If there is a sci-fi movie genre about passengers in an imperiled deep-space vessel — films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Solaris” (1971), “Alien” (1979 , even “WALL-E (2008)” — the dreary, sordid, opaque, despairing, and ironically titled “High Life” might put an end to it. The French auteur Claire Denis (“Beau Travail,” 1999, “Trouble Every Day,” 2011) directed.
Never has space travel looked so sordid, debased, mean-spirited, or crummy, qualities intensified by the (intentionally) ugliest cinematography ever — except for the close-ups of faces — from the great Agnès Godard, Denis’s longtime collaborator. But seldom has space travel served as such an eloquent and tragic representation of the human condition.
The interior of the spaceship looks like a ransacked Motel 6 (the ship’s name boldly blazoned on the exterior is “7”); the outside looks like something a kid might build in his backyard out of cardboard and trash; and the inhabitants, all death row inmates given a new lease on life by volunteering for a dangerous mission, are not people you’d like to hang around with for nearly two hours, let alone for years of spartan confinement. You’d be better off on the convict planet in David Fincher’s “Alien 3” (1992).
Their ostensible mission is to travel to a black hole and, by sending a manned shuttle into it, somehow tap into its limitless energy to provide for the needs of the home planet, now apparently on the verge of extinction. This seems problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that because of Einsteinian physics by the time they reach their destination hundreds of years will have passed on Earth and everyone there will have been long dead.
Nonetheless, they sail on, a microcosm of the human condition, dominated by the deranged Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a physician obsessed with reproductive experiments, extracting sperm samples from the male passengers to inseminate the females in hopes of having a baby born in space. This is a juicy role for Binoche. She devolves into a gorgon-like succubus, in one scene naked and writhing with her waist-length hair swinging as she engages with the Box, an orgasmic device that apparently enacts the user’s fantasies. Hers looks like a combination of Jennifer Connelly’s final scene in “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) and the ordeal of Barbara Hershey in “The Entity” (1982), all ending with white liquid leaking onto the floor.
But mostly Dr. Dibs focuses on her perverse mission, and finally she succeeds. She rapes the sleeping Monte (Robert Pattinson ), who has refused to offer his semen samples (like Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s 1964 doomsday satire “Doctor Strangelove,” he respects his precious bodily fluids) and uses his ejaculate to impregnate the sleeping Boyse (Mia Goth). The result is an adorable baby girl, whom we see at the beginning of the film, tended to by Monte, in one of the film’s few tender moments.
That scene begins the film because, like time itself, Denis’s chronology is relative. The narrative skips about, characters are murdered, sicken and die, or commit suicide, and then return again in elliptical scenes in which they form tenuous relationships, show weakness, empathy, savagery, and courage, with an occasional flashback to a serene and sinister terrestrial past. It ends like most lives, poised before inevitable death, buoyed by love and irrational hope.
Directed by Claire Denis . Written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau . Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth , and André Benjamin. At Kendall Square, Boston Common. 113 minutes . Rated R (for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for language).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.