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Claire Denis’s deep-space trauma High Life is an Old Testament parable catapulted forward into the 23rd century, a primal scene in a pressurised cabin of sci-fi pessimism, suppressed horror and denied panic. As if in a recurring dream, Denis brings us repeatedly to the image of a cream-panelled spaceship corridor that curves sharply around to the right; the area is at first pristine and then, as the years go by, shabby and derelict, stained with what may be body fluids. And what is around that corner?
This is a bizarre new creationist myth for those of us who ever wondered in childhood, and then forgot to wonder, about the taboo-breaking involved in propagating a race from just two people in the Garden of Eden, or two species representatives in the ark. It is also a tale of imperial expansion and sexual beings under pressure, just as in earlier Denis movies such as Beau Travail (1999) or White Material (2009); this is written by Denis with Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox and Nick Laird, shot with luminous mystery by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, with an eerie musical score by Stuart Staples of the band Tindersticks.
At its centre is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, who is evidently all alone on a spaceship that exterior shots reveal to be shaped entirely without the elegant streamlined curves of a craft designed for purposeful travel. It is huge and rectangular, suspended in space like a clunking great container unit full of rubbish. Actually, Monte isn’t entirely alone. He has a tiny infant with him called Willow, whom he tends to and talks to conscientiously but unsmilingly.
Denis creates a grippingly unreadable dynamic right here. There is something adorable in the trusting baby and the adult’s care, and yet nothing else around speaks of gentleness and love. It’s not at all clear, in fact, that Monte is capable of love, or if events have not rendered the emotion of love obsolete.
Monte talks of recycling the child’s excrement, and the film reflects that the crew members themselves are recycled waste: marginal, transgressive figures who have been put to work in what may be the service of mankind, or some mendacious or desperate plan born of humanity’s fear of its own impending extinction.
Flashbacks reveal that Monte was once one of an extensive crew, an anti-community of former prisoners among whom there is unbearable tension. There appears to be no captain or leader in any traditional sense; the nearest thing to an authority figure is the white-coated Dibs, played by Juliette Binoche, someone with medical training.
Like all the other desperate souls on board, Dibs has a past and is expected to redeem that past by taking part in this experimental space mission: to harvest the energy of a distant black hole and bring it back to Earth. But the journey there will be longer than any normal human lifespan, so the crew members are expected to breed, to create a second or third generation that will be in a position to deal with the black hole when the ship finally arrives.
Dibs is in charge of something called the Fuck Box (like the Orgasmatron of old), which facilitates and manages their erotic needs, making these easier to channel into procreation. (As with other Denis films, such as Let the Sunshine In, there is an idle, subsidiary pleasure in wondering how it would be if the Binoche part was given to Isabelle Huppert.)
The pure radioactive strangeness of High Life has something in common with Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) in its onboard vegetable garden (although this garden is small, and perhaps symbolically represented). And there is something of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in the glitzy, alienated weightlessness of everyone’s spacecraft existence being juxtaposed with the non-technological naturalness of Planet Earth: the soil, the streams, the grasses, those wild textures and smeared surfaces so different from the controlled metallic gleam of that incarceration way out in space. It is here that there will be almost limitless violence, a psycho-chemical reaction, a silent detonation, from which some kind of enigmatic new hope, or anticipation for the future is to emerge.
As with so many of Denis’ films, the point is to contrive an overwhelmingly powerful mood and moment, an almost physiological sensation, this one incubated in the vast, cold reaches of space. It throbbed and itched with me long after the film was over.
Source: The Guardian
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