There is a hell of a lot of masturbation in Claire Denis’ latest film, High Life, and that’s as good a metaphor as any for the film. High Life is intellectual masturbation — devoid of human engagement, just sad in the gulf between the fantasy and reality.
High Life it is in a way transcendent. It has broken through to a new kind of awful that was previously inaccessible to humanity. Never before has a director taken the raw materials of extensive murder, rape, and animal cruelty, a Harry Potter and Twilight heartthrob (Robert Pattinson), an extraordinary musician (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000), one of the world’s finest actresses (Juliette Binoche), added in black holes, and yet made something from it as engrossing a coma and as comprehensible as senility.
The movie begins with Monte (Pattinson) working on the exterior of a spaceship, over the cries from a baby monitor. It seems he and this infant are the only survivors of this mysterious mission. In time we piece together that a crew of criminals was sent out to extract energy from a black hole, and in flashbacks, we get the story of how, through a series of rapes and murders, we’re left with only these two. The ship has an unexplained feature — Pattinson has to interface with the computer using a chip in his finger every 24 hours in order to renew life support. In time we learn that the ship used to be run by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a mad scientist so obsessed with sex and reproduction that she’s willing to resort to rape and non-consensual artificial insemination to create a baby that won’t die from radiation.
Right from the start, the aesthetic is ugly and inconsistent. The space suits look like cheap props, the corridors look like a normal building hallway, despite the rooms looking like a real space station, and the computer controlling the mission has the font and interface of something from the 60s, but with today’s hardware (though set in the far future). It would almost seem like a deconstruction of 2001, as if to subvert the meticulous attention to detail and homicidal computer at the core of the grandfather of the genre, except that it never follows through.
“…we get the story of how, through a series of rapes and murders, we’re left with only these two.“
Speaking of Kubrick, it is almost as if this film was made on a dare to see if Denis could make a mashup of 2001 and Dr. Strangelove with none of the awe of the former or humor of the latter. Juliette Binoche’s Dibs has all the obsession for “precious bodily fluids” as Jack D. Ripper — at one point she carries a character’s semen through the halls cupped in her hands. She combines that with and all the deranged zeal of Strangelove himself (though played totally straight). Other characters ride into oblivion with all the determination of Slim Pickens astride the bomb. Is the black hole here the vaginal equivalent of Strangelove’s phallic bomb? Isn’t that the stupidest sentence you’ve ever read? Yet these are the kind of things you wonder when you’re trying to find meaning in nonsense.
High Life has all the subtlety of a 4chan post. It is calculated to outrage, yet done so very incompetently. Rape, murder, and animal cruelty are the big guns of audience manipulation. They are used in cinema all the time, often to great effect. But if you’re going to pull one out, it had better pay off. Here they’re thrown in as if calculated outrage is the only point. Is the black hole supposed to be a metaphor for the human soul? That was sophomoric in 1997 when Event Horizon tried it.
High Life has serious thematic problems. I’ve heard some suggest it is supposed to be our reaction to confinement or exposure to the void. That doesn’t even make any sense, because the astronauts were all selected from rapists and murderers in the first place. Why would humanity send such awful people to do the most challenging and expensive thing they’ve ever attempted? Is the message that striving for greatness is folly?
“Is the black hole here the vaginal equivalent of Strangelove’s phallic bomb?“
Spoiler alert (for two paragraphs) for something that happens late in the movie: in between black holes, in the vast void, our protagonists just happen upon another identical ship. Except the only living occupants are dogs. They are in really bad shape, having eaten each other to stay alive. Until this point, the movie has taken great pains to establish that life support will only renew every 24 hours if you have a special chip in your finger, and you type instructions into a computer.
If the humans died less than 24 hours ago, all that does is establish an astonishing temporal coincidence on top of the extraordinary spatial coincidence. Thematically, it does not pay off, except in the subtext that people are animals — like the dogs, we’ll murder each other to stay alive. But you don’t need subtext when there is text! We already literally know they’re murderers because we’ve both been told and shown it! This is High Life in a nutshell — here’s some animal cruelty. Why? No reason! Are you offended?
The truth is that there is no message. This is just throwing in the kitchen sink of outrageous things, half-themes, and cinematic styles and hoping that the viewer will make something up to draw it together.
Here’s the nicest thing I’ll say about High Life: presenting your lead female character as a baby-crazed rapist is about the most anti-zeitgeist thing you can do. No male director could have gotten away with that in 2018. Though that’s the last theme I’d be looking for, for the pure boldness of not fitting into any box, High Life gets one star. I just wish there was enough here to award 9 more.
High Life (2018) Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth. High Life screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival.