High Life (2018)
Written by Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Directed by Claire Denis
Monte lives aboard a spaceship, raising a baby girl by himself. How he got here is told in a series of flashbacks that reveal Monte was one of a crew of convicts, taking a deal to participate in a mission to gather data from around a black hole for alternative energy. The secondary purpose is to produce a child via artificial insemination to study the effects of conception and development in space. As the crew gets further from Earth and the realization of their fate sets in they begin to lose their minds and lash out at each other. As we can see from the framing device, Monte will be one of only two who makes it, but what lies ahead for him and this child.
Claire Denis is not a filmmaker interested in making easily consumed films. The only other picture of hers that I have seen is the horror-drama Trouble Every Day, but she is a figure in contemporary French cinema that is very well known. In Trouble Every Day she takes the tropes of vampires and zombies and uses them to tell a story about destructive love. In many ways, she shows a greater understanding of those horror elements that many directors who fancy themselves creators in the genre. Her work is visceral and emotionally affecting, you can’t walk away from a Claire Denis picture without being on one end of great polarization. I can easily see many people hating High Life, and I don’t think Denis would mind.
High Life is a profoundly nihilistic film, using the doomed crew of the black hole mission to talk about all the primal elements in our lives. There’s a crazed fertility doctor, a nightmarish masturbation chamber, an idyllic misted garden, and the empty void of space beyond the walls of the ship. A constant sense of tension between the beauty of a father caring for his infant daughter and the decaying minds the convicts are all you need to understand the scope of what Denis is working out.
The film sees the beauty in the natural world and human beings living organically. Flashbacks to earth and Monte’s childhood, though capped with an act of horror, are typically shot in welcoming green hues. Life on board the ship is shaded in harsh fluorescents or bloodied reds. The only part of the vessel that is a reminder of what these people have left is the garden where one convict chooses to kill himself when he can no longer take the madness of the mission. We’re confronted with another side of the natural world, the hungry maw of a black hole. Humanity has taken its precious existence for granted on such a verdant planet and isn’t prepared for a universe that is cold and lifeless.
Early in the film, Monte is talking to his infant daughter and teaching her the word “taboo,” critical as it defines what cultures define as natural and unnatural, a constant ebb and flow of definition and redefinition. The acts that take place onboard the ship would most definitely fall into the category of taboo from the standpoint of what is generally agreed to be natural human behavior. No one is allowed to engage in sex; only use the masturbation chamber. The fertility scientist forcibly injects the female convicts with the sperm of male convicts. When one female prisoner attempts to douche herself clean, not wanting to bring a child into this hellish existence, she is bound to her bed which leaves her open to being raped by another prisoner who is losing his mind.
Monte takes a drastic counter stance to the parameters of the mission, fulfilling all his duties as a crew member when it comes to maintaining the ship but eschewing everything to do with the fertility experiments. Monte takes a vow of celibacy, and even as the scientist tries to tempt him, he doesn’t falter. It takes her drugging the crew to finally get his seed which ends up being the only successful attempt to create life. Monte is also friends with Tchemy, a man who talks about his family in warm terms and devotes his time to tending the ship’s garden. In the end, it is Monte who must make a drastic choice about him and his daughter’s existence, forced to no longer cling to his old notions of what life is and open himself to a more substantial cosmic understanding that may lead him to oblivion. The film is transparent in saying that we’re all heading towards oblivion, some handle it better than others.