The opening title for Claire Denis’s 2018 New York Film Festival entry appears almost 15 or 20 minutes after the movie starts. It comes up as a series of dead bodies float in space, having been pushed out of their ship, already dead, by one of the two people left alive on board. Over the course of the rest of the movie, we learn what brought these events about and what the future might hold for the two survivors.
At the center of everything is Monte (Robert Pattinson). He, along with his baby daughter are the aforementioned survivors, and it is clear that this child, Willow, was born in space. She did not take off from Earth with the rest of the now gone crew.
Slowly but surely, we find out the ship left Earth with death row inmates aboard, and it is not the only ship to have done so. These vessels have, seemingly, ventured out into space as a way to advance science and to, potentially, keep the human race going after the Earth is no more.
The specifics of all of this are vague. Denis and the film are far less concerned with offering up answers about humanity’s exact present state than with looking at this small subset and wondering what it shows about us all. And, while it is true that there are some terrible acts of violence on the ship, one doesn’t get the sense that this occurs solely because these people have been bad individuals in the past. It is their surroundings which, in part, drive them to any present day actions. Certainly, Monte, whatever his previous crimes, is an upstanding member of this spaceship community.
Perhaps less upstanding is the woman largely in charge of the day-to-day goings-on even if she isn’t in command of the ship, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Whether for her own nefarious reasons or as a part of the larger spaceflight plan in the first place, Dibs is obsessed with the idea of having a child born in space. Consequently, she runs experiments to attempt to make this happen via artificial insemination, harvesting sperm from the men on the ship in return for drugs, and injecting it into the women.
None of this is takes place in what would be called “scientific” fashion. It is, instead, all rather unseemly, as are the various sorts of sex acts depicted in the film.
In fact, everything about the ship is off. For instance, without daily recorded reports, reports that won’t reach Earth for an exceptionally long time, the ship’s life support is programmed to turn off. Dibs adds drugs to the water to keep her shipmates more docile. This doesn’t entirely work and assaults, sexual and non-, take place. Outside of farming, there seems to be little for anyone on the ship to do and, consequently, it feels like something of a miracle that it takes years for things to start to fall apart. Eventually though, that does happen, and we wind up where we start the film – with Monte and his baby, Willow, the sole survivors.
“High Life” is a film that is difficult to watch at times. Despite being set in the future, it feels raw, very real, and very current. These characters are recognizable, and the love/fear depicted by/of Monte towards his daughter is palpable.
There is something true about all of it. There is a sense that while we can leave Earth, we cannot leave our humanity behind, whether that’s the good, the bad, or the ugly.
Some of this is due to the film’s relatively low tech feel. This ship may be in space and there may be moments in space with space suits, but it is never full of whiz-bang special effects. It, if you will forgive the expression, remains very down to earth.
Similarly, the pace of Denis’s film is slow, but wholly methodical and never plodding. It is full of spaces for us to contemplate what is happening before us, and what is still to come. Our minds constantly race, wondering how what we have seen at the start of the film is going to come to pass by the end. We, like Monte and his shipmates, are left alone with our thoughts for long periods. Thankfully though we are not stuck inside our heads as long as these individuals or, surely, we would end up with the same fate.
Pattinson is incredible in his portrayal. He spends a good portion of the film either on screen by himself or with an infant, surely no easy task, but he still enthralls. He is completely captivating, winning over the audience to this (formerly) bad guy with apparent ease.
“High Life” is a triumph. A beautiful, horrible, wretched, lovely triumph.
photo credit: A24/NYFF