Claire Denis’ lost in space sci-fi odyssey opens with Biblical overtones resonating in a verdant greenhouse. Themes of fertility, intimacy, and the abstinence from both, are the orchestrating motifs in this High Life (2018). If civilisation is indeed the opposite of nature, as progressivism teaches, Denis’ new film becomes somewhat of a meta-narrative, since it overrules nature but establishes a civilisation that is much closer to primitive tribal beliefs. In substituting natural human conception with artificial insemination, Denis blends in science with primordial desire. The impossibility of human connection, birth and death, and the dissolution of tradition, are what’s at stake in High Life.
The narrative unfolds on a spaceship, which, as it turns out, is an extension of prison, since all the crew are convicts and death row prisoners who are supposed to help an energy supply mission. The ‘Penrose process’ — the extraction of energy out of a black hole — flies by in the dialogue whenever the ship is in appropriate proximity. Still, under the messianistic pretext, the prison-vessel is actually a lab space for Dr. Dibs’ (Juliette Binoche) insemination plan. As most films who isolate their characters in a sterile environment, High Life aims at a vivisection of both cultured (high) and natural (low) dispositions of what it means to be alive and human. The inmates, having committed crimes, are in fact numb, since they are subjected to the doctor’s violent offences daily. The film would be bursting with lust, if it wasn’t strapped in an antiseptic belt — the characters of High Life are immobilised by dispassion.
The film traverses between far past, ‘recent past’, and ‘present past’, reminiscing a noir structure of narrative, which starts off from trouble, then reveals the circumstances that led to it, and concludes by facing the consequences of the issue. Time is disjoint, but never entirely present. An attempt of a linear narrative reconstruction would do no justice to Denis’ temporal sensibility, since her latest film is a time-image, an experience of duration, of the assemblage of possible past, presents, and futures, which remain barren. Fixation on fertility is what characterises Dr. Dibs, a libidinous scientist, fond of her braided hair and tightly strapped black leather boots. The doctor is dedicated to a breeding mission, to raise a child in space. Being a criminal herself, Dibs is compared to a witch — a common stigmatised figure of unknown female power —, and Binoche’s exceptionally long black hair enhances the mischievous aura of her character. Her white lab coat caresses the body, both desired and despised by all the crewmembers on board of the anonymous spaceship; a subject of silent taboo — or “ta”–”boo”, as the film spells it out early on —, predicting its eerie (suggestively incestual) end.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) seems to be Dibs’ most desired specimen, as he stands apart from the other because of his celibacy, while overpowering sexual thrust seems the root to all evil on this ship. Much like the Forbidden Fruit, once tasted it just accumulates an appetite for more. The weakened numbness of the characters soon bursts out into violations. High Life openly addresses the issues of rape and consent, as its bold camera stays static in two different depictions of sexual assault, of both woman and man. No doubt, the film is self-aware of the problematic nature of consent in a social group for which the individuals are no longer legal subjects. The blurry line of ethical responsibility and self-assertion is touched upon in the film’s arresting ending sequence.
In High Life, the body is an arena for the battle of passions, explicated by bodily fluids: semen, blood, tears, or sweat. A particularly erotic moment follows after Monte tries to stop inmate Boyse (Mia Goth) from vandalising one of the walls, engraving ‘SWELL’ on it with a chunk of glass. Their fight becomes vicious and hysterical, as she cuts Monte on his arm. The blood of his wound unites in a close up with the blood from her own hurt body, as she reaches out to squeeze his fingertips. The camera lingers on this touch soaked in blood, which is a substitute for a kiss, sex, or maybe crying together — one body fluid is a surrogate for sweat, sperm, or tears, which all require a level of intimacy that High Life denies its characters. After their ritualistic connection, both Monte and Boyse are sedated and violated by Dibs, as she combines the best available genes. Not long after, their child is born on board. As the film drifts away from the possibility of intimacy, Boyse’s body reacts through another fluid: her breasts cannot stop lactating. Yorick Le Saux’s camera captures the conflict with one’s own body, a grief for a child that she never even wanted to bear. The clinical, yet minimalist sterility of Dibs’ laboratory knows no compassion.
The ship is full of free-flowing desire, providing no natural outlet, the only contender being the Fuckbox, a solitary sex-simulator room. Throughout the film, sexuality is portrayed as a frustrated carnal deal. It is a means of expression, aimless, a force that drives the characters apart from each other, rather than bringing them closer. In Denis’ space experiment, sexuality is subjected to the chains of science, abstracted from its tumultuous nature, and breaks free in moments of ecstasy that are always supervised or perversely controlled. In a swirling and steamy sequence, the camera joins Dibs in the Fuckbox, distilling an out-of body experience without showing explicit nudity. Even if there is a certain voyeuristic distance from this orgasmic spectacle, the details of her loose hair brushing on her lower back or a sordid scar on her lower abdomen draw the spectator’s hungry eyes. At her climax, Dibs’ hands hold on tightly to gymnastic rings, and the medium shot of her odalisque back jolts the spectator into pleasure, while light flashes on and off on her silhouette. The mastery of its visual and aural wrap elevates this sequence to an epitome of the film’s immobilised sexuality that cries out for help.
“It’s only a new religion to you”, Boyse barks at Dibs, referring to the convict-doctor’s ideal of artificial baby-making. In such a way, High Life links two primary human origins that transcend cultures, and speaks in a universal language: that of passion and death. Since the love drive and death drive collide in the case of the taboo, it can be as well an emblem of Claire Denis’ newest film. The ending is a consensual suicide mission to a black hole, as father and daughter prepare for their final flight. Or, within the framework of tabooed pleasures, their departure signifies also a new, higher life. Denis draws attention to the oldest taboo act in civilisation, excavating primal desires to imagine its transcendence, of course, marked by mutual consent. A merciless inspection of what becomes of people if they forsake their own corporeal poetics and desires, High Life shows how inescapable the tight grip of desire is, even when it’s drained of its lively fluids.