One would suspect going into outer space with French filmmaker Claire Denis, the woman behind “Beau Travail” and last year’s “Let the Sun Shine In,” would be trippy — but, boy, that’s understating the mind-bending experience of “High Life.”
The first thing Denis shows us is a toddler talking animatedly to an unseen male voice. The voice belongs to Monte (Robert Pattinson), and he’s not in the room. He’s outside, on a space walk, making repairs to what we now know is a spacecraft. Monte comes inside, through the airlock, and tends to the now-crying child, Willow.
Monte and Willow — played as a baby by Scarlett Lindsey, and as a preteen by Jessie Ross — are the only people alive onboard the rather poorly maintained vessel. Monte maintains the water recirculating system, tends to the crops in the greenhouse, and files a daily report with the ship’s computer, which guarantees another day of life support.
Denis and her co-writers, Jean-Pol Fargeau and Goeff Cox, eventually show us how Monte and Willow got to this point. Without giving away too much, we learn that Monte was doing life in prison, one of several who signed on for this dangerous deep-space mission. (André Benjamin and Mia Goth are among Monte’s fellow inmates-turned-space travelers.) Overseeing the mission is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is conducting medical experiments without the crew’s knowledge, and who may be crazier than anyone else on board.
The lengths — or, if this isn’t your jam, the depths — that Denis and Binoche take Dibs’ madness are fascinating, and often rather disturbing. Denis seems to be taking the old themes about how the isolation space travel will drive people crazy, and turning on their head. In Denis’ view, what happens to someone in space depends on what they bring with them.
The devolution of Dibs’ treatment of the inmates — and the explanation for Willow’s existence — gets rough and a bit predictable outside of Dibs’ strange behavior. What’s far more interesting in “High Life” is Pattinson’s quietly intense portrayal of Monte, wading through the insanity around him to find an island of peace and redemption as Willow’s guardian.
Opened April 5 in select cities; opens Friday, April 19, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for language. Running time: 113 minutes.