At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.
High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).
The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.
The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.
High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)
If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:
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 evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.
The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.
Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):