Although a filmmaker of Claire Denis’s titanic stature deserves more than a crude x-meets-y typeline to describe her majestic “High Life;” a characteristic foray into feral sexuality, shame, and depression, it is at the same time almost impossible to avoid parallels in a career as singular as her own. Does one highlight how its ennui-inducing daily rhythms and acres of flesh evoke the masculine purgatory of Beau Travail? Or perhaps how its unrelenting and oppressive brutality puts it in line with her blood-soaked 2001 primal scream Trouble Every Day (an effort so extreme that it made her name synonymous with the burgeoning New French Extremity moniker, even when it would be a stretch to apply the label to any of her previous work)? While the film does occupy the more provocative space staked out by the latter, and her underrated “Bastards,” for that matter, its emphasis of ritual — grinding the human spirit against a dulled belt-sander day after day — identifies it more clearly as Travail’s spiritual successor, with the vacuum of space standing in for scorched desert landscapes.
High Life is told in typically-elliptical Denis fashion, but the main thrust of the picture is about a space station full of death row inmates and life prisoners sent on a suicide mission to harvest renewable energy from a black hole. Some see it as an honor, others a source of redemption, others a mere change in scenery. No matter the perspective, these so-called dregs of humanity are breathing lab experiments, determined by the state apparatus to only be redeemable in sacrifice. While the space station is none too sparing in evoking the details of corrective punishment (dripping pipes and mildewy crevices stick out yet blend seamlessly into the setting’s floating purgatory), the bewildering unease of High Life arises most from the sensation of awaiting the inevitable on the far side of the point of no return. Prisoners aboard the unnamed station have individual endeavors and desires (most notably Juliette Binoche’s Doctor Dibs, a child-murderer who has displaced her desire for a surrogate family into a series of sick fertility experiments on the inmates), but all of their erstwhile fascinations are underscored by a sense of futility in the face of a foregone fate.
It comes as no surprise, then, when High Life’s final act is marked by a series of suicides — some traumatic, others poetic (in an almost unspeakably sad sequence, a character who misses earth chooses its closest facsimile as his self-appointed grave site). What does come as a surprise is its suggestion of life anew, however unlikely, in a release from the churning gears of the state. It’s a lovely coda in a film awash in blood and dirt and cum, and a suggestion that beauty and opportunity can sprout from the seeds of even the most dehumanizing indignity.