High Life: Cerebral Cosmic Horror
An inelegant box, somewhat resembling a shipping container or an intergalactic trash can, glides silently through the infinite; its maze of corridors silent, splashed by flickering reds and blues from grimy lights. The floors are littered with debris, the walls peeling and sprayed with what appears to be blood. At the heart of the box lies a vibrant emerald garden glistening with artificial dew – flowers and vegetation burst from a strange humanoid mound. In the basement, white stains pool around a mysterious, locked room. After 24 hours, the lights go out, the dew dries up and the plants die. For the rest of time, this artificial environment of death and decay drifts through the cosmos. This is what is left of humanity at the end of Claire Denis’ mysterious, haunting High Life.
At one point, there was life here. We’re first introduced to Robert Pattinson’s Monty and his infant daughter Willow as the former tries to fix an error on the ship via spacewalk whilst trying to calm the baby via audio link. Denis’ typically elliptical style means that it’s not exactly clear what the hell is going on for quite some time (if at all), and that it doesn’t entirely matter what’s going on either. Journey, not Destination. What is clear is that there were many others on this ship at one point, and that those others are now dead. We see Monty discarding their corpses to maximise fuel efficiency. Over the title card, the collection of lifeless bodies drifts down into blackest space.
The gist of things is that Monty, and a bunch of other transgressive types, were prisoners on death row or with life sentences given a ‘second chance’ by being sent to harvest energy from a black hole (it may sound farfetched, but the movie’s ‘Penrose process’ is a real thing). In beautiful naturalist 16mm footage, which lushly contrasts against the hard, quasi-brutalist interiors of the spaceship, we catch snippets of the convicts’ past lives. The beauty collides sharply with the savagery of some of the acts committed: Denis is fascinated by the idea of taboo, and of breaking societal rules. These spacemen and women seem almost alien to us given their heinous acts – with the ships Edenic garden and later father-daughter conundrum, High Life constantly reminds us of the incestuous taboo at the forefront of the myth of human existence.
Across time and space, the black hole finds a kindred spirit on the ship in the form of the ‘Fuckbox’, a room painted in what can only be Vantablack (assuming that by the time High Life takes place, Anish Kapoor has shuffled off this mortal coil) and sporting mysterious, half-revealed sexual contraptions that skirt the line between modern and ancient, mechanical and organic. The crew are not permitted to have sexual relations, but can relieve their sexual frustrations here. After use, a sort of car-wash contraption descends from the roof and washes the space clean, a puddle of white ooze pouring out of a vent and into a drain outside. Stuart Staple’s drone metal composition for the space, reminiscent of Sunn O))) crossed with Sigur Ros, drops into the deep expanse between magical and satanic.
The high priestess of this church of perversion – nicknamed the ‘shaman of sperm’ – is Juliette Binoche’s Dibs, the on-board scientist who seems to have been tasked with an ulterior motive. Stephen Hawking famously wrote that humanity would need to figure out how to steel babies against radiation in order to get by beyond the earth, and Dibs tries through nefarious means to reach that goal – she is ‘dedicated to reproduction’. One suspects that this, not the black hole energy, may have been the real purpose of the expedition – the crew are fed sedative drugs which they become addicted to, in exchange for allowing the mad scientist to harvest their sperm. In their inescapable sleep, Dibs stalks the silent corridors, forcibly inseminating the female prisoners with her samples.
The crew begin to die over time: some of disease, some at the hands of others, and some at their own. Some are simply taken by time. Despite the diversity of morbidities, it is the equality of outcome that matters: death was always the destination. The inevitable conclusion of this mission was annihilation; the inevitable conclusion of humanity is annihilation. How, Denis asks us, do we cope with this existential suicide vest weighing us down from the dawn of sentience? We are all, like these prisoners, sentenced to death. The faster the crew travel and the closer they get to the abyss, the more they seem compelled by mystical forces to fuck and kill and die. In a creepy Event Horizon-esque segment, we’re asked what the difference is between them (Us) and caged dogs. The mastery of the moment is that there is no easy answer.
If all this sounds supremely odd, that’s because it is. Denis frequently courts dream logic and subconscious rhythms – I once wrote that the credits of Trouble Every Day feel like waking from a dream, and it has been said that a Denis film washes over the audience in waves, like a liquid. These tendencies are just as predominant in High Life, though perhaps more images have been taken from the ‘had too much cheese and wine before bed fever-nightmare’ pile. The film lands at what must be the upper end of the 18 rating in the UK, and surely courts the possibility of NC-17 in the States. There are, it has to be said, heavy quantities of graphic rape, gore, violence, otherwise consensual sexual activity, and spillages of practically every nameable bodily fluid. In fact, Denis seems obsessed with the substances that flow out of our bodies: how they disgust us, why they disgust us, just how fragile our form really is.
Of all the stated influences in High Life, Tarkovsky’s Solaris stands above the rest as a companion piece. Both are prime examples of what we might call ‘cerebral sci-fi’ – contemplative, dense pieces of work that rely much more on the audience than one usually expects. In contrast to 2001 (which has also been widely compared to Denis’ film), both High Life and Solaris take advantage of outer space to remark on our inner selves – our personalities, actions, and emotions. Though if we were to triple-bill these three existential cosmic-horror masterpieces, High Life would come up darkest and most troubling.
Although the theses of both films are very much open to interpretation, I’ve always taken Solaris to be about unknowability. Kris is in love with Hari, but what he’s really in love with is his own subconscious projection of who he believes Hari to be. He can never understand, like we can never understand, another being. We are alone on our own islands of consciousness – something compounded by that audacious final shot that highlights humanity’s ignorance at its own existence. Denis, more confidently, doesn’t simply ask questions or demonstrate mystery, but provides answers. High Life argues that the threat of obliteration (and individual obliteration, Tarkovsky would surely agree, may as well be absolute obliteration) is the gravitational force which motivates our base desires – including, paradoxically, that to create life.
But this is, it must be said, a better film than Solaris. It’s more mysterious, less gratingly self-aggrandizing, and is altogether more beautiful to look at – the influence of Olafur Eliasson leading to bold lighting and design choices that push the film beyond its budget. It also clocks in at under two hours, nearly a whole hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s bulky, overlong work that included (amongst other things) almost an hour of unnecessary on-earth exposition. Crucially, also, Solaris’ strangeness is external – its mysterious story about a sentient alien ocean peripheral to the psychological drama; High Life’s display of grotesquery, and ultimately its cosmic horror, are inexorably tied to its philosophy and vision.
The external becomes the internal. The pitch black of space the void that our collective consciousness constantly tumbles into; the nebulae that so closely resemble human anatomy to the point where it’s hard to tell what we’re even looking at. Inevitably, even the mechanics of space travel become tied to Denis’ ultimate thesis: the faster we travel forward, the more we move backward. We are consumed by oblivion: like the band of glowing fragments of light that swirl in the gravitational pull of High Life’s black hole, we orbit death as we move through our lives, tugged and changed by the magnetism of annihilation. Like that beam, our predetermined path inevitably comes full circle and dives headlong into the abyss: the agony and ecstasy of that moment is the engine of human progress and, paradoxically, regress.
All that is left is the void.