One of the first words we hear in "High Life," Claire Denis' brutal, beautiful and entirely astonishing new movie, is "taboo." It's an odd word for a man to teach his child, but these are odd times for Monte (Robert Pattinson), who finds himself raising a baby girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) aboard a spaceship drifting millions of miles from Earth. "Taboo" – with its suggestions of the unspeakable and forbidden, of boundaries that have never been crossed – is an apt word for the horrors that have befallen this lonely vessel. It might also describe the endless possibilities lurking outside, in the furthest reaches of the unknown.
The unknown is a familiar hunting ground for the 72-year-old Denis, the most consistently enthralling filmmaker working in France and maybe the world. Her movies – several of which will screen as part of a Los Angeles mini-retrospective next week – are at once tactile and elusive, as oblique in structure as they are overpowering in atmosphere. In films like "White Material," her convulsive drama about a crumbling West African state, Denis has evinced a particular fascination with dramas of collision and rejection, the colonizer and the colonized: No one makes more uncompromising cinema about men and women forced to confront the reality that they have been interlopers all along.
And so there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Denis venture into outer space, following a group of characters on a foolhardy if involuntary mission to stake their own small claim on the infinite. By dint of its subject matter and its modest but expertly calibrated visual effects, "High Life" is the director's version of an event picture, an art-house thrill ride; it also marks her first fully English-language production and her first time working with a Hollywood star. All these distinctions matter less than you might think. For a filmmaker already so at home with the otherworldly, a leap into the void feels more like a logical progression, and one that Denis (who wrote the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau, her frequent collaborator, and Geoff Cox) conducts in her own inimitably strange, counterintuitive fashion.
Her unsettling achievement here is to turn some of the conventions of her chosen genre inside out, to suggest that we have less to fear from the great, sterile void of the cosmos than from our own messy biological imperatives. Denis is among the most sensuous of filmmakers and, in more than one sense, the most fluid: "High Life" is an unnervingly lyrical vision of human entropy, a space odyssey smeared in the effluvia of blood and urine, sweat and semen, milk and tears. The story – a dying ship, a doomed crew and a deranged experiment – may sound like the stuff of "Alien" and countless gory imitators, but rarely have you seen these elements reconfigured with such an exquisite commingling of tenderness and brutality.
From the outset, when Monte pushes a series of corpses out of the ship and down into the impenetrable blackness below, "High Life" suavely disregards the laws of physics as well as the conventions of thriller plotting. Movies like this are supposed to end with a high body count, but time here is aggressively nonlinear. Soon we're navigating the first of many flashbacks to Monte's life with his crew, all of whom, we learn, are convicted criminals who have been sent on a government mission to investigate a distant black hole: a prison term and a death sentence, all in the name of science.
We get to know only a few of Monte's fellow travelers, but most of them have grim backstories and a propensity for violence. Juliette Binoche plays a diabolically single-minded scientist named, hilariously, Dr. Dibs; Lars Eidinger is the mission's ineffectual captain. Mia Goth ("Suspiria") embodies the survival instinct at its fiercest, while newcomer Jessie Ross turns up as a more optimistic life force. A soulful Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000 of Outkast, provides a benevolent center of gravity as Tcherny, who left behind a loving family and now resigns himself to working in the ship's greenhouse.
That lush, dewy garden is both a nod to an earthly paradise lost and a reference to Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running" – one of a few '70s science-fiction classics, including those Andrei Tarkovsky landmarks "Solaris" and "Stalker," that reverberate amid this movie's deep gloom and spare, temporally ambiguous visual design. (The transfixing cinematography and production design are by Yorick Le Saux and Francois-Renaud Labarthe, respectively, while Stuart A. Staples, of the British band Tindersticks, composed the delicately haunting score.)
It's notable that the most sexually transgressive sci-fi thriller since Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" takes place aboard one of the least sexy spaceships ever designed. Denis has no use for sterile, state-of-the-art aesthetics of so much contemporary science fiction: Outside, the ship resembles a large rectangular box, literalizing its function as a self-enclosed lab experiment; the interiors are grottily retro, all leaky pipes and beige, windowless corridors. Ancient-looking computers keep the crew in life-sustaining contact with Earth, but for all intents and purposes, the mission is long forgotten.
Dr. Dibs is bent on achieving human reproduction in space, and to that end she ruthlessly exploits the bodies of her fellow prisoners, subjecting them to a twisted mix of physical confinement and psychological manipulation. Only Monte, a self-willed celibate, initially thwarts her plans. Unlike the other men on board, he neither participates in the doctor's compulsory sperm collections nor relieves his frustrations in the mechanized autoerotic chamber that stands as the ship's most provocative and surely least hygienic design element.
Binoche starred in Denis' previous picture, "Let the Sunshine In," and her very different presence here suggests she might be playing a naughtily self-aware stand-in for her director: an unyielding visionary exerting her authority over a collaborative, experimental medium. Far more than Dr. Dibs, Denis knows what she's after and how to achieve it. Here in the cosmos, the filmmaker rediscovers several of the themes that have captivated her in the past: the queasy seductions of power, the intimacy and alienation of strangers in close quarters, the slow build to an ecstatic frenzy of physical and sexual violence.
And just as the doctor's ambitions are held in check and ultimately realized by Monte, so Denis' coolly appalling vision gets an infusion of warmth from Pattinson, an actor of brooding intelligence and remarkable physical grace. His ability to hold the screen, much like his appetite for working with great auteurs, seems both effortless and limitless. He also achieves a heart-melting rapport with his toddler co-star, whose character is a testament to both this story's extraordinary perversity and its improbable beauty.
No less than Denis' 1999 masterpiece, "Beau Travail," "High Life" is an immersion, an experience of prolonged tension and isolation that finally arrives at a shocking moment of release. It's at this moment that you will either fall hard for this movie or abandon ship, as the final taboo is expressed through, of all things, a sublimely lovely tune. This is Denis at her most challenging and, paradoxically, her most consoling: We are lost in a great and terrifying emptiness, a vision of space where, miraculously, someone can still hear you sing.