Leave it to Claire Denis to set a film aboard a spaceship hurtling through the cosmos and fixate, abstrusely, on the enigmatic inner-galactic expanses of space and feeling of the human heart and psyche. Where most filmmakers see a final frontier with the potential for progress and new opportunity, the seasoned French auteur (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) sees a void ripe for examining the quirks and kinks of her elusive, earthly characters. She looks inward as they look outward.
In High Life, outer space becomes a space—an environment, like any other, that’s meaning depends on what those aboard project onto it. It’s these juxtapositional collisions of life and death, love and desire, tenderness and violence, which delicately point to a buried emotional core in this story about a group of prisoners heading toward a black hole.
Right from the get-go, we’re introduced to the hollow, atrophying ship, where the only sign of life seems to be a perversely luscious garden at its center. The only passengers on board are Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter, Willow (Jessie Ross), and they live an expectedly lonely existence. Apart from watching the occasional—albeit glitchy—footage, the ship receives from Earth, there isn’t much to do apart from wander endlessly down empty, colorfully lit corridors where small blemishes and details suggest what may have transpired to have left these two alone together. Perhaps more peculiarly, how and why was Willow born? What happened to her mother? Flashbacks begin to fill us in.
Denis’ filmmaking has been described as elliptical by countless other writers before me, but recursive may be the better term to describe the way in which her films—High Life included—cycle between past and present without grounding us in either. By eschewing traditional narrative conventions and style, the film’s construction emulates thought so that we get the sense of experiencing Monte’s processing of what happened.
We learn that the ship once had a full crew of death-row inmates heading toward a black hole in attempt to harness energy, unaware that they were not going to return to Earth. We also learn, through 16mm impressionistic flashbacks to Earth, about some of these inmates’ former lives and crimes. To pass the time while en route, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a delirious, manipulative, and occasionally caring matriarchal figure, conducts experiments on crewmembers. Looking to create life, she collects their semen and eggs, which proves challenging due to the high levels of radiation on board.
The ship is a penal colony, and as such, the inmates don’t have much in the way of freedom. They don’t have any contact with loved ones on Earth. They can’t engage physically with one another. Some are tied down to their beds at night. As compensation, they’re given access to a room to pleasure themselves dubbed the “F—kbox.” Everyone does what they’re told when they’re told, for the most part, though each inmate reacts differently to their caustic condition. Monte falls into a kind of asceticism: Tcherny (Andre Benjamin) cares to the garden, Boyse (Mia Goth) tries to undermine Dibs at every corner, and Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) grapples with his increasingly intense sexual urges. What comes to bear heavily on each character, and what ultimately accounts for their inevitable demise, is an existential dread coupled with an unmitigated sense of desire.
What Denis so carefully observes in High Life is how we tend to partition, define, and suppress carnal desire. A garden variety of flora aboard the ship grow, fertilize, and reproduce seamlessly without any of the human strife we witness among the crew attempting to do the same.
Fundamentally, the sexual act is procreative and stimulating; equal parts practical and pleasurable; necessary to create life, and also for sustaining it. There is no sex aboard the ship. The reproductive nature of the act has been stripped from the sensual—pleasure belongs only in the “F—kbox,” and science can only exist outside of it. How this segmentation affects the inmates (and, ultimately, all of us watching along) is what the film is fundamentally asking.It’s these sorts of contradictions, heighted by the sterility of the cramped spaceship, that give rise to a host of hazy ethical and moral questions that could only be prompted by this unorthodox fusion of science fiction and intimate prison drama. High Life reaches some undeniably dark places, but complementing the bleak outlook is a furtive emotionality, that of a father and daughter struggling together in the face of imminent apocalypse.
Featured Image by ZDF