'High Life' ★★1/2
The cutely titled outer-space drama “High Life” offers three things that the 72-year-old French filmmaker Claire Denis has never embraced before: (1) a spaceship setting; (2) English-language dialogue; and (3) a Hollywood star (Robert Pattinson). But even ardent Pattinson fandom won't be enough to convert mainstream American audiences to the art-house director's dark outlook and elliptical style.
Solitude is a frequent Denis theme, so followers of her work won't be surprised that this intriguing yet frustrating movie opens with Monte, played by a committed and compelling Pattinson, alone on a junky spacecraft. Well, almost alone. Baby talk heard over the intercom clues us in that somewhere else on the ship is a toddler (Scarlett Lindsey). She's named Willow, perhaps in homage to the forest briefly glimpsed in flashbacks.
Eventually and fragmentarily, the story will rewind to explain how Monte and Willow came to be where they are – and where everyone else went. (Yes, there were others.) After several minutes, the movie's title appears over a stunning tableau that's almost worth the price of admission. The scene, like much of the rest of the movie, is both beautiful and grim.
Monte, we will come to learn, is no brilliant scientist or intergalactic hero. Rather, he's an ex-con, as were the other people who used to share the boxy craft with him. They were dispatched to space under the pretext of finding a way to generate energy for Earth from black holes. In actuality, the astronauts are the subjects of experiments in zero-gravity fertility, overseen by the demanding Dibs (Juliette Binoche, star of Denis's previous film “Let the Sunshine In”).
Dibs collects semen from all the men except Monte, who refuses. (These human guinea pigs are played by Lars Eidinger, Ewan Mitchell and Outkast's André Benjamin). She then attempts to impregnate the women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo), some of whom are more cooperative than others. Unsurprisingly, the surliest one turns out to be Willow's mom.
In addition to the aforementioned bodily fluid, blood, urine and breast milk also flow in “High Times,” each liquid meant to represent the messiness of human life amid the sterility of space. The contrast of such images is powerful but not profound. Denis is making casual observations, not a coherent argument.
In an epilogue, we're shown a teenage Willow (Jessie Ross) as she and her father encounter another example of human cruelty. The culmination of their journey, however, is simply a second opportunity to look at a bleakly lovely vista.
Denis has acknowledged several influences: Stanley Kubrick – both “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” – as well as Andrei Tarkovsky's “Solaris” and “Stalker.” Some viewers may also be reminded of Jean-Luc Godard's “Alphaville,” which evoked the future with even fewer special effects than “High Life” or “Never Let Me Go,” another tale of attractive young people subjugated by a distant medical bureaucracy. As the director has noted, this stratospheric drama has the grimy intimacy of a prison flick.
Even in English, two things in “High Life” don't translate: Screenwriters Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, who delivered the original script in French, have left us with lines that are too stilted or flowery to be convincing when translated into a blunter language. The movie's other flaw is its Gallic grandiosity about sex. The spaceship even includes a masturbation chamber that recalls the slapstick Orgasmatron of Woody Allen's “Sleeper” – although its use here is much more explicit.
Denis's most memorable films, which include “Beau Travail” and “35 Shots of Rum,” navigate solitude and loss on their path to moments of joy. That does not happen in “High Life,” whose most amazing moments are never amazing enough to jar it out of its static orbit.
There is one bonus for Pattinson fans: The brooding score – written by Tindersticks frontman Stuart A. Staples, a longtime Denis collaborator – includes an end-credits tune sung by the “Twilight” star.