(Release Info U.K. schedule; May 9th, 2019, Picturehouse Exeter,
Bartholomew St W, Exeter EX4 3AJ, United Kingdom, 12:00 pm)
Deep space. Beyond our solar system. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Jessi Ross) live together aboard a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A solitary man, who uses his strict self-discipline in a shield against desire, his own and that of others, Monte fathered the girl against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate Boyse (Mia Goth), the young woman who gave birth to the girl. They're members of a crew of prisoners; space convicts, death row inmates. Guinea pigs sent on a mission to 'The Black Hole' closest to Earth. Now only Monte and Willow remain. And Monte is no longer the same. Through his daughter, for the first time, he experiences the birth of an all-powerful love. Willow grows, first of all into a young girl and then into a young woman. Together, father and daughter approach their destination; the black hole in which time and space cease to exist.
Monte is part of a motley crew of convicts sent in a spaceship to seemingly exploit an energy resource from a 'Black Hole'. But they're the ones exploited as guinea pigs for sexual experiments by their medical officer Dr. Dibbs (Juliette Binoche). Dr. Dibs is a sort of 'Strangelove' in space, slightly crazed and dangerous. And it's wild to see Willow learning to walk in the corridor of the spaceship, because those truly were the baby's (Scarlett), first steps, taken in front of a camera. At the end of the day she's happily cooing and walking. It’s one of the favorite scenes. That's where we see on Monte's face that his beauty doesn’t get in the way of his goodness. Or rather, that his goodness is beautiful to see. The other crew members are Tcherny (André Benjamin), Nansen (Agatha Buzek), Chandra (Lars Eidinger), Mink (Claire Tran), Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), Elektra (Gloria Obianyo). All of them are wonderful individually and collectively. The same thing about them all; rebellious, broken youth.
What unites them is that they’re a group of delinquents, from the community of men and women on death row. In exchange for so-called freedom, they agree to be sent into space to be used as guinea pigs for more-or-less scientific experiments on reproduction, pregnancy, birth; under the strict supervision of a doctor who also has a serious criminal record. It’s a prison in space, a penal colony where the inmates are more or less equals. A sort of phalanstery where no one is really giving orders, even the woman doctor, whose task is to collect sperm like a queen bee. The queen bee is in charge, but the real leader, the only absolute and imperceptible commander, is the spaceship itself, programmed to lead them all to a 'Black Hole', to infinity, to death. A sort of squat house, drab, dirty, poorly lit. There's a main corridor and cells on both sides. On the floor below are a medical lab, a morgue and a greenhouse garden.
That earth is their Earth, the only thing that reminds them that they're earthlings, men and women of the earth. For the doctor’s lab, the film shows the same simplicity, the strict minimum; test tubes, a few instruments, a chair for gynecologic exams. None of the typical science fiction props, laser guns, disintegrators, teleportation devices. The same goes for weightlessness. There's no need for weightlessness because the spaceship is accelerating close to the speed of light. Terrestrial gravity, gravity in every sense of the word, reestablishes itself, because gravity is the effect of acceleration. All these men and women have in common is the English they speak. It's the only international language, along with Russian, that's spoken on modern-day space missions. Although soon people will be speaking Chinese in space. English, or more precisely the American English spoken in the film, serves another purpose.
There's a flashback in the film that could be considered explanatory. The scene is shot on the roof of train on the frontier between Poland and Belarus. On this train are stowaways, hobos, some of whom we may recognize from the space station. Is it their past? It's more like a melancholic allusion that can evoke not only 'Kerouac’s On the Road' but also those convoys of outsiders and misfits that cross America from east to west. Train, bridge, forests. Other colors which contrast with film’s main palette. In point of fact, that scene is shot in 16mm, not in digital, which tends to rub out nuances. On the computer screens in the spaceship, we see three images from Earth. A random rugby match, an old documentary and a home movie. The documentary is a piece of 'In The Land Of The Head Hunters'. It's not an image of piety, compassion or nostalgia, but one of extreme sadness. What has become of them? Down what fatal rabbit hole did they disappear? These three groups of images, pixelated by the spaceship’s computers, are like archives of times past that can never be regained.
Every passenger on the spaceship dresses similarly, in a sort of work uniform with the number 7 on it. 7 is the number of the spaceship. It’s like it is tattooed on their bodies. It implies that this spaceship is one in a series. At an important moment in the film, spaceship 7 docks with another spaceship, number 9, in which the only survivors are dogs; unless it's part of different experiment for dogs only. The film shows this encounter with animality, a mirror of our own, a challenge to our pseudo humanity and the ghoulish fate we've set aside for our so-called pets. The first living creature sent into space was a Russian dog Laïka, who didn’t survive her return to Earth. Sexuality is very present in "High Life" but is treated funereally. Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda. But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes even more abstract, if it's just to reproduce. If the men have to set aside their sperm for the doctor, yes, they get to cum, but for science. Before 'Christianity', marriage served one purpose; procreation. Sexuality is about fluids. As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it’s all about fluids: blood, sperm.
We've to reduce the sex act to masturbation, more or less technically assisted by the Fuckbox fitted with a dildo for Dr. Dibs, who gives it her all, but in total solitude. This scene is, in part, dark and useless. But what's useful, in the end? Trying to cum isn’t useless. All of her strength is in her back. Later, she goes at night to steal the sperm of Monte, who's knocked out by sleeping pills. It’s a robbery. And definitely a rape. But we see Monte moaning, comatose but not in pain. It’s the story of a man alone in space for the rest of his life, with a baby most likely his, who will become a young woman and eventually his femme fatale, if ever he makes up his mind; this sort of knight, this 'Perceval', this scout of another story, to break his vow of chastity. This is what happens at the end of the film when the young woman, who has no other man on hand, who doesn’t even know that this man his handsome because she has never had anyone to compare him to, makes the first move. We're approaching the forbidden planet, the absolute taboo. A girl is also a woman. Incest is the quest for the ultimate in sex, because it's forbidden.
What would you expect from a space opera directed by Claire Denis? Well, everything. "High Life" does to sci-fi what Denis "Trouble Every Day" did to vampire films; it’s a radical interpretation where the filmmaker subverts tropes and genre while preserving their very essence. The film explores Denis favourite themes, bodies and outsiders, which are desired and rejected at the same time. Mind-bending and very organic, "High Life" is a crossover between "Solaris" and "Alien", but without needing any monster. The shape of spaceship 7 doesn’t correspond to typical science fiction criteria. The spaceship looks like a box of matches. But it’s not a whim or a fancy. Not to play the astrophysicist card. When you leave the solar system, there's zero resistance, so the spaceship can be any shape as long as it's equipped with an energy source to keep it moving. The missile-like aerodynamic shape becomes useless or absurd. It’s above all a fascinating work on on how to keep one's humanity in the space void. The film recalls a country where the death penalty still exists, i.e. certain states in 'The US'.
The characters are presented as men and women without a past. There's an earlier version of the script that referenced their former lives. The film makes a point of not over-fictionalizing the characters; they've all probably committed terrible crimes, but we don’t pursue it. Their history, collective or individual, takes place in the present and; who knows? In the future, even if for most of them the future will take the form of a cemetery under the stars. They all are contemporary community, utopians, hippies of a special sort, who've gone from juvenile detention centers to prisons and who do not want to live in any society other than their own. Desire and solitude, that’s the main theme. More or less. But above all, "High Life" is not a science fiction film even if there are healthy doses of fiction and science thanks to the precious participation of the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, specialist in astroparticle physics and black holes. The film takes place in space but it’s very grounded. It's a film about despair and human tenderness. About love, despite everything.