The films of Claire Denis rarely stray from the longing of strangers in a strange land, to borrow a 1961 sci-fi book title, whether she's dealing with French colonialists in West Africa, or West Africans emigres in Paris, or regions of no known geography. These are matters of the heart, and frontiers of intimacy fraught with taboo.
"Taboo" is one of the first words spoken in Claire Denis' singular, meticulous, confounding "High Life." Robert Pattinson's character says it to his year-old daughter, Willow, played by a natural-born actress named Scarlett Lindsey (the daughter of one of Pattinson's friends). He's referring to pee-pee and ca-ca, but very little in Denis' work sticks to a single, pat meaning. By film's end, we're in uncharted territory and the relationship, full of feeling and shot through with unspoken tensions, is not what it was. Destination? Unknown.
Pattinson's character, Monte, is a Death Row inmate who has been sent into deep space with a handful of other criminals, as part of an eight-year suicide mission to a black hole that may hold the key to Earth's survival. "High Life" doesn't care much about the mission, or the usual preoccupations of science fiction. It's a prison picture, a metaphoric daddy/daughter dance conducted in extremely tight spaces, and an elegantly weird amalgam of myths and allegories, ranging from the Garden of Eden to underworld queen Persephone, along with Euripides' Medea and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein. "High Life" also pays an acknowledged debt owed to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972) and "Stalker" (1979), in its ruminations on the elastic nothingness of time and inchoate desire. If that sounds like not your thing, there are other kinds of movies in the world.
Making this movie sound like a straightforward drama will only mislead. ("High Life" failed to attract much of an audience in France, Denis' home base.) As the extended flashbacks reveal, this ship of cons, a floating cargo bin bearing the lucky number "7," is ruled by what Denis has described as a "Queen Bee" figure, played by Juliette Binoche.
With an extravagantly lengthy braid and a festive, bright-orange wristwatch, Binoche is the wittily named Dr. Dibs, who has dibs on virtually everyone on board. She's an artificial insemination specialist and child-murderer (the Madea angle), conducting a series of semen-extraction procedures among the male prisoners.
Mission, besides the black hole: impregnate one of the women on board. Will life find a way?
Monte won't play along with these reindeer games. He declines, further, to use the only approved means of sexual gratification, a masturbation room (the movie has a somewhat more blunt name for it). In an already notorious scene, Binoche demonstrates its uses in private, writhing in ecstasy, surrounded by a void blacker than anything in the second-furthest-out science fiction film of the 21st Century, Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin."
Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau's script, adapted for English-language idioms by Geoff Cox, elides the big scenes and obvious time-shifts. The movie's full of sudden bursts of violence as well as precious bodily fluids, from waste water to blood to semen to the sprinkler system that regularly douses the ship's calming symbol of fertility, to the greenhouse we see in the opening shots. Andre Benjamin (of Outkast) plays a fellow inmate who isolates himself there, while the clinical experiments continue elsewhere.
Transfixing? A bore? I cannot answer for you. If think Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is as far out as you go with this sort of setting, this is not your thing. Undeniably, though, "High Life" is an organic achievement. (Denis has said, cheekily, that it's basically a movie about "recycling.") The production design, the shimmering, evocative Stuart Staples music, everything blends together. Denis has been working on this project for a decade or more, originally writing with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. Pattinson takes the end result in a different direction, but he's extremely effective. Not incidentally, Pattinson is our best current example of what a franchise-made star (thanks to "Twilight") can do to hone his craft by working with first-rate directors.
There are times when the time-games become frustratingly vague, and you don't know where you are, or when. Denis is hardly the first filmmaker, as she says, to "write ellipses," and to tell a story "with a piece missing." I've seen it twice now, and the second time felt more like the first time, if you know what I mean.
Now 73, Denis continues to probe her own tangle of feelings about love, family, corrosive intimacy, sexual violence and the power of myth.