Last Man: On Claire Denis’s “High Life”
By Francey RussellDecember 7, 2018
Slowly and elliptically, High Life, Denis’s latest and only English-language film, moves backward in time to provide the thinnest thread of narrative. Monte is one of nine crew members on a state mission to extract the rotating energy from the lip of a black hole. But this is a crew not of scientists or astronauts but of death-row inmates, men and women, given the “opportunity” to commute their sentences — that is, to swap one death sentence for another. There is one captain aboard the spaceship, the frail and androgynous Nansen (Agata Buzek). And there is one scientist, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), whose work may or may not be part of the ship’s official operations (as it turns out, she is also a prisoner). Dr. Dibs extracts semen from the male crew members and inseminates the women, feeding them pills for their troubles, keeping the bodies docile. Only Monte resists, holding himself apart from this system of exchange, which of course only stokes Dibs’s interest in him. “I’m obsessed with reproduction,” she purrs, dead seriously.
At one level, High Life is so loosely organized, so lacking in the ballast of character or plot, that at times it feels like the film itself might simply drift apart. The movie cuts in and out across time and space. Dialogue is pared way down, as is affect, as is intimacy. Almost nothing is disclosed about the crew members or the crimes that got them on this ship (except for Dr. Dibs, convicted of killing her husband and child). The crew’s daily activities have little to do with getting that energy from the black hole. Instead, they tend a small green garden, practice calisthenics, and render their bodies to Dibs’s failing experiments. Human interactions range in tone from the numbingly muted to the explosively, blood-splatteringly violent. These brief glimpses of story are interrupted by kaleidoscopic dream-images of outer space, as though the plot simply dropped off into a captivating and meaningless horizon. There is so little narrative logic that scenes do not so much lead one to the other as simply pile up.
At another level, though, the film is relentlessly focused, fixated on a single concept: the project of extracting energy for reproduction. The film executes this project on two tracks, through the government’s mission to the black hole and through Dr. Dibs’s obsession. Ostensibly, the purpose of both of these extractions is the maintenance and reproduction of human life, either back on Earth or here on the ship. But one of the film’s central achievements is creating an atmosphere of absolute indifference to human life. In the case of Dibs, her project is not for the sake of human beings; it is, as she says, an “obsession” — which is to say, a drive, a compulsion without any proper stopping point. In the case of the government, the movie discloses nothing. The state’s objectives remain opaque: all we know is that we are in a space race for precious resources to no end.
There are, then, two machines of extraction, and the human beings — disposable from Earth’s perspective — are neither overseers nor laborers; they are components, bits of the mechanisms. The crewmembers sleep, eat, exercise, and excrete on command, while the spaceship barrels toward near certain destruction. The actors deliver their lines as if mimicking actual human interaction, as if spontaneous thought and feeling were wholly unfamiliar, all inner life lost. While Dibs is obsessed with reproduction and even evinces spontaneous joy when her miracle baby is born, a dead desperation hangs around her: life eludes her now and she knows it. The only exception is Tcherny, played with easy naturalism by André Benjamin. Tcherny has a wife and child on Earth, and he comments on the action and on the film itself: when Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), another black crew member, dies, Tcherny muses, “Even up here the black ones are the first to go.” The fact that Tcherny has one foot out — that he is not fully absorbed into the filmic world — allows him this dimension of humanity. But for the rest of the characters, locked within the strictures of this mission, there is no space for psychology or relationships, agency or hope. What seem at first like the film’s formal failures — lifelessness, drift — turn out to be functions of its organizing theme: obsessive extraction and reproduction, driven to the point where human life is made to serve the needs of the mechanism, rather than the other way round. As Marx says, at the apex of productivity, “the automaton itself is the subject, and the workmen are merely its conscious organs.”
High Life engages the language of other iconic space movies, placing it in an ongoing cinematic conversation. The wet mossy garden recalls Tarkovsky’s Solaris; Ólafur Eliasson’s production design — clinical interiors and glinting half-moon helmets — recalls Kubrick’s 2001; the one lone crew member chimes with movies like Moon and The Martian and Gravity; and the theme of reproduction invokes Alien and its spawn. The space movie is an elastic genre. There can be science-fiction space movies, comedies, adventure movies, buddy movies, and horror movies. Outer space is isolating and disorienting, and so the human characters in these films become exemplary, a vision of us, of what we are or could be. Like the space program itself, space movies are often exercises in ideology, celebrations of technological innovation, expansionist aspirations, and, of course, great men: scientists and pioneers and fathers. First men.
High Life is a movie about prisoner-workers, the West’s last men (a professor on Earth marvels that the trip to the black hole is how “the Occidental governmental authorities” deal with their criminals). This is what links High Life so closely with Alien, another movie about a working-class crew terrorized by an obsessively reproductive creature and an obsessively reproductive company. The alien of Alien is a menace but is not cruel: it is simply driven to live and reproduce (this is especially clear in the director’s cut, where Ripley discovers that the alien is not actually killing the crew but using them in an elaborate reproductive system that swamps the inner walls of the ship). Rather, it is the company that is monstrous — the most emotionally explosive scenes of the film show the crew reacting not to the alien but to the company and to the horrifying realization that they have been used and mislead and reduced to expendable components of this vast enterprise.
High Life explores what it would be like if the crew knew all this all along: that their lives are irrelevant and they will almost certainly die, that the company/government is using, invading, and plumbing their bodies for its own ends, that a creature obsessed with reproduction is stalking them aboard the ship. If none of this was ever hidden, there can be no scandal of discovery (hence High Life is not “horror,” which is a genre of reaction shots). If there is no alternative, there can be no posture of opposition, no hope of uprising or escape. There is only an elaborate grinding machine that must deal with occasional spasms of dysfunction, of bodies momentarily exploding in resistance before being subdued, wrapped up, and expelled.
Dibs’s experiments, though, are not working; the bodies are not doing their job. As the mechanism grinds and stalls, and the spaceship barrels onward, a restlessness begins to disturb the crew. They fight, hissing and batting at each other like cats, not because they care about anything that’s happening — they are not revolting — but simply because the tension is rising, like noise or temperature. A young man with a neck tattoo attacks one of the sleeping females, punches her in the face, and tries to rape her. The others leap around, screaming and wrestling him away while Stuart Staples’s score blasts louder, and Denis’s otherwise reserved and patient camera joins the commotion, swinging around in the frenzy. When the tattooed man is finally ripped away from the woman, Monte pummels his head to a broken mess.
More scenes follow, nothing builds. At the screening I attended, a dozen or so people walked out, and others left at other points, resisting Denis’s experiment. Part of me was with them, and I am still trying to understand exactly what repelled me so. The violence was terrible, but this alone can’t explain it. Denis’s films are filled with brutal harms. I think what makes that scene, and High Life as a whole, so aesthetically abrasive is that there is no psychological or motivational cushioning, and very little formal unity structuring the film as a whole. The violence explodes within this zone of indifference with nothing holding it down, nothing knitting it into a proper, hence comfortable, narrative place. So it becomes quite real then: the film is not just about violence, the film is itself violent and the audience suffers this directly. And yet while the violence breaks out like a shattering bomb, apparently so unmanageable as to send festival moviegoers from their seats, it is, on the other hand, absolutely predictable. Such crises are internal to this kind of system.
Dr. Dibs finally rapes Monte in his sleep and inseminates Boyse (Mia Goth), who eventually gives birth. Everyone dies — having killed each other or themselves — except Monte and his child. Since the means of her production were never aiming at the creation of human life, but rather at technological success, the baby is really less a human being than a product. And in this case what counts as success is the creation of a product with the capacity to reproduce itself. Willow grows up to become a wide-eyed and awkward teenager, about the age of Robert Pattinson’s first fans. She watches videos of life on Earth and mimics the movements of prayer. Another ship docks with theirs and it turns out to be filled with dogs; she begs her father for a puppy, he says no. Willow also tries to join her dad in bed, but he sends her away (remember, “taboo”).
This, then, is the problem: the daughter and father cannot reproduce, there are no more resources, the product is void, this is the end of the production line. In the final scene they smile at each other, heads in helmets shining like two suns; Monte asks if she is ready and Willow says yes. Whether they are ripped apart inside the black hole or live their days out on the ship, these are the last ones. The whole rotten experiment is a failure.
The cinema is also a reproductive machine. It is an apparatus that harvests the sights and sounds of the pre-existing, sensorial world, dissembles and rearranges them, and then generates its own moving images. It then projects these images out of itself and onto a screen. The audience takes in these projections, and these sounds and images in turn live on in us, becoming part of who we are, and something we share with others. We are the “conscious organs” in an elaborate system of transitions and exchanges between life and machine: world to cinema, cinema to subject, and subject back out to the world.
In the days and weeks after viewing High Life, I discovered that this movie had spawned trains of thought and image that continued to unfurl in me, linking up with other thoughts and images and memories and affects. I am still trying to digest it: sometimes this process gives rise to new and living thinking, and here the film seems genuinely creative; other times the movie sits like a hard lump, yielding nothing.
I don’t know if High Life is a good film. A work of art can occasion great ideas and conversation without being good art. Working this zone of undecidability is, in fact, Denis’s métier (with the exception of Beau Travail, which everyone loves and which you’d be wrong not to, you’d have seen the film incorrectly). I love Trouble Every Day, for instance: Béatrice Dalle’s frantic cannibal was like nothing I’d ever seen before or ever since. But, like High Life, the movie also supports the opposite reaction. While I find the violence vital, strangely full of wild and needful life, someone who found it awful and misanthropic would not be wrong. We’d be seeing the same film. Denis makes films risky, difficult, and accomplished enough to justify such vast ranges of response.
A friend of mine left the theater wanting to see High Life again immediately; I did not. But the movie keeps coming back to me, usually when I’m reading the news or waiting for sleep. When it comes, the film’s mood — automated misery punctuated by pounding violence — pools over my mind like dirty water, called up by a world that can feel as rotten as Denis’s spaceship. In these moments, High Life feels like a film for our time.
Francey Russell is a postdoc in the philosophy and humanities departments at Yale University.
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