Claire Denis has been waiting to unleash a film like this for decades. Her political efforts have always hoisted themes of colonialism, powerful patriarchies, and the complex human species since the start of her career. With her English language debut, and a very creative sci-fi plot, Denis is a sophisticated observation of humanity as an animalistic, biological series of machines. It may not say much through its sparse dialogue and viscously slow pacing, but its philosophies are of a large magnitude.
Take its inmate element: criminals sent to death row have been detoured into space as lab rats, as scientists experiment on them. Can we find an alternative resource to save mankind within the blackhole up ahead? Can we reproduce in space? Let’s find out with the worst people on earth! However, sometimes a death sentence is the result of a poor mistake, and not a terrible nature. High Life looks into that, too. Some of the participants (against their will) are actually awful people. Some are just the products of circumstance: racial crises, or poor timing.
The film starts off with the second act of three: a lone survivor with his child. What happened to everyone else on the ship? Well, we slowly find out. We never cut back to the present, until we find out it actually isn’t the present, but just the next stop to it. We get to know a series of inmates and their doctor (Dr. Dibs) that is currently working on them. Sex is prohibited, but self pleasure is granted (even through an elaborate machine). Reproduction is meant to be through insemination. You can sense a lack of true morality with the experimentation, here.
Of course, the inmates are going to turn on each other. Through sexual repression, and fetishization over love, some of the inmates become complete monsters on this space shuttle. The closing-in on the blackhole also isn’t doing any favours: it’s scrambling the brains of some of the passengers (some quite literally). Some of the participants find peace in self sacrifice: an ending to the torture. For Monte, this is purgatory. We know he is the only traveler left alive (outside of the child). This isolation must be endless.
Denis could easily be making an animal metaphor, here. These are people being caged, forced to reproduce (through science, not even naturally), and stripped away from their habitat for their entire lives. Tcherny finds comfort in gardening, because it reminds him of Earth (home). This is loosely based on what animals in captivity are experiencing. The kicker here is that one species is being forced into these conditions by the exact same species. No alien, higher power here. This is our fault. We drove ourselves to a lack of resources, and space on our planet. Hopefully High Life is not a harbinger of things to come, but it’s sadly a little bit current with its social analysis.
Despite being a very slow experience, High Life is a great representation of the lethargic passing of time in space (especially when you are there against your will). The absolutely stunning score by indie musician Stuart A. Staples is the glue that molds the large holes between shots and story points together. This way, it’s all seamless. Everything is beautiful aesthetically. This is an arthouse filmmaker taking her social politics into space. Claire Denis has deserved to have a higher budgeted film of this technological magnitude since the start (and I’d argue she is due more).
You may see the mediocre reviews by users online. I think that makes sense, if you’re the general public wanting to watch a Robert Pattinson space film with someone like André 3000 in it. If you understand this is a Claire Denis arthouse statement, then High Life is powerful. Being fooled by promotional material should not make for a poor rating; although non-fans being steered in the wrong direction and being unsatisfied does make sense. For me, High Life is an early 2019 statement: an aesthetic, moral, philosophical kick to the stomach that reveals its strengths once it lingers in your memory.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.