Dir Claire Denis. Germany/France/US/UK/Poland. 2018. 110 mins
Women filmmakers are fascinated by Sci-Fi. Back in 1995 there was Kathryn Bigelow with Strange Days, Mimi Leder followed with Deep Impact, and Karyn Kusama with Aeon Flux (2005. Meanwhile in Europe, Lucile Hadzihalilovic brought us Evolution (2015) and Jessica Hausner has made this year’s Cannes Competition line-up with her thriller Little Joe (2019).
Claire Denis’s first foray into science-fiction is a cold, violent, enigmatic affair. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind and so does Solaris but this is more brutal and provocative despite its lush colour spectrum and virtuoso visuals that come courtesy of Yorick Le Saux. Human desire and pent up sexual energy is expressed with a baleful malevolence that occasionally erupts into livid outbursts. But many will struggle to comprehend its fractured narrative, arcane motives and curious timeframe, despite it being Denis’ first English language feature, you come away none the wiser but bemused and enriched and by its visual allure.
Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche anchor an eclectic cast which includes Agata Buzek (The Innocents). He plays the most sympathetic, accessible character – Monte – who is stranded in a spaceship after a gruelling mission that has left him with a gurgling baby daughter who needs to be cared for. And this he does well. The spaceship has a lush vegetable garden, the only natural environment to speak of, with juicy courgettes and cabbages kept alive by an ambient mist.
There is a strange sense of danger brought on by the feeling that something tragic has happened leaving the rest of the crew to stifle and repress their bitter resentment and lightly veiled hostility towards one another, made worse by their claustrophobic surroundings. Flashbacks vaguely allude to this sense of unsettlement but no explanation is offered.
The space ship is bound on a journey to reach the nearest black hole to planet Earth. Binoche plays Dibs and has clearly asked Denis to give her a complex and foxy role and she excels with her black glossy tresses and zip-up uniform that reveals plenty of cleavage. There’s an odd scene where she mounts a steel phallus, having careful slipped a Durex over it, her muscular body girating in feral pleasure. She seems to be conducting some sort of sexual reproduction experiment on the crew, and is called “the shaman of semen” as she’s tasked with injecting the women with semen produced by the men in a cubicle. None of them seems very keen on the idea or why it’s being done in the confines of the spaceship. She even forces the slumbering Monte to capitulate by mounting him and then extracting the fluid with a large pipette and injecting it into another sleeping inmate.
As Monte gets rid of a growing mound of corpses, we realise that the crew’s mutual hostility has actually ended in tears. As he pushes the bodies out of the craft the sound of silence is one of the gratifying high points, courtesy of Stuart Staples (Minute Bodies). The scenes in Space are straight out of 2001, or even Gravity (2013). Robert Pattinson and his child who eventually reaches puberty during are the only sympathetic characters in a film which is clever and daring but ultimately leaves you empty. Such is Space. MT
HIGH LIFE IS ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 17 MAY 2019