Directed by Claire Denis
It’s hard to shake the imagery of Claire Denis’ High Life. It’s a science fiction film that takes place on a small ship floating through the cosmic abyss, but more than that it’s about sexuality, reproduction and isolation. Within its own hermetically sealed world the limited number of characters here begin to feel almost biblical, certainly allegorical.
They are death row inmates sent out to space in the name of science, to do things such as explore black holes, though they (and we) are always aware that this is their punishment, not some holy opportunity to redeem themselves as in a movie like The Dirty Dozen. They are not here to make amends, to be brought back into society. They are forever banished, like gothic figures who loom larger in myth, to be talked about and dissected in conversation by an Earthly population that might as well be alien to them.
As a small population, these death row inmates become the stand ins for how we perceive all of humanity. Their anguish, proclivity for violence and guilt or lack thereof begin to say something about us as a whole. They are pawns in a machine we can hardly perceive (though are told about) and firmly under the spell of a witch-like figure played by Juliette Binoche.
She is Dr. Dibs, a scientist with cobweb like long black hair who uses these prisoners in her experiments to try and conceive life aboard the space ship. Eventually she succeeds, but this new child is born entirely of violence, of rape and forced insemination.
I’m still parsing apart what this all means, but the growth of this child is the most pure, innocent aspect of the film. There is a great focus given to her first steps, her cries, her laughter, and in this way it feels like some sort of redemption for the sins of other characters and, in turn, the sins of people as a whole.
It’s like the child in the womb that ends 2001: A Space Odyssey, a space child who is more than just a child. Their birth is Christ-like, just as miraculous, though of course here it’s hard to separate the child’s existence from the horrors that came before.
There are several instances of rape within the movie, and one attempted rape scene that leads to the most viscerally violent moment of the movie. Violence and sexuality, in fact, are intrinsically tied here. Sex is violence, in a way, and the fluids produced by both run parallel. The camera often lingers on these fluids, making both feel grotesque and clinical, like something spilled in a laboratory.
So the act of reproduction as seen in High Life feels kind of alien. It’s hard to witness and never romantic. It’s depraved and malicious, even if the child born is pure of spirit.
The whole movie, in fact, is carnal in this way. The characters, already defined by the murders that have banished them to space (including Dr. Dibs), are animal-like, and the movie characterizes them by their physicality, whether sexual, violent, or otherwise. They are bodies, sacks of flesh and blood to be inseminated, assaulted, injected, torn apart and eventually discarded.
If it sounds grim, well it is, but it’s also beautiful in its own way. Maybe it’s just the eventual relief from such grim imagery giving away to something more delicate and pensive. After all of this, the film will end with a simple invitation. It’s graceful, subtle and more and more poignant as I think back on it.
It’s a rejection of what came before, a transition to another level of existence. You can call it whatever you like, death, rebirth, something else, but it’s a simple move from the world we inhabit to one that’s more evolved. The important note there, of course, is that we aren’t evolved, at least not as much as we think we are.
Claire Denis’ film, or at least as I read it, shows us to be little more than animals defined by base instincts, lust, jealousy and the like. To touch is to attack, defend of possess, in other words it is weaponized. It’s a graceful representation of something entirely the opposite.
Hell, their ship is emblazoned with the number 7, and later they come into contact with another ship just like theirs, only with a different number. The character played by Robert Pattinson figures there might be other humans on the ship (his daughter objects to the idea that they need anyone else), but he finds only rabid dogs, both dead and dying.
This is never explained, but it seems an apt metaphor for the humans we’ve spent all this time with. Even their supposed science experiments, we are told and shown, add up to nothing. They bear witness to space in all its beauty and horrors, but they aren’t shown to make any progress in their research. They are just floating out there, disconnected and alone. The ship with the rabid dogs serves just as much a scientific purpose as they do.
The film moves around in time, between the past, with Dr. Dibs and the other convicts, and then the future, with Monte (Pattinson) raising the child born of Dr. Dibs’ experiment. There is a delicacy here between Monte and the child, but it’s hard to separate this not only from the violence that created her, but so too the overt sense of doom that surrounds them. After all, at this point in the story they are alone, with no one before them and no one to follow. When they die, well then it’s just over. To imagine raising a child in such an environment is terrifying.
But despite all of that the movie ends with that invitation, a simple “Shall we?” In an interview Denis has said that this is what you say to someone when you ask them to dance. It’s something to revel in, maybe just a moment, maybe eternity. Who the hell knows.
I saw this film on the second night of the San Francisco Film Festival, with Denis in attendance for a pre-screening conversation. This was only a handful of days after the first known photo of a black hole was released to the public, and Denis gave her thoughts on what must be on the other side of that black hole. It’s a place devoid of time and space, some version of eternity or something else entirely. The characters in High Life make the jump into this state of being, and it matters not so much what will soon happen to them, just that they took the leap.
Up Next: Bound for Glory (1976), La La Land (2016) [revisited], Coming Home (1978)