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In 2001, the French film-maker Claire Denis performed a full vivisection of the vampire film with Trouble Every Day, a philosophical, ambiguous take on the usual tropes of horror. She rendered the building blocks of an often schematic genre frightening and alien through novel formal techniques. Instead of lurking monsters jumping out to spook the audience, the camera often sneaked up on its subjects, while her narrative resisted convention at every turn in pursuit of loftier ideas about existence and transformation. The average Dracula fan might have thought they had wandered into a parallel dimension.
Seventeen years and six features later, and everything old is new again. Denis has turned her sights on sci-fi, reconfiguring its familiar components to create a startlingly fresh engagement with the question of what it means to be human. It’s the genre’s most done-to-death topic, yet she brings something truly original to the conversation. Her answer, as the spectacular High Life tells it, has a lot to do with achieving orgasm.
Bodily functions abound in this captivating journey through the void of space. Lactation, ejaculation and gestation clue the viewer in on what Denis might be getting at through an elliptical story, in which an eclectic cast play a collection of death-row inmates forced to cohabitate on a self-sustaining station in orbit. Their assignment – to explore black holes in the hopes of harvesting their rotational energy for the citizens of Earth – is sold to them as an opportunity for heroism. However, it’s not long before they realise that they’re all but guaranteed to perish in the process. Mission drift sets in, and the on-board doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche in a French braid of Rapunzelian proportions), starts conducting experiments of her own with captives Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Boyse (Mia Goth).
This film’s fleet 110 minutes contain too many shocks and amazements to be spelled out here. Suffice it to say that Denis proposes the erotic drive as the fuel to use when there’s nothing left to live for. In the negative zone beyond the stratosphere, depicted as a physical glitch humankind was never meant to explore, severe isolation returns the brain to its basest biological capacity. Every day is a battle to stay sane (less apparent among Denis’ feats here is that she has casually constructed a remorselessly honest look into the psychological ramifications of incarceration), so extreme, bizarre measures must sometimes be called on. With an achievement of this calibre it’s hard to resist hyperbole: High Life contains the single greatest one-person sex scene in the history of cinema.
The brilliance of Denis’ films, with their arresting imagery, tends to creep up on viewers hours or even days later – the film critic Manny Farber dubbed this class of work “termite art”. But her astral epic also offers a more immediate appeal – situated, as it is, in the iconic corridors of Alien and the like. Using faintly retro technological interfaces and sleek production design she smuggles in her musings on memory and being. If Tarkovsky got away with it in Stalker, then why not her? She courts the comparison early on, reproducing a noted shot of a dog in a river, and then amply earns it by establishing a fluid slipstream between Monte’s past, present, and future. Where does Denis get off, making a film so densely theoretical and superficially satisfying? Though, on second thought, High Life is a thesis on exactly where (and how) Denis gets off.
It’s always risky when an overseas master tries their hand in English language with Hollywood actors. Denis surmounts the challenge with exemplary finesse, holding on to her intelligence and the skill with which she executes it, while playing to the flashier pleasures of big-budget American product. No matter where she goes – to the furthest reaches of the known universe, or the fringe boundaries of semi-reputable genres – a Claire Denis film is a Claire Denis film. Accept no substitutes.
Source: The Guardian
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