Sci-fi cinema is full of misfiring space missions and Claire Denis somewhat surprisingly opts to venture into the heavens in making her English-language debut with High Life. Yet, while it contains echoes of Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (both 1972) and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), this interstellar existential saga is not the radical departure it first appears, as it revisits a number of themes that have recurred throughout the 72 year-old's career, including marginalisation, confinement, colonisation, the relationship between parents and children, the perils of desire and the beauty and treacherous fragility of the human body.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter, Willow (Scarlette Lindsey), are the sole survivors of a space mission dispatched to investigate scientist Roger Penrose's theory that energy can be tapped from the periphery of a black hole. Having dropped a spanner while conducting running repairs to the outside of the spacecraft and jettisoned the cryogenically preserved corpses of his erstwhile crewmates, Monte dotes on Willow and reminds her that consuming one's own recycled body waste is a taboo. He also tends the ship's garden, sends the daily reports required to keep the life-support systems functioning and attempts to deal with the memories from his past and the daunting prospects of the future. 

The ship had blasted off under the command of Chandra (Lars Eidinger) with a crew of prison inmates who has committed a range of crimes. Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) had murdered her husband and children, while Monte (Mikolaj Gruss) had attacked the childhood friend who had killed his dog. His closest companion on the trip is Tcherny (André Benjamin), who is participating with Chandra and Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) in donating sperm to Dibs, who is reminded by Nansen (Agata Busek) about the rules against reproduction in case she has any ideas of artificially inseminating the crew's younger women, Boyse (Mia Goth), Mink (Claire Tran) and Elektra (Gloria Obianyo).

As the authorities recognise the problems that lust can cause in a confined community, they have installed a soundproofed pleasure chamber known as `The Box' that is fitted with devices to help relieve tension. However. Monte has decided to become celibate and refuses to participate in Dibs's experiments. When Elektra dies after delivering a premature baby that falls victim to the lethal levels of radiation, and Chandra succumbs to leukaemia (with a little euthanising help from Dibs), the mood aboard the ship begins to deteriorate, as they are still four years away from their destination. Tcherny begins sleeping in the garden, while Ettore is beaten up by Monte after he tries to rape Boyse in the night. But, while Monte stops short of killing Ettore, Mink has no such compunction. 

In order to pacify the crew, Dibs increases the amount of sedative she puts into the air supply and, one night, she mounts the sleeping Monte and uses his sperm to impregnate Boyse. He has no idea that he is Willow's father and Boyse deeply resents being used as a breeding guinea pig by Dibs (whose belly bears the scars of the failed bid to kill herself after stabbing her family). Shortly afterwards, therefore, she is tipped over the edge by the futility of her breasts lactating and bludgeons Nansen to death with a shovel and takes her place in the pod being launched towards the black hole. 

Such is the gravitational force, however, that Boyse is spaghettified and Dibs is so overwhelmed by her demise that she wanders through the bay door into open space after telling Monte that Willow is his daughter. Furthermore, depressed by the fact that the mission has not brought the glory that he had promised his wife would redeem him, Tcherny buries himself in the garden and Monte decides to clear the cryochamber rather than be reminded of the tragedies that have befallen his crewmates. 

Years pass and Willow (Jessie Ross) reaches adolescence. Spaceship 7 passes an identical craft with a Number Six on its undercarriage. Monte enters to discover it is full of dogs and Willow is disappointed when he refuses to bring one of the puppies back to their ship. As the canines have been left to their own devices, they have survived by devouring carcasses and Monte feels it would be unwise to risk contamination by bringing an unclean creature into their environment. Willow accuses him of cruelty and he is curious to know how she has learned of the concept, having never experienced it. 

Some time later. he is also amused to see her praying while watching highlights of a Scotland rugby match, as she had seen footage in the image bank and wanted to know what it felt like. Eventually, they get closer to the black hole and Willow convinces Monte to take the pod to investigate. We see shots of the empty spacecraft, as father and daughter suit up and launch into the unknown. As they approach the bright yellow light source, they hold hands and the screen whites out. 

Making few concessions to the conventional sci-fi screen constituency, Claire Denis plumps for the philosophical over the spectacular in this intense, intriguing and melancholic. if sometimes inert and rarely wholly involving space odyssey. There are whiffs of Kubrick along the way, as Denis and co-scenarist Jean-Pol Fargeau consider the themes of prohibition and transgression, and the need to strike a balance between authority and liberty in promulgating workable laws to regulate communal existence. But the lack of backstory for the majority of the crew members makes it difficult to invest in their feelings and fates, with even Robert Pattinson's dutiful loner and Juliette Binoche's exploitative medic seeming more like ciphers than fully fleshed characters. 

Despite being unnamed, the spacecraft is more of a character than a locale, with production designer François-Renaud Labarthe eschewing fetishistic futurism to present the kind of scuffed, low-tech interiors one might expect of a prison ship some distance into its voyage. Yet, sound editor Andreas Hildebrandt resists making its metalwork creak, while its engines and computers all seem to operate in complete silence, just as the garden thrives without the intervention of a single insect. But they are markedly more convincing than the starscapes, which would have looked cheap and uninspired in a 1970s TV show like Blake's Seven.

One would like to think that The Box was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973). But Denis isn't particularly renowned for her sense of humour and the scene in which Binoche avails herself of the facilities is rather pompously constructed by editor Guy Lecorne from Yorick Le Saux's blush-inducingly jerky handheld imagery. More effective is the score composed by Denis's regular collaborator, Stuart A. Staples, although the closing ditty sung by Pattinson with the backing of Tindersticks is a tad coy.

Although born in Chad in 1961, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has lived and worked in France since 1982. Having fled the civil war and escaped across the border into Cameroon with his parents, he attended film school and worked as a journalist in Bordeaux before making his first short, Maral Tanié, in 1994. Since producing Chad's first feature, Bye Bye Africa (1999), Haroun has striven to give compatriots a vision of themselves to prevent `a colonisation by images' and Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006), Sex, Okra and Salted Butter (2008). A Screaming Man (2010) and Grigris (2013) have earned him a raft of festival prizes. 

Haroun also makes shorts and documentaries, like Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy (2016). But these rarely get shown outside the Francophone world and it took two years for A Season in France to secure a UK release. Joining a burgeoning sub-genre that includes Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl (1966) and Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano's Samba (2014), this heartfelt drama examines the lot of black African migrants fighting exploitation, poverty, prejudice and bureaucratic indifference in order to make a new life. Yet, for all its authenticity and empathy, this low-budget picture seems content to tell its story rather than address its underlying issues. 

Waking in the night after a flashback to the moment his wife was killed during their flight from the Central African Republic, Abbas Mahadjir (Eriq Ebouaney) thinks he sees Madeleine (Sandra Nkake) in the Parisian apartment he shares with children, Yacine (Ibrahim Burama Darboe) and Asma (Aalayna Lys). The latter has also been dreaming of her mother and she asks Abbas if the dead ever return. He sings her a lullaby and thinks he hears Madeleine's voice joining in with him. 

Although he was a university professor back home, Abbas now works with Régine (Régine Conas) on a grocery stall on a market, where he has befriended florist Carole Blaszak (Sandrine Bonnaire), whose family roots are in Poland. We learn through an essay written by Yacine that the family arrived in France with philosopher Etienne Bamingui (Bibi Tanga) and are currently awaiting the verdict of the Court of Asylum after Abbas's initial application was rejected. The kids resent the fact they have to keep moving and accuse their father of having lied to them when he promised they would be welcomed in France. He cries after they go to bed and has to apologise to Carole after he fails to perform in bed because he can't get Madeleine out of his thoughts. She reminds him that she is alive and needs him to commit and he accepts that he has to move on for himself and for his children.

Carole accompanies Abbas to the court building and looks around at the different nationalities in the waiting room. The verdicts are pinned to a noticeboard and Abbas is crushed by his rejection. He is further hurt when Yacine informs him that a real father would get his papers. But Étienne is also having a hard time and has to use public washrooms to keep clean for his job as a commissionaire outside a pharmacy. He also has erectile issues and girlfriend Martine (Léonie Simaga) wonders whether he has found someone new. However, he is very much alone in a shack under an overpass, where he reads and struggles to keep warm. 

Abbas finds a cramped apartment and Asma dreams of having a large room for herself and her goldfish. Bing. Yacine wants a blue room because he supports Paris St Germain and he covers his father and sister in feathers during a pillow fight over who is the best player. He buys Carole a book on plants for her birthday, while Asma makes her a drawing and Abbas gets her a necklace. They eat Polish apple cake and dance to French rock before heading back to their new digs, where Abbas reads the registered letter delivered to Carole's address. He learns that he has 30 days to leave the country or risk being deported. But he has no intention of surrendering his passport or signing on at a police station to prove he has not gone underground. 

As he has been fired for smashing veg in his frustration. Abbas has no source of steady income and has to leave the kids alone in the flat at night. They try to do their homework and Yacine cooks the very omelettes that he had despised when his father served them. Feeling cooped up, they look down enviously at a boy kicking a ball around in the courtyard. But Abbas is aware how precarious their plight has become and, during a visit to the library with the kids, he flinches on seeing a migrant being chased by the police because his documents are out of date.

Shortly afterwards. Étienne's shack is burned down and anti-migrant graffiti is daubed on the nearby wall. Abbas offers his friend floor space, but he refuses his charity and insists that he will find a way to remain in France, as he doesn't want to return to a continent that has become an illusion. He sets light to himself in the court building and is rushed to hospital, where a distraught Abbas meets Martine and confirms the lie that Étienne lives in a Malian hotel. However, he is also soon made homeless when landlord Thammah (Khampha Thammavongsa) refuses to give him time to find his back rent. But Carole invites them to move in with her and even suggests marriage so that Abbas can remain. 

Étienne dies of his injuries and Martine comes to the cemetery, which Yacine reveals in voiceover used to be a potter's field and only offers resting places for five years, after which the interred are exhumed and cremated. When Abbas breaks down, Carole urges him not to quit and lies to the police when they come to the apartment to ask if she knows the illegal's whereabouts. Hiding in the kitchen, Abbas hears that Carole faces five years' imprisonment and a sizeable fine for helping him and (having recently seen Madeleine's ghost again), he doesn't feel he can expose her to the risk. When she goes to give a statement, Abbas and the children disappear. They leave their belongings behind and a note, in which he references the 1938 Evian Conference, when the world failed to find a solution to the plight of European Jews. Carole drives north and searches in vain at the razed site of the Jungle at Calais. 

Taking its title from Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem, `A Season in Hell', and hitting a tone similar to the one Claire Denis achieved in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), this avoids the kind of head-shaking pulpiteering that one might expect from a Paul Laverty script. But Haroun makes little attempt to explain or critique the asylum application process and its vagaries, as he loads the dramatic dice by making Abbas and Étienne cultured men who could offer France a good deal, if only the authorities weren't so blinkered and jobsworthy. Moreover, he avoids showing the Central Africans in a wider Parisian setting, so that the audience gets little sense of the prejudice they encounter or the jeopardy they face in being denied their papers. We see nothing of Yacine or Asma's school life, while Abbas and Étienne seem to live in social bubbles, even though each has a girlfriend and an unfamiliar mourner shows up at Étienne's graveside (along with a cheesy CGI butterfly). One suspects this narrowness of focus is down to budgetary restriction, but it makes the story seem sequestered and melodramatic. 

Like the score by Senegalese musician Wasis Diop, Eriq Ebouaney and Bibi Tanga exude dignity. But we don't get to learn much about their past or present experiences. How did Tanga find his shack and why does Léonie Simaga exhibit so little curiosity about his lifestyle when they are supposed to be dating? The ever-excellent Sandrine Bonnaire is more involved in Ebouaney's appeal and chides him for bringing the cops to her door by failing to appeal the court verdict. But the action is more convincing in its minor moments than its rather stiffly scripted set-pieces, as Mathieu Giombini's camera contrasts the bas-fonds dwellings designed by Eric Barboza and neighbourhoods in which Ebouaney fetches up as his dream of security slips further out of his reach. 

French director Philippe Faucon has been focusing on people in the margins since his second feature, Sabine (1993). In recent times, however, he has concentrated on urban immigrant communities in Samia (2000), Dans la Vie (2007), The Disintegration (2011) and the César-winning Fatima (2015). Despite domestic acclaim, his films have rarely been seen in this country outside the festival circuit and the arrival on disc of Amin allows for a comparison of its key themes with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's A Season in France.

Amin Sow (Moustapha Mbengue) does odd jobs in Paris and lives in a hostel for migrant workers along with Moroccan pal, Abdelaziz (Noureddine Benallouche), whose daughter, Selima (Ouidad Elma), is concerned that he is getting older and has put nothing aside for his pension. During a visit to Senegal, Amin gives some money collected by his workmates to the village school and catches up with his wife, Ayesha (Marème N’Diaye), and their three children, Demba (Alioune Sow), Marème (Mariama Sené) and Awa (Aïda Lo). She finds it difficult coping without her husband and wants him to take the family to France. But he insists that they are better off where they are, as he works such long hours that they would barely see him. He also tells Demba that things are tough for immigrant kids and that he should study hard to get a place in a school in Dakar to earn the qualifications to go anywhere in the world. 

Returning to Paris, Amin joshes roommate Ousmane (Moustapha Naham) about his loud music. He is hired by Berrato (Alain Stach) to work on a gardening assignment for Gabrielle (Emmanuelle Devos), a nurse who lives with her tweenage daughter, Célia (Fantine Harduin), who is being manipulated by her father, Hervé (Samuel Churin). She tries to be friendly with her workers, but Berrato tells her to keep a distance, as Africans don't always understand French intentions. Nevertheless, she gives Amin a lift back to Saint-Denis, as the buses are so unreliable, and she recognises someone else who is lonely and in need of a connection. 

Angry with Hervé for asking Célia to spy on her, Gabrielle takes Amin to bed and they continue to see each other after the job is finished. Ousmane and Abdelaziz notice a change in his mood when they move on to another task, although the latter is also unhappy because he has little contact with his three children in Morocco because they resent the presence of his French daughters. He goes to see Houria (Yasmina Bendjaballah) play the flute in a school concert, while Sabri (Jalal Quarriwa) seeks out an Algerian prostitute (Nis'Mya) because he is homesick. They meet in the back of her van, but he can't perform and she is callously cold as she dresses and sends him packing. 

After Amin goes on a shopping spree to buy clothing and toiletries for his family, Ousmane flies back to the village and everyone gathers to get their gift. He goes to see how work is progressing on the new house that Amin is having built for Ayesha and he checks that she is not being ripped off by cowboy builders. Amin has given his brother, Mohamed (Modou Ngom), money to set up a butcher's shop with Issa (Ibrahima Mbengue), and he resents Ayesha's suspicion that her husband is being unfaithful to her. She also loses her temper with him when he chides her for getting a lift to the site with neighbours, as he thinks it's bad form for a woman to get into a car with someone who is not a relative. Furious, Ayesha tells Mohamed to find a wife he can bully because she is not going to listen to him. 

Meanwhile, Célia takes exception to Gabrielle sleeping with Amin and reminds her that he has a wife and family in Senegal. When Gabrielle tries to reassure her daughter that they are good for each other, Célia insists that Amin stays away when she's at home. However, they bump into her and Hervé raises the issue next time he sees Gabrielle. She receives obscene images through the post (probably from Hervé) accusing her of being immoral, while Amin feels uncomfortable when they go shopping together and Gabrielle tells him not to waste his money on her, but send it home. 

Anxious about becoming estranged from his Moroccan family, Abdelaziz does a job as a favour to an old client and is killed when he falls off the roof. Houria plays his wooden flute, as she and Samira watch the plane carrying his coffin taxi along the runaway. Feeling guilty, Amin calls Gabrielle to break off their liaison and she is gracious about it and hopes they can remember each other fondly. He tells her that he is going back to Senegal to spend time with his family, but the film ends with him working on a demolition site in the rain. 

Slice of life dramas have become increasingly politicised since the turn of the century, as though it is no longer sufficient to observe without opinionising. Writing with Yasmina Nini-Faucon and Mustapha Kharmoudi, Faucon leaves viewers to read between the lines in examining the impact that working away can have on economic migrants and the dependants they leave behind. Instead of giving a lecture on injustice, prejudice and exploitation, Faucon shows Amin coping with the issues that make everyday existence such a trail. Thus, we see the hours he has to work and the flexibility he has to show to turn his hand to a multitude of tasks. This versatility also reflects the chameleonic nature that his personality has had to develop in order to be an effective, if often absent husband, father and brother, as well as a reliable co-worker and hostel inmate. 

Faucon packs the action with minor, but telling details, such as Amin stuffing euros into his socks to get through customs and not recognising Marème in a photo because she has started covering her hair. He knows nothing about Demba being bullied, however, or that Ayesha and Mohamed have fallen out. Moreover, he is probably not aware that, by purchasing cheap goods in France, he makes it harder for Senegalese traders to make a living from selling similar wares. Yet by maintaining such a discreet distance from his alienated characters, Faucon also makes it tricky for the audience to empathise with them, as we know so little about Abdelaziz, Ousmane and Sabri, let alone Ayesha and Gabrielle. The fact that the latter is grateful for her affair with Amin suggests she has been having a much harder time than the scenario suggests. But nothing is made explicit about the emotions they feel or the post-colonial coding used to depict their fling. 

The ever-estimable Emmanuelle Devos bonds beautifully with Moustapha Mbengue, as he does with Marème N'Diaye in their brief, but poignant scenes together. Noureddine Benallouche also registers in a performance rooted in a reserved decency that encapsulates Faucon's unemphatic, if sometimes schematic approach to his characters and his material. Laurent Fenart's photography, Manuel Swieton's production design and Amin Bouhafa's score hit the same tone, as does the measured editing of Mathilde Grosjean and Sophie Mandonnet, which ensures that this is a film about people and places rather than melodramatic twists and political point-scoring.