Not Quite Horror is back from the dead. After resting for a bit in its kind-of creepy but still-normal-enough-to-pass-as-regular crypt, our biweekly series returns. In each installment, Joey Keogh will argue why a chosen film not generally classified as horror actually exhibits many of the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Claire Denis’ darkly ominous space shocker, High Life.
High Life, the latest offering from French auteur Claire Denis, isn’t a movie that’s easily categorized. It doesn’t follow the basic rules of story-telling, defying the typical linear narrative structure to jump backwards and forwards in time at will while refusing to explain itself or its greater meaning. There’s virtually no exposition, save for a few pseudo-scientific screeds from mad scientist, and Denis regular, Juliette Binoche. Oh, and it’s set aboard a space ship on a suicidal mission towards a black hole.
Related: Not Quite Horror: Wind River (2017)
Robert Pattinson, who’s spent his post-Twilight years proving he can act about as well as co-star Kristen Stewart while making choices she’d deem too safe, stars as lonely astronaut/convicted criminal Monte. When we meet him, aboard a cavernous, labyrinthine spaceship whose general layout, one assumes intentionally, never quite becomes clear, he’s accompanied only by a baby. This, we learn, is his daughter, born aboard this vessel and destined for the same fate as her hapless father.
Denis fills in the gaps in Monte’s story, at least to some extent, via flashbacks to a time when the ship was loaded with cool character actors including Mia Goth (so fantastic in the hugely underrated A Cure For Wellness), whose presence alone signifies things are about to get weird, the aforementioned Binoche, sporting a Kim Kardashian-length ponytail as the scientist tasked with making them all do…something nefarious, and André Benjamin of Outkast fame.
Given this is a mostly single location chamber piece, and Monte is clearly alone in the present/future (he’s introduced quite literally prepping dead bodies to be released into the vacuum of space), obviously things aren’t going to go to plan. If indeed there even is a plan. There’s an Old Testament twist to the proceedings as it’s gradually revealed the passengers/inmates are expected to repopulate their group (via a darkened room known as the F**k Box that’s exactly as terrifying as you’d imagine) over the years, since none of them are going to make it to the black hole alive.
This leads to truly one of the most quietly disturbing sequences in a movie this year as Binoche’s doctor casually rapes Monte while he’s sleeping then scrapes his seed off her inner thigh and uses it to create the baby he’s now caring for in the future. There’s also some business with Goth’s character being artificially inseminated against her will and weeping over the milk leaking out of her breasts and, in a film loaded with such foreboding, these moments tend to sit even worse after the fact.
The meaning behind High Life‘s title could almost be seen as two-fold, given the film makes you feel as though you’re coming down off a particularly nasty strain of psychedelics. It’s hypnotically engaging, its pace deliberate and disconcerting in equal measure. The denouement, naturally left up to the audience to decipher, somehow manages to suggest both hope for the future and a total lack thereof. Denis presents this story of the triumph of the human will and meticulously rips it apart at each juncture.
The French filmmaker co-wrote her deliberately sparse script with Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox and Nick Laird, while cinematographer Yorick Le Saux ensures the location feels both claustrophobic and luminously spacious. Meanwhile, Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks) provides a creepy, ominous score to underline all of the oddities occurring onscreen. It’s a diabolical combo, at once lulling us into a kind of dreamless sleep, as though we are floating in deep space ourselves, while also laying the tracks for the horrors to come.
See Also: Not Quite Horror: Hold The Dark (2018)
Denis isn’t trying to conjure any kind of obvious meaning here, or to even make a point about the nature of existence or basic humanity. It’s all about mood and, in that, High Life succeeds in making you feel unbearably uncomfortable while still, always, captivated and appreciative of the horrific beauty of what’s onscreen. There may not be a clear-cut plot to clutch on to, or even a discussion to partake in afterwards, but that feeling cannot be avoided. It will stay with you.