“High Life” is a high point in Claire Denis’ career
With her new film “High Life” starring Robert Pattinson, French auteur Claire Denis delivers a futuristic tale about a space crew traveling beyond our solar system. The film deals with the ethical issues of informed consent and the treatment of prisoners, but beneath the surface the film seems to be about something much more primal: the biological imperative to procreate.
Pattinson plays Monte, an astronaut in deep space struggling to care for his infant daughter Willow aboard an otherwise empty craft. Through extensive use of flashbacks, the story of how they got there is revealed.
Monte was one of several death row inmates who chose to volunteer for a mission to space in lieu of their sentence. It turns out, however, that the prisoners were never informed that they wouldn’t be returning to Earth.
Their main mission is to seek out a black hole and harness its energy for the people back on Earth. The secondary goal of the mission is for the doctor, herself a death row inmate, to perform experiments on the other crew members. The experiments largely consist of creating and sustaining new human life in deep space through artificial insemination.
The doctor, played by Juliette Binoche, collects sperm samples and administers them to the drugged crew members. A scene very early on shows her entering an isolation chamber which is revealed to be an automated masturbation booth. The scene’s sinister score and the cinematic rendering of her body, mostly naked and from behind, makes the scene play like some sort of satanic ritual.
The doctor is compared early on to a witch, the psychological inverse of a mother figure. Her task to create life artificially is the inverse of the natural; it consumes her and becomes her religion. Her science is her witchcraft, and it is feared by every member of the crew. It’s fitting then, that the doctor is later revealed to have earned her death sentence on Earth by murdering her own children.
All of these characters, including the doctor, deal with the hardwired biological imperative to procreate in vastly different ways.
Andre Benjamin plays Tcherny, a convict who volunteered for the mission to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and little son. His parental sacrifice is symbolically rendered when he lies down in the soil of the ships garden to die. He essentially plants himself in the dirt like a seed for new life to sprout.
Boyse, played by Mia Goth, is successfully inseminated by the doctor and finds the experience of motherhood to be extremely alienating. This is showcased powerfully in a scene where breastmilk pours down her body as she looks on in horror.
One crew member dies from complications with her pregnancy. Another violently attempts rape. And still another, Monte, decides to raise and care for a child despite the hopeless future. They are trapped on the ship forever; they will never return to Earth. Yet Monte carries on, raising up the girl and teaching her as best he can.
Toward the end of the film, the characters reach the black hole. In physics, a black hole is a region of spacetime that has such a strong gravitational pull that nothing can escape it. The black hole seems to be symbolic of the theme itself. The black hole is the biological imperative to procreate. And no matter who we are or what we believe, we can’t escape it. We may experience the implications in vastly different ways. Whether it be through sacrifice, alienation, violence, or annihilation, to be human is to be devoured by its gravitational pull. Near the event horizon, all paths in every direction lead toward the same end.
“High Life” seems to argue that although to perpetuate the cycle of life means to ensure its own eventual death, we must fly headlong into the unknown. Even in the face of a hopeless future, we must carry on.
“High Life” is now playing at Regal Cinemas Village Square.