Claire Denis’s Harrowing High Life Is a Sci-Fi Movie About Prison, Not Space
No one floats in High Life, Clarie Denis’s new deep-space thriller. There are no zero-gravity scenes in the main cabin of the movie’s spaceship, or sequences of crew members in thrilling freefall. When people are in open space, they are usually dead, forming a surreal tableaux, descending slowly. The interior of the ship, which is given a number rather than a title, looks more like a psych ward than the Enterprise. In these cramped and padded hallways, people remain firmly on the ground. What is suspended, instead, is consensus about morality and human decency. In these far recesses of the universe, where moving forward and moving backward feel the same, Denis forces the viewer to put aside any narrow expectations that her film will provide some clean and didactic internal logic, and give themselves over to a story that she expresses in pure gesture and moments of emotional catharsis.
When we first encounter the spaceship, it has drifted multiple solar systems and centuries away from human civilization. The crew is comprised of Death Row convicts from Earth, including Boyse (Mia Goth), Tcherny (Andre Benjamin, as in 3000), captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger), mad ship doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), and protagonist Monte (Robert Pattinson), a murderer who has become an unwitting father. They have been released from their earthly prison cells in exchange for their participation in a mission to study a black hole, with a vague assurance that they won’t lose their lives in the process. The group also serve as subjects for experiments with human reproduction, portrayed in unsparing detail. Over time, so far from home and cast out so clumsily (their vessel literally resembles a giant floating trash can), the prisoners lose their grip on society’s governing systems of behavior, which have lost meaning and utility for them.
This is clearly a kamikaze mission, but the prisoners accepted it as a potentially meaningful alternative to a life behind bars back home. That sense of purpose, or even “glory,” soon proves to be illusory. Dibs’s fertility experiments are more like excuses for her to satisfy her own carnal desires, creating a culture on the ship in which people’s bodies are viewed merely as tools, objects worthy of manipulation and abuse. High Life’s form mirrors the prisoners’ increasing disorientation: time is only a construct, with past, present, and future folding into one elliptical narrative. The film acutely demonstrates the moments when each character loses whatever small hope they have to help them bear this sort of existence.
With only limited exterior footage to put the ship into context in the far solar system it is traversing, deep space itself doesn’t seem to matter in High Life as much as the sense of cosmic futility that it represents. High Life recalls space epics like Alien and Solaris, but also hallucinatory movies set in mental hospitals, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shock Corridor. Though its plot revolves around sexuality and warped forms of human connection, High Life is fundamentally a film about being in prison: a speculative fantasy about what happens when a group of humans finds that the goal posts defining their existence have been moved for them, against their will. They are stuck in a space that isn’t meant for humans, with nothing but each other and the destination they may or may not be hurtling toward.
The prisoners are trapped in small rooms together, with minimal opportunities to indulge in escapism. They can do so in the ship’s lush, rain-soaked vegetable garden—with which the film opens, decontextualized and magnificent, like some unearthly Eden—and in a shadowy chamber known as the “Fuck Box,” outfitted with a provocative central machine. Like the peaceful garden, the sex room is also a place for a sort of self-care, free from Dr. Dibs’s otherwise complete dominion (though she enjoys its pleasures too). It’s one of the few areas of the ship in which the prisoners can be alone, and its existence implies that they are entitled to something for themselves as individuals, even if it exists only in fantasy. All one can hope for in an unjust and random world, Denis seems to propose, may be contained in these two spaces: a garden to tend and a room of one’s own.
Lightly symbolic aspects like these expose High Life’s humanistic streak. Still, much of the film’s action is brutal, designed to shock in the moment, and difficult to parse thematically. Sometimes, Denis’ realizations of the darkest corners of her and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau’s imagination, both in images and in crass dialogue, seem like free-associative indulgences. Long stretches of the film are deeply unpleasant to watch, with scenes of sexual violence and manipulation overwhelming any potential for dark humor. Denis overthrows typical cinematic pacing in these disturbing and hedonistic sections, prolonging them well beyond the realm of comfort. Still, the shock reveals something about our expectations as modern moviegoers, even in the sphere of the daring indie film: perhaps we derive comfort from a certain conservatism and reliance on verisimilitude, which High Life steadfastly declines to provide.
Ultimately, then, the true sense of weightlessness in High Life comes from Denis’ suspension of traditionally redemptive character arcs and clearly framed sociopolitical commentary, and her refusal to pull punches when dealing with highly sensitive subject matter. In her story, the idea of liking or disliking any particular character, or understanding their actions within an established value set, is a pointless exercise. When Monte and his daughter Willow are left alone and forgotten, he challenges her at one point: “What do you know about cruelty?” It’s a concept defined by its opposite. Willow, who was born and raised in space with only her father as teacher, has had no exposure to societal signifiers that would clarify the meaning of cruelty, or of kindness. Her limited knowledge comes from scrambled slideshows of human society beamed in from Earth: nearly incomprehensible, arriving centuries too late and offering no guidance. High Life, too, scrambles and distorts the order we expect films to impose on human existence. In the process, it frees itself from any possible prison of audience expectation, to unforgettable and texturally dazzling effect.