back to Earth if they are never to return?
But High Life is not concerned with the low-hanging fruit of rigid plot logic – what Denis’ film is concerned with is the visceral bodily experience and the claustrophobia of living in the middle of the infinite. If outer space is a cold and vast external of nothingness, then there is also an interior space of bodies, living, writhing, and fluid.
Outer and inner spaces gradually become indistinguishable as the ship’s crew unravel, told in retrospect as the sole survivor, Monte (Robert Pattinson), raises a baby left behind by his dead crew. His convict has the look of a psychotic, though he is arguably the least unhinged of his motley crew. Ostensibly caring for them is the ship’s Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), an unravelling knotwork of eroticism, obsession and twisted maternal desire. Binoche commands the film’s frequent journeys into the surreal, chief among them an astonishing sequence in a sex-fantasy chamber, itself a bizarre hybrid of technology and bodily fluids.
High Life’s ending may leave some feeling dissatisfied, as will its slow pace and strange, psychological bent. But this is not the cold, procedural logic of the sci-fi of Interstellar, nor is it the whiz-bang of the recent Star Trek films. Instead, Denis has crafted an astonishing and original film, one to be pondered over, reflected upon and ingested. As surely as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and this Alex Garland’s Annihilation, High Life leads the frontier of a new science fiction of the body.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell