Cosmic Solitude: Claire Denis’ “High Life”
The cliché goes that outer space is the final frontier, a seemingly limitless expanse, void of life, that we nonetheless aspire to explore and, in some cases, conquer. However, what becomes of these expeditions into the vast unknown when colonization and resource-gathering efforts fail? What does microgravity geometrics, quantum physics, or any such astronomical quandary matter when you’re faced with almost absolute isolation, constant physiological danger, and the gradual possibility of no return? While popular science fiction tends to consider these as questions of the mind, Claire Denis’ magnificently frightening High Life ponders them from a purely biological perspective — after all, even in space, what are we but flesh and blood?
In the not-too-distant future — one nearly indistinguishable from the present due to clever production design using already available technology such as holographic keyboards — horribly unethical experiments are being conducted outside of any conceivable jurisdiction in the farthest reaches of space. Lifers and death row inmates are offered an ambiguous, quasi-commutation of their sentence if they agree to participate in these tests. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is one such participant, having been incarcerated since childhood for killing a young girl over a dead dog, revealed early into the film via brief flashbacks conveyed in Denis’ signature fragmentary style. In this case, they are narratively integrated by the implication that time and recollection do not follow the same rules as they do on Earth due to the film being largely set in dangerous proximity to an enormous black hole, an unexpected expository gesture that’s corroborated by the characters. Denis’ films often deal with the nature of memory, particularly its intangible yet pervasive influence on the physical present, and High Life is no different, although Denis seems to be suggesting that memories made in the vacuum of space are more difficult to discern from reality compared to those that originate on Earth. Similarly, gravity does not abide by any common knowledge, with heavy matter such as wrenches and even corpses dropping in space like rocks sinking to the bottom of the ocean — one of numerous astounding visual effects courtesy of Xavier Allard and the folks at BUF who were responsible for the mind-blowing effects in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Unusual hazards aside, life still seems possible so long as one remains inside the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship that resembles an inelegant cargo container more than an advanced space-faring vehicle.
Save for Monte, the only other currently living member aboard the No. 7 ship is a baby girl, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), whom he dutifully cares for. The scenes shared by Pattinson and the infant actor are positively remarkable, never once shattering the delicate suspension of disbelief despite the immense challenge of conveying an elaborate narrative with the unwitting participation of an actual child. As their unlikely father-daughter relationship develops, Monte’s own personal trauma starts to reveal itself through Pattinson’s nuanced performance: his inability to appropriately convey basic truths to the baby without resorting to vulgar proverbs that portend the film’s descent into brutality (“Never drink your own urine, never drink your own shit, even if it’s been recycled”) as well as contending with his own eroding psyche, at one point directly pleading with Willow to stop crying lest it drive him to suicide. Liquids and fluids, bodily or otherwise, play a significant role in the plot and are captured by Yorick Le Saux (Olivier Assayas’ regular DP) as if they are immaculately suspended, isolated from the inevitable chaos to follow. Production designer François-Renaud Labarthe combines the oppressively utilitarian prison block aesthetic with the dingy sterility of a laboratory to compound the palpable anxiety underlying the crew’s increasingly dire situation, the only solace being the ship’s verdant garden, glistening with pollen particles and water molecules.
Eventually, it becomes self-evident that it wasn’t always just Monte and Willow on the No. 7 as the film’s lengthy second act reveals the series of events that led to the loss of every other crew member aboard the ship and the circumstances of Willow’s birth. Monte is the reserved, monastic outlier of the inmates who once inhabited the ship, most notably a severely traumatized, homeless ex-addict, Boyse, (Mia Goth), the affable caretaker of the ship’s horticultural garden, Tcherny (André Benjamin), and the menacingly committed scientist and taskmaster, the Rapunzel-haired Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Though the crew’s primary directive is to mine the gravitational energy from a black hole for use as a valuable resource back on Earth, the likelihood of the mission’s success is dubious at best. However, there happens to be a secondary directive that most of the crew weren’t made aware of until they were well into orbit: successfully procreate in the radiation-filled space they traverse. As one might expect, this is conducted without their consent, being carried out by the cold and calculating Dr. Dibs, with Juliette Binoche reveling in the ribald deviancy the role offers. Casual intercourse is not permitted — Dr. Dibs’ orders. Instead, a dark, leaky room in the belly of the ship serves as a private sanctuary for the crew to relieve their carnal desires. This room is aptly named “the fuckbox,” a symbolic manifestation of wanton desire so bold it rivals 2001’s monolith. For the sake of preserving the film’s subsequent surprises, the less said of the plot from now on, the better.
Leave it to Claire Denis, a filmmaker who brilliantly upended genre conventions in Trouble Every Day (2001), a horror film with lustful vampires, and Bastards (2013), a near-bloodless, no frills revenge thriller, to completely subvert the expected trappings of a cosmic science fiction film with clinical precision, slyly reinvigorating the genre by concentrating on the corporeal over the cerebral. High Life’s foundation may be derived from iconic precursors such as Solaris (1971) and Alien (1979), but in structure, form, and sheer quality it is a revelation for the genre and an extraordinary achievement in its own right: a speculative psychosexual nightmare that does for science fiction what Denis did for horror. For in this depiction of space, not only can no one hear you scream — no one can hear you orgasm.
Claire Denis’ High Life played at the New York Film Festival on October 2 and October 4.