By Peg Aloi
In space, no one can hear you go extinct.
High Life, directed by Claire Denis. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brooklne, MA, Kendall Square Cinema, and AMC Boston Common 19.
Filmmaker Claire Denis is no stranger to creating provocative re-inventions of exhausted film genres. Trouble Every Day (2001) reinvigorated the zombie film with its pensively slow takes and shockingly intimate gore. Nearly thirty years apart, Chocolat (1988) and White Material (2009) explored the world of modern French colonialism and the lingering taboos of interracial relationships. Denis’ first foray into science fiction is less a high-tech space narrative (though there are elements here) than a dark, futuristic tale of human aspiration. As with Denis’ other films, dialogue is less important than interactions among characters and physical gestures. Fortunately, an agile cast of actors helps to infuse scenes with meaning when the script’s conversations fail.
The opening shot is prescient and powerful: an indoor garden moist with mist, teeming with vegetation so rich it almost seems to be growing slowly before our eyes. There are no flowers, only fruits, vegetables, and herbs. We quickly learn this is the primary food source for a space station. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter Willow appear to be the only inhabitants. He is patient and loving with her, and speaks to her constantly, as there is no one else there to talk to. One of his first conversations with her is to tell her not to drink her own pee, or eat her own shit; it seems like a game of sorts, to give a toddler the basics of hygiene. Yet he keeps using the word “taboo.” That word hints at a bigger picture, conjuring history and culture and community, but we can’t quite understand the frame of reference, yet.
Monte records some updates into a computer about his situation and says he’s doing what he can to conserve electric power. Near the end of his recording he makes an offhand comment that it will be many years before anyone even hears what he is saying. The glib reference to his desperate situation seems a way of keeping sane. Soon after we see him move, from a storage room, the cryogenically frozen corpses of three of his companions. He gently dresses them in their cloth space suits (the costumes have an earthy, tactile feel) and carries them to a hatch where he releases them into space. There no longer seems to be any reason to use the energy to preserve them, in the unlikely event some scientist could revive them at a future date. The question of the spaceship’s mission arises: was it part of a cryogenics experiment, in which dead people are kept in a state of frozen preservation until a cure is found for whatever killed them? It turns out that the truth is closer to the opposite.
Recent past events unfold in fragments; there are glimpses of older memories. We see Monte as a child, with a red-haired girl and a dog. We see the dead companions when they were alive on the ship as well as bits from their earlier lives. We learn, partly through an occasional voiceover from Monte, that he and his shipmates are part of a mission to study human reproduction in space. Willow is clearly a successful outcome. We also learn that the subjects had been incarcerated on earth for various crimes, some committed when they were very young. Despite having been chosen for their physical strength and vitality, all of the subjects on board are dealing with various levels of pain or psychopathy in their pasts. And yet there is no established law and order, or even rules of proper conduct, on the ship. The only authority figure is the fertility doctor.
Doctor Dibs (played by Juliette Binoche) also has a difficult, though mysterious, past. Given that she oversees such intimate ministrations as collecting sperm samples and artificial insemination, her affect is an odd combination of benevolence and sadism. Her own sexual proclivities are highlighted in an intense scene showing the ship’s oddly specific appliances. “I know I look like a witch,” she says to Monte, who responds, “You’re foxy and you know it.” The women in particular (including Suspiria‘s Mia Goth) resent her; they don’t want to put themselves at risk because most of the babies have died in utero or soon after birth. The mechanics of sex are dealt with matter-of-factly, but this mission is full of both bodily pain and emotional dread. Monte, in his way, tries to disengage from the angst. Pattinson is more than up to the task of carrying this melancholic film, right through the end credits, which are worth staying for.
I was reminded of a short story from the 1960s by Kurt Vonnegut called “The Big Space Fuck,” in which a millionaire pays for a spaceship that will contain a sort of ark: filled with animals but no people. He launches it into space on search of a planet that we haven’t destroyed. The hope is that a new world might be found but, in the end, the animals turn out to be capable of building things and domesticating each other. The film doesn’t dwell overly long on the technology or even science behind this doomed voyage. The production design is strangely unobtrusive, forgoing the lofty visual settings one usually sees in space films for more realistic, pragmatic settings.
Ironically, the special effects are that much more effective because grandiose eye-popping trickery is avoided. The narrative’s focus is on the mundane functions and crises of the body, and they are examined in excruciating detail. High Life is a speculative fiction, mining existential fears in order to make the biological both wondrous and empty. I was reminded of Solaris, or Moon, both of which proffer visions of space as a crucible for loneliness and despair. As in those films, Denis provides a pensive invitation to those inclined to muse on death, infinity, and the meaning of life. The film’s naturalistic aura balances its conceptual enormity. She places people together in a confined space, and has them confront the gaping maw of eternity together. In space, no one can hear you go extinct.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.