High Life (2019) - Claire Denis
High Life, Claire Denis' first English language film, plays out like a thought experiment. Aboard a spaceship on a mission to extract energy from a Black Hole, a collection of convicts find themselves party to a thought experiment about the human condition, the social contract, the rules that govern us (both to protect and to persecute), power structures and bonds that exist, or don't between us. At its core, the film seeks to explore the meaning of life when the structures and rules that govern our existence are removed. How do we choose to co-exist with each other when the societal organisation we all take for granted is removed?
Told in flashback, but constantly focused on the future, we meet Monte, an impassive, captivating Robert Pattinson, who along with a collection of other convicted criminals are inmates in a space mission that is, unbeknownst to them on a one-way trip. They must complete entries into the onboard computer every 24 hours to maintain life support systems. They are all, with the exception of Pattinson, subject to fertility and reproductive experiments by the seemingly insane, but definitely unhinged Dibs, (a mercurial Juliette Binoche). She trades semen from men for drugs and experiments on the women in the futile hope one of them will bring a child to term. It's unclear if this is her mission or an extension of her psychosis. She earns the unflattering moniker, the "Shaman of Semen". She hints at her previous crime when describing it as the "only crime worthy of the name" amongst her fellow inmates. Her experiments, and her actions, so effectively remind us of the primal function of our species.
We are, in essence, nothing more than the bodily fluids we contain to help procreate and maintain the existence of the species. But does this count as existence? The women are forcibly inseminated, and Monte, reluctant to partake in the experiments has his semen extracted against his will in one of the films most incredible sequences. These moments and scenes are deeply disturbing and work to remove the characters of their humanity and sense of self - they are empty vessels whose primal functions are exploited unwillingly. The film constantly confronts its audience is uncomfortable realities about our nature and purpose.
The film goes further than looking at bodily fluid for a purely procreative sense. In fact, it plays out, on one level, as a body horror film, with numerous moments of abject horror for the characters - one character seems to lose it completely that her head explodes. Monte tells his daughter at one point about not drinking their urine or eating their excrement, even if it is recycled. It's a taboo he claims. But is it really a taboo, or a legacy of their previous earthly existence? We are constantly reminded of bodily fluids, from exploding heads to lactation, and ejaculation.
The idea of existence, and what counts as existence is a principal preoccupation of the film. The notion of the social contract is constantly challenged. How do these inmates co-exist with each other in the absence of any governing body, and facing the fate of their existence, do the morals and rules which usually govern us matter or mean anything or are the impulses we naturally feel better placed in this oblivion the characters find themselves in. And does any of this really matter when we're all destined for death anyway? It's no spoiler to reveal that all but two of the characters are dead by the film's climax. This turn of events presents an uncomfortable final taboo for the audience to contemplate as the credits roll. The film opens with Monte preparing and setting the dead characters off into space delivering one of the most magnificent title shots in recent memory, as the words High Life appears over floating corpses drifting through the infinite space.
André Benjamin plays Tcherny, a character who has withdrawn from the wider ships activities. He spends most of his time in the on-ship garden. An Eden of sorts which provides food and oxygen; core requirements for the persistence of life. He retreats to live in the garden, extracting himself completely from the existential battles occurring on the ship, instead opting to become one with nature. The garden is a brief reminder of where we all came from, and ultimately where we all return.
The film is visually arresting and breathtaking, and this reinforces the power of the ideas Denis is exploring. From the opening, title shot, the film delivers some of modern sci-fi cinemas most magnificent imagery and moments partly because they all serve the story, and never feel included to wow the audience, but also because they demonstrate Denis' unique elliptical visual style. The space scenes in particular, when the ship navigates too closely to black holes, are astonishing and effortlessly capture both the wonder and fear of space.
It's rare these days for a science fiction film to feel original and unique. The tropes and stylings, and thematic exploration of high-minded science fiction are so consistent that invariably science fiction lacks the originality that is so cherished in the genre. High Life is, then, a film of rare brilliance. It doesn't tread new ground in the genre but retreads the ground so wonderfully, so profoundly, as to deliver one of modern cinema's most engrossing and satisfying masterpieces.