In space, maybe, nobody can hear you scream, but in High Life, space is marked out primarily by the thick omnipresence of sounds. The lucky 13th feature film by director Claire Denis - and her first in English, a leap she navigates with a force and confidence that equals any other great director's forays into a foreign language in all the annals of cinema - is set almost in its entirety in the close, industrial rooms of a preposterously inelegant spaceship (it is, seen from the outside, basically just a giant brick), and one of its most important goals as a genre story is, first and foremost to depict and exaggerate how dreary and deadening that kind of environment can be on the human spirit. It does this in lots of ways, and I think all of them are good, but one of the best and most persistent is that it is absolutely permeated with sounds. And they're all a little too high in the mix, all too smothering in the surround channels, and you start to feel like the sounds are kind of stalking you, right there in the theater, creeping around your shoulders and snaking their way into your ears.

And that's even before we get to the big bravura sound effect that doesn't quite start the movie off, but comes so early that it mostly sets the tone for what follows: a baby screaming bloody murder. The thing about babies crying is, that's, like, fundamental to humans' emotional programming. The sound of a baby crying is, at a primordial, genetic level, something that sounds awful and unpleasant, so that we adults will figure out what is wrong with the baby and make it stop. And early in High Life, Denis lays in a shrieking baby so loud, drowning out every other aspect of the soundtrack, that it feels like it takes over every available shred of your attention. It is a baby's cry as the whole entirety of the cosmos, and it is horrifying and there is nothing you, the viewer, can do to stop it. And this is, kind of, High Life in a nutshell: humanity is suffering, pain, helplessness - and yet, there at the center of it, is the almost sacred purity of the newborn infant, embodiment of promise and hope and the future.

It's about as correct a first impression as you'd hope to get from a movie that finds a filmmaker prone to finding universal scope in claustrophobically intimate stories turn her attention to the biggest scope of them all: humankind's status on a cosmic scale. High Life openly pilfers from the stakes, ideas, and in certain cases the specific iconography of some of the biggest dogs in cinematic science fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris are both clear points of reference here (in the latter case, Soderbergh's adaptation of the novel feels like a more specific touchstone than Tarkovsky's, but no matter), and if I were the sort of person to head straight for trite psychoanalytic readings, or casually use phrases like "yonic imagery", and also the sort of person to essentialise great filmmakers as though I was somehow more aware of their creative muse than they themselves, I would most likely suggest that High Life is the feminine answer to the masculine impulse of those movies, or the other great male-directed attempts to find some fumbling language for how we mere humans contemplate the terror and majesty of the infinite. I might also suggest that the film I was most thinking about wasn't sci-fi at all, but Terrence Malick's masterpiece The Tree of Life, and propose that where that film represents God & the cosmos as a seminal force, High Life represents God & the cosmos as a womb. If I were that sort of person.

What is absolutely, unequivocally true is that High Life is a film about the mothering instinct, a story of nurturing as the overriding celestial Good, in the face of the casual destruction that is so much easier and so much more instinctive to the particular violent ape spcies Denis has set her sights on. In exactly the sort of in-your-face yet somehow completely understated challenge to gender roles that I want from the director of the great Beau travail, the nurturing mother is in this case a man, Monte (Robert Pattinson), and the controlling, destroying Frankenstein trying to tame God for reasons of pure ego is a woman, Dibs (Juliette Binoche). The plot even hinges on an act of female-on-male rape, though based on what Denis has said about this in interviews, I think I am happiest not looking too closely at what she thinks that means.

But anyway, that is what we have, a basic Frankenstein scenario: the mad scientist trying to force life to come into being where it doesn't want to exist. High Life suggests a future in which persons sentenced to life in prison have the opportunity to be sent on deep-space missions, never to return to human society; in this case, the mission is to figure out exactly what happens when you get real close to a black hole, though one of the inmates, Dibs, is a medical doctor who's decided that a good way to use her time would be to perform a series of fertility experiments, seeing if it's possible to bring a woman to term despite the overwhelming amount of cosmic radiation nuking any embryo that might manage to grow out of the woman's similarly irradiated eggs. We figure out even before we learn that this is her project that she's succeeded; the film employs a shuffling chronological structure that begins in the middle and goes forward a bit in two different time frames before abandoning "the present" for "about two years ago" and then skipping ahead for the finale. So we know that Monte is at some point going to be alone on the ship with a child - presumably his, though the film's interest is more in the instinct towards parenting than biology itself, and the way that taking care of a little tiny person is itself a source of strength and purpose, rather than an obligation and responsibility. Getting there, as they say, is the fun part.

Or, anyway, the "fun" part. Much of the brilliance of High Life lies in how it drags us through the absolute nadir of human behavior before it rewards us, in its beguiling, spiritually ambiguous final scenes, with the presentation of family bonds and parent-child love as the greatest force in the universe (another point of reference: the whole film kind of feels like Denis and her co-writers had an eye-rolling "are you fucking serious?" response to the goofball last act of Interstellar, and made this film as a way of getting at the same themes, but better). One of the things Denis has always been phenomenal at is depicting how incredibly easy it is for people, especially men, to be cruel to each other in the most casual, petty ways, and most of the "past" strand of High Life consists of watching the dissolution of basic social contracts, as one person at a time loses their humanity, or life, or both. It's too elliptical and visually beautiful to feel like a wallow in misery, for that is also one of Denis's gifts, augmented here by Yorick Le Saux's outstanding cinematography: to find the poetry in this cruelty, and all the small ways in which even at its unhappiest, life still has amazing textures and moments of grace. That's the other thing it opens with, in fact, besides the screaming: shots of water droplets on fresh vegetables, initially suggesting nourishment and nature but eventually transforming into pure graphic beauty, a sensation of wetness and smoothness that feels clean and organic in and of itself.

So we have a combination of anger and violence (which is, occasionally, quite shocking and graphic, though only one single shot rises to the level of "gory") with a contemplation of the texture of walls and bodies, creating a mood both ethereal and grounded, creating something heavy and and dreamy at the same time, vile and beautiful. The images get us there, the harsh but hypnotic Tindersticks score gets us there (incidentally, the Denis/Tindersticks collaboration has, I think, at this point entrenched itself as one of the foremost director/composer relationships of the 21st Century), the elegant cruelty of Binoche's mad scientist gets us there, and the grace of Pattinson's wonderful depiction of a silent bulk of a man giving in to curiosity and wonder gets us there (it's the actor's best performance to date, even topping his mesmerising work in Good Time). As to where it gets us, it is nothing less than a definitive statement on Claire Denis's view of our place in the universe, and when such a statement comes from one of the great living masters in any medium, it is well worth paying closest attention.