In Claire Denis’s “High Life,” quotations from Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky are interspersed with references to the Old Testament, and the gloomy, pessimistic atmosphere only slightly dissipates towards the end.
As in his classic film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the author of “Chocolat” and “Bastards” explores the problems of loneliness and the nature of the human self. The works of the Soviet cinematographer are similar to “High Life” in the principles of frame construction (symmetry, the abundance of long shots), metaphysical motifs, and semiotics as a way of multivariate interpretation of images and dreams: silent, sensual.
Holy Scripture shines through the fabric of the story as the figures of Adam and Eve slowly but surely on their way to the Fall. As the father and daughter – Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Willow (Jessie Ross), appear in the film, incest and the black hole as the endpoint of the lengthy journey become the symbol of original sin.
It is in its orbit that there is a research station with criminals sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty but sent on a mission to study the Penrose process hypothesis. In other words, to prove that quantum gravity leads to the collapse of the wave function. The group’s incidental task is to ensure the continuity of the multiplication process. Thus the mission does not end even after the oldest member of the team dies. But the team leader Dr. Deebs (Juliette Binoche), has no way to accomplish what she wants – due to cosmic radiation, babies are born already dead here.
The characters struggle to find common ground, and the black hole is associated in the film with a woman’s womb, which will eventually swallow everything: Monte and Willow, the spaceship, the rest of the crew, and then the whole of humanity.
With lapidary special effects (visually, “High life” reminds us of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” with its combined shots, monochrome backdrops, and conventional depiction of outer space), minor-majestic music, non-linear narration, and bright, inventive scenes (in one of them we see Pattinson’s character working in outer space suddenly interrupted baby crying.. In another, we witness the infernal masturbation of Binoche’s character), Denis turns to figurative and associative thinking.
The story of the people who have set out into the unknown is a way of showing the erotic experience of people trapped, who have virtually lost their bearings in life, as well as providing a terrible diagnosis of humanity. In one of the earthly scenes, he is voiced by an unnamed professor explaining the essence of the explorers’ journey. He speaks of the meaninglessness of existence and the imminent end of mankind.
The threat to life becomes, oddly enough, an all-consuming desire. While looking at the man, Denis equates him with an animal. The movie reveals Freudian motifs because even in spaceman is unable to curb his instincts.
Filling the film with naturalistic episodes (semen, blood, sweat, breast milk, and female secretions) and contemplative ones (a serene child in the cramped cabin of a spaceship, people “floating” in space as if falling into the abyss), resorting to circumlocution, putting form above meaning, the director gives the picture a poetic quality. And let the scientific rationale for the group’s mission seem far-fetched, and the choice of crew members lacks logic. This does not prevent the production from becoming a coherent statement, not always consistent, but elegant, visually fascinating, and penetrating.
Specific episodes of “High Life” are indeed delightful. For example, Monte and Willow’s encounter with the other ship is almost wordless and mesmerizing. It will bring father and daughter joy, anxiety, and disappointment. Or the episodes with Monte and the baby are funny and sad.
The picture looks like an edifying parable about virtue, a leisurely thriller about interstellar travelers, an unassuming melodrama about eternal redemption, and a sci-fi drama that shows ancient human instincts confronting existential fear.
The actions of the characters are contradictory because of this conflict. In their wild lust, women reject men, and the best man for them turns out to be an outwardly unruffled person who does not seem to arouse any interest in the opposite sex. But the candidacy of the latter is eventually questioned – there are no perfect matches, and people are essentially no different from the grass growing in the greenhouse on the space station.
As long as there is air, light, and water, life goes on, but we, though belonging to the animal world, like representatives of the plant world, are not able to get off the ground and fly up to the stars. To become independent of desire. Instead, we will be sucked into another black hole.
But will it become a new Eden for the proud travelers? Or will it turn into a kind of hell where incest, violence, and fierce passions flourish? When a man passes the event horizon – the supposed three-dimensional surface in space-time around a black hole, crossed by any material object that has no chance to return back – will he remain the same, cease to exist, or turn into an ideal version of himself?
In “High life,” the director is not interested in the physical justification of the essence of things. The filmmaker ponders whether conception can be immaculate and sex a continuation of the species or whether it is a way of satisfaction and a form of love that is beautiful and spiritualized. And if so, why are there instances of platonic love in life? Are they not proof of the difference between man and animal?
Claire Denis provides no answers.
The gloomless darkness of interstellar space, the crew’s vague dreams of the future, the poised Monte, and the seductive Mrs. Deebs, who is either an allegory of impartial mother nature (in one scene, she tells how she killed her own children) or a collective image of a man going into oblivion, the modest interiors of the spaceship, and the peaceful and quietly disturbing earthly landscapes are all part of the complex mosaic of the film.
The majestic horror of the universal ” nothingness ” collides with problems of identity (Monte – father, Monte – lover, Monte – friend) and an overwhelming fear of physical attraction. The suicidal mission of the “High life” crew is a demonstration of humanity’s seemingly meaningless journey. And the film itself is an attempt to find the fundamental truth behind simple desires and needs, animal instincts, and natural impulses. The ending of the story leaves room for fantasy, but the emotional rapprochement between Monte and Willow gives hope that all is not yet lost for us.
Claire Denis relies heavily on imagery in her film, “High life,” which is saturated with random symbolic insertions and scenes. So much so, in fact, that it’s a pain to put the film back together.
Metaphors, contradictory timelines, excessive naturalism – Denis uses every possible way to make the viewer wade through the narrative on both intellectual and empathic levels. From the beginning of the movie, you absorb this visual graphomania, expecting that sooner or later the mosaic will come together – but (spoiler) it won’t. Because there are too many details, and they don’t always interact with each other.
High life” encourages thinking on a grand scale but shows only a cramped ship locked in with either humans or isolated animals in human form. It is another story of what can happen to humans hundreds of light years away from civilization, in the midst of a perfect void. Except diluted with inexplicable experiments and studies, the essence of which neither the main characters nor, it seems, the director herself know.
“High life” impresses with its graphics, style, framing, and acting (Robert Pattinson once again screams with his face and body that he’s ready to start collecting Oscars), but it’s hard to take the film as a meaningful work of art. It is an art-house for art-house’s sake, with almost nothing but flirting with images and half-tones.