Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.
Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, Can human life be created in space? The answer is always no, because of irradiation—almost always.
The story is basically the Stanford Prison Experiment in space and without guards, relying on the prisoners’ will to survive to restrain their baser instincts. This works about as well as you might imagine, especially with the combined presence of the bratty Boyse (Mia Goth) and sexually repressed Chandra (Lars Eidinger). The pressure cooker finally explodes in a rape scene that’s violent not only physically (lots of screaming, slapping, and punching) but also psychologically: The women are restrained in their beds to keep them from aborting their fetuses, and the sleeping quarters lack any doors to lock. It’s not as if Dibs doesn’t see it coming, flaunting her sexualized Rapunzel-length hair as she frequently does.
It turns out the crew is forbidden from sexual intercourse and can find release only with the use of the most talked-about element of the film: the fuckbox, a cold and lifeless masturbation chamber whose creepiest aspect is probably the fact that it leaks. We see men enter through its doors, but the only scene set inside is of Dibs; Binoche gives a sensuous striptease of a performance, capped by a symbolic depiction of sexual pleasure that echoes Charlotte Rampling’s marriage bed scene in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971), but the titillation is undercut by the mechanical contraption with which pleasure is induced, featuring a stainless steel dildo imitating a piston.
The entire setting is lacking in intimacy, and Denis, master as she is at exploring the sensuous side of existence, pointedly allows human life to be created only in the one sexual encounter that admits of intimacy: Dibs’s rape of a drugged Monte. Monte’s more noble character (he killed someone not for personal gain but to avenge his dead dog), when combined with Boyse’s unbridled life force via artificial insemination, produces Willow (baby Scarlett Lindsey, teen aged Jessie Ross), a sweet, inquisitive, and trusting young lady—which makes her inescapable situation all the more heartbreaking. Raised by Monte after everyone else dies (Boyse’s death is especially gruesome), Willow embodies both the miracle of new life and its futility.
There are numerous questions that could be asked of this film—How does the crew while away its time? Where do their spacesuits store air? How could they possibly not know that journeying to a black hole is a suicide mission?—but High Life operates mainly on the symbolic realm, sacrificing realist details for dialectical thematic exploration. This impression is supported by the homemade-looking production design and Yorick Le Saux’s use of high-res digital cinematography for scenes set in the present. Even the special effects have the whiff of being made in a digital media class, and yet they’re still able to impart a sense of wonder.
Which brings us to the enigmatic ending. Monte and Willow reach another black hole and decide to try harvesting some energy. They take a shuttle to orbit the thing, and then—they take their helmets off? they stand side by side? the black sphere opens up into a yellow band? I won’t pretend to know what’s going on here, but it strongly reminds me of the ending of The Rapture (1991), when Mimi Rogers and her daughter (Kimberly Cullum) arrive at the anteroom to heaven. In its final moment, High Life transforms the scientific unknown into transcendent hope—the only kind of hope it accepts.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.