In Space No-One Can Hear You Think: Claire Denis’s High Life

Whatever you might be expecting from the latest film by Claire (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day) Denis, High Life ain't it

Initial reviews of Claire Denis’ new film, High Life, following its preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2018, were intriguing to say the least. The notion of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche set adrift in the vicinity of a black hole where ex-convicts are subjected to sexualised experimentation on a grim prison ship allegedly awash with bodily fluids, certainly caught my attention. It was perhaps inevitable that my high expectations, built over several months since first reading that review, were to be confounded upon finally viewing the film. This is Claire Denis after all, director of the highly praised Beau Travail and also the hugely divisive Trouble Every Day, a filmmaker who delights in rejecting the conventions of mainstream cinema and whose primary motivation appears to be the desire to free the viewers of her work from the expectations of cliche.

Having sampled further reviews as the movie reaches its UK cinema release date, and even looked at some of the many online discussions about it, it is clear that this is a film that will disappoint and frustrate at least as many people as it will intrigue and beguile. Given that, some clarity may be of use here. High Life is not a science-fiction film in any usual sense of the term, despite deploying some classic tropes of the genre. Neither is it a horror film, although it does contain some horrifying imagery. In essence, this is an existential, philosophical treatment of the prison movie genre taken to its logical conclusion, with literally nowhere left to escape to. It is neither a masterpiece, nor an artistic failure, but rather a fascinatingly flawed examination of what it means to be human when there is nothing but the inescapable knowledge of the void outside. In its slowness of pace, use of flashbacks and beautifully framed scenes of nature, it most recalls Tarkovsky’s work, particularly a more nihilistic take on Solaris, with the possibility of any form of spiritual transcendence deliberately withheld.

Pattinson is Monte, one of a group of prisoners who have been ‘recycled’ in a scientific project to glean information from a black hole into whose orbit they are sent. The prisoners are told that their mission could result in humanity learning to harness the power of the mysterious phenomena, but it becomes clear early on from the great distance they are sent that it is extremely unlikely that they will have any further real contact with Earth.

The film opens with a shot of the ship’s garden in all its fecundity, water droplets running in rivulets from rich verdant leaves, ripe and swollen marrows, and darkly fertile soil. The garden is the antithesis of the ship itself, a sterile and claustrophobic prison-cell spacecraft designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Stuart Staples, better known for his work fronting the band Tindersticks, provides the soundtrack – for the most part a series of unsettling yet dreamlike drones devoid of vocalisation. Pattinson is excellent in the leading role, further defining himself as an actor more than capable of taking on unusual roles with an artistic dimension – despite much of his fame deriving from the tacky Twilight adaptations.

At the centre of the film is Monte’s relationship with his daughter, Willow, originally seen as an infant and later as a teenager. Contrary to what many audiences have come to expect, there is so little in the way of overt signposting, that viewers are forced to use their own wits to follow the non-linear timeline and slim plot that at many points appears to directly contradict intuitive sense. Monte has a small grey patch of hair on the top of his crew-cut head, which significantly increases in size in scenes where his character has aged. Monte’s crime, we come to learn, involved a fatal retaliation against a friend who had killed his pet dog. This detail, provided only by two briefly screened images and a single line of dialogue, resonates unsettlingly later in the film when Monte and Willow discover another ship like their own, adrift in their vicinity. What Monte discovers aboard that ship is so specific to the reason behind his own incarceration, that it made me question briefly if the entire nightmare wasn’t something taking place exclusively within his own head.

Binoche, as the scientist Dr Dibs, is a conflicted character whose drive to facilitate the birth of a child in usually fatally adverse conditions is clearly at odds with the crime that gained her passage on the suicide-mission vessel. She gleefully admits that the murder of her child and husband is the only crime worthy of the description amongst her fellow travellers. During the infamous ‘fuck box’ scene, the tone of the film shifts a little, becoming incongruously exploitative, given the quietly philosophical nature of much of what has preceded it. The box represents the passengers only legitimate outlet for the relief of desire. Yet, judging by the grim rictus Binoche’s face is set in during her climax, it offers little in the way of real satisfaction.

Another jarringly inappropriate image occurs when Binoche leaves the box and car-wash style brushes descend upon the thoroughly soaked seat to clean it prior to the arrival of its next occupant. This is perhaps the film’s most overt attempt at humour. But even here, it is uncertain how one is expected to react.

An attempted rape of Mia Goth’s character Boyse and a drug-induced rape of the otherwise sexually abstinent Monte by Dr Dibs mirror each other, with the latter resulting in the inception of Willow. The image that follows the baby’s inception is the only singularly beautiful image of the entire film: a journey through a diaphanous nebula that implies a link between creation on the human and cosmic scale.

When Monte and a teenage Willow finally decide to leave the ship and head towards their only remaining viable option – the centre of the black hole itself – the ending offers very little by way of closure for the audience, although I personally felt that its final images offered the closest thing to optimism or beauty in the entire film.

This is obviously not a film for everyone but it is clear, not least from the many differing interpretations appearing in ongoing online discussions as to its meaning, that it succeeds on the level of eliciting philosophical speculation from anyone who views it intelligently. Ultimately there is something of the Rorschach test to High Life, where viewers’ own psychological projections are called forth into a range of differing perceptions, creating meaning where perhaps there is inherently little – beyond the intense biological bond between a father and his daughter. I’ve now seen it twice and I’m still unsure what I make of it and that in itself is something of a rarity in modern cinema.

High Life, directed by Claire Denis, is in UK cinemas now

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