Claire Denis' High Life may qualify as the most oblique contribution yet to the discourse around the #MeToo movement. It's about the ways men and women interact - sometimes harmoniously, sometimes fruitfully, sometimes viciously; be warned it earns its 18 certificate for scenes of strong sexual violence - and yet it takes place stratospheres above our heads, several decades in the future. The men and women it surveys are lost in space, drifting on a prison ship to which death row inmates are dispatched in order to reduce earthly overcrowding and serve as guinea pigs in experiments on the theme of repopulation. That the film intends to be a beam of light connecting the us of the present to the us of the future is evident from the fact this ship isn't some sleek, sterile vision sent from beyond our wildest dreams, rather a drab box, insulated with corrugated cardboard and plastic, and containing all the ambience of some piss-soaked stratum of a council tower block. As we dock, the only signs of life are the buff, bull-headed Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his toddling daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). Flashbacks reveal the ship was once very nearly as populous as the Earth below, and that there is a story to be pieced together here, but for starters, there is but this man and this girl; the question Denis floats before us is whether the pair represent some new hope, or just about the worst thing that could happen.
Given the film's doomy, oppressive air, the smart money would be on the latter. There are points in High Life's first half where it appears an oblique film even for the writer-director who gave us 2004's notoriously inscrutable The Intruder to have made, and the few puzzle pieces that do tessellate present an altogether bleak and joyless picture. (In case it wasn't already clear, we are light years away from the Guardians of the Galaxy.) One issue is that the film demands a lot of hard viewer work to teleport us fully aboard a place we wouldn't ordinarily want to be, surrounded by people it is - pre-existing crushes on R-Pattz aside - difficult to wholly warm to. Denis remains the flagbearer for a more experiential, non-linear form of cinema, which means that once again we are required to relinquish the guy ropes of plot. It was fun to find oneself stranded in the desert with the Foreign Legion of 1999's Beau Travail (and then to be present in the nightclub where Denis Lavant so memorably cut loose to Corona's "The Rhythm of the Night"); and there was something seductive, perhaps even erotic about the prospect of being caught up amid the Parisian traffic jams of 2002's Vendredi Soir. High Life, by contrast, obliges us to log two hours in the company of mumbly ne'er-do-wells reduced to the basest forms of existence, to fucking and fighting; at times, the film resembles an intergalactic Big Brother spin-off, with a mournful Tindersticks score offered by way of compensation for its terminal lack of humour.
The mood of dour desperation Denis evokes has evidently cast a spell on some - it is 2019, after all - but snap out of it, as I did around the halfway point, and what you see are free-floating setpieces, circled zero gravity-style by arresting blobs and gobbets of imagery. The film is reliant on an entirely standalone scene on a train - with Victor Banerjee as a concerned humanities professor - to let us know why these crumpled cosmonauts are where they are; yet even after floating alongside them for just shy of two hours, I'm still not sure who they are, save perhaps rough-hewn notches on the gender spectrum, victims, aggressors, and some of the points in between. The actors commit, do their best with Denis' muffed English-language dialogue (not a strong point, despite rumours of the involvement of poet-novelist Nick Laird) and get bits of it up and running. Pattinson, for one, locks down the Silent Running-like prologue: what keeps the baby-girl business just the right side of Athena-poster blandness is that his Monte is a hunk who could also be a brute, and more than likely a killer. (You sense Denis racing to get to him before Catherine Breillat could.) Still, while you buy the actor as the surprised father to a toddler, he's simply far too young in star years to be looking after a teenager, which means nothing Denis puts on screen during the film's final ascent into the great beyond can be as moving as the more lived-in (and, indeed, down-to-earth) father-daughter relationship in last month's Eighth Grade.
Juliette Binoche, in the especially ill-defined role of an interstellar Nurse Ratched put aboard to milk the male passengers, merely demonstrates that - not unlike Denis - she's around three-quarters less effective when working in English than she is when working in her native French; the bold gambles that might come off closer to home - such as the nurse's full-bodied writhing atop some kind of orgasmatron device - look a little silly, if not naff here, not helped by the application of the least realistic merkin of this or any other year. (Did the ship dock at a branch of Allied Carpets at some point?) If I remain unconvinced that swing-for-the-stars international coproductions like these are the most beneficial showcases for our auteur directors (elevated budgets aside), High Life's grotty, mend-and-make-do science fiction at least kept me interested. In its patchwork way, the film succeeds in creating its own universe, but be aware it's a cramped and circumscribed one, presided over by an aloof if not wholly indifferent creator. Maybe that's truer to where we now are physically and spiritually than, say, the religiose sci-fi of Spielberg or the bombastic sci-fi of a James Cameron or Roland Emmerich, with their consoling camaraderie and helpful divine interventions. Yet it wouldn't surprise me if seasoned arthouse observers preferred to cling to warming memories of John Carpenter's Dark Star - and it's certainly the first Claire Denis film to have sent me away with a hankering to watch some Red Dwarf.
High Life is now showing in selected cinemas.