André Benjamin on the set
filming on the set
Director Claire Denis
Director Claire Denis with actress Juliette Binoche
HIGH LIFE C
USA Great Britain France Germany Poland (110 mi) 2018 d: Claire Denis
At 99 percent of the speed of light, the entire sky converged before our eyes. The sensation of moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer. Sometimes I just can’t stand it.
―Monte (Robert Pattinson)
While ostensibly a sci-fi flick, this has more in common with prison movies, showing how easily one loses track of time when serving lengthy prison sentences, with much of your psychological vantage point reduced to flashback sequences, as there’s nothing in the present to keep one occupied or focused, nothing to do except except what’s required, so any contemplative moments shift to earlier times when you had a life, when opportunities presented themselves. You may have screwed them up, but you had a life that was your own. However, that’s all in the past, as now you’re stuck in a state of paralysis serving time. French filmmaker Claire Denis views space travel in much the same way, even constructing a story that imagines a crew containing death row inmates, locked up in a box floating in outer space. Conceiving a space vessel that literally looks like a box, or an enlarged storage chamber, feels rather mundane, where the hallways are cluttered and messy, feeling disorganized, where prison life is no more flattering in outer space than on earth, with the same dire results. Not really resembling any other outer space movie, you’ll be hard pressed to discover any references here, as there are few, as most of the film spends time with the human cargo contained inside, and it’s not a pretty sight. No likeable characters here, as these are literally floating criminals in the sky, as wretched out there as they were viewed back on earth, each with their own self-centered motives, where little thought is paid to the others. Actually it’s an utterly unfascinating premise, poorly written, using next to no special effects, operating on a shoestring budget, becoming more of a character study of an insideous few, with Denis using an elliptical style that has worked well for her in the past, particularly in a challenging film like The Intruder (L’intrus) (2004) which has no coherent narrative, yet she uses music and landscapes to expand the regions of consciousness, where manifestations of one’s imagination alter and replace existing realities, literally infusing the present with the past, real or imagined, creating a sumptuously beautiful work that may be among her best. But this goes in the other direction, restricting time and space, condensing it all into smaller more compact pieces, then doling out little snippets at a time, where her tendency to intentionally withhold information from viewers actually helps send this film off the rails, as there’s little to no audience involvement, nothing to care about, which includes the coldly inferior video look of the film. Essentially what’s happening onscreen is an exhausting journey with few signs of hope, where time ceases to matter after a while, with little incentive to go on. Life in this kind of imprisoned endurance marathon is a life sentence with no chance at parole, where you’re essentially counting time before you die. Making matters worse, you are hurling into the void of dark space, with no means of escape, and few if any options. Not a pretty picture.
Arguably the director’s only misfire, as she may be the greatest female director in history, yet this film has been gestating in her mind over the past 15 years, where each of the different characters were born, holding a greater meaning to her, perhaps, as they are her own creations, yet many of the precious details are lost, largely due to the impersonal indifference, which is suffocating, choking out all signs of life in the process. Her first film spoken in English, which is the language she imagines would be spoken in outer space (”Definitely not French.”), what piqued her interest was how those spending prolonged time in space stations were so regimented in their use of time, leaving little to chance, spending each of their days painstakingly performing their meticulously detailed experiments and lab tests, where everything is documented, entered into the computer for analysis, spitting out charts measuring whatever the hell it is they measure up there, as it’s essentially a science lab. This is the overall tone conveyed at the outset, almost entirely told in flashback mode, as Monte (Robert Patterson) and a newborn baby are the last of the survivors, seen jettisoning the remains of each and every last one of them out into the void of space in an eerie spectacle (cueing the title), which only begins to account for just how lonely and isolated his life has become. Moving backwards to earlier times, the back stories are presented, where we learn these are death row inmates given a chance to reduce or commute their sentences in what appears to be a suicide mission, a search for alternative fuel, heading towards a black hole where their mission is to try to extract energy, following the premise set out by British physicist Roger Penrose. While there are people running the ship, they are nearly indistinguishable from the inmates, given the ambiguity of the narrative, as there is another evolving storyline that is more accentuated, with Juliette Binoche playing Dr. Debs, a mad scientist in a white smock with sinister motives, a veritable Nurse Ratched from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), though here she collects semen from the male prisoners in exchange for sleeping pills, while keeping the women onboard heavily sedated, using them as guinea pigs, implanting the semen into their sleeping bodies, hoping to procreate new life in space. Like something out of BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR (1972), an early porn flick where a randomly abducted woman is subjected to a series of sexual titillations meant to arouse and inflame her desires, they have concocted a sex room known as “The Fuck Box” where Dr. Debs spends quality alone time in simulated sex, like riding a dildo bareback on a mechanical bull, filled with ecstatic gyrations, which basically serves as the gym for a sexually demanding workout. Men supposedly use this facility as well, though Monte is the one inmate, known as “The Monk,” who refuses to offer his semen or use the sex room, preferring abstinence.
Once viewers get the gist of things, things quickly start to deteriorate, minds frazzle, people misbehave in astonishing fashion, some turning against one another, becoming a free-for-all of eroding expectations. Space can only simulate the experience on earth, where one room is dedicated to growing an overflowing garden, used for food and vegetation, where a combination of various chemicals produces mist and humidity, offering a kind of Edenesque experience, reminding some of what it was like back on earth where they still have family, but no contact. While there is a lone captain onboard, Lars Eidinger as Chandra, he never once feels in charge, suffering a radiation stroke as they near the black hole, leaving the dubious Dr. Debs in charge, though she has a deranged criminal history as well, having murdered her husband and child, where this is essentially a mental ward where the inmates start to run the asylum. Debs becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a child (“I am totally devoted to reproduction”), though one senses it feels more like a Frankenstein creation due to the morally dubious methods used, which incudes a rape sequence of a heavily sedated Monte in her quest for the perfect sperm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this unorthodox method produces a perfectly healthy baby girl, who is initially kept in an incubator away from the mother, with Debs euphoric over her handywork, but this sensation is juxtaposed over a gruesome image of the young mother covered in milk-like fluids, a grotesque display of biology gone wrong, where micro-managing the natural order of things, playing God, essentially, has consequences, where this group is flirting with disaster. Things take a turn for the worse, plunging headlong into space horror territory, with one ill-fated calamity leading to another, with catastrophic results, where one by one the crew diminishes in size, leaving only Monte and the baby named Willow, who grows up to become his beautiful teenaged daughter (Jessie Ross), where they are literally stranded in space. They provide differing psychological mindsets, as all she knows is a life in space, learning about family through computer imagery, endlessly going through the ship files, while Monte is worn out from his experiences, battle weary, struggling to provide a sense of meaning, even as his sense of purpose diminishes, as it feels all for naught, a philosophical burden that grows heavier and more pressing each passing day, still stuck to a regimented daily existence, while Willow has fewer imposed barriers, less negativity, and is more open to exploring new frontiers. It’s an interesting dynamic, essentially survivers in a battle of attrition, even making contact with another space craft that is identical in every respect, just a different number. What they discover is frightful, even worse conditions than their own, heading back out into the void of the unknown, continually approaching oblivion, where all they’re left with is essentially nothing to live for, yet they have each other. It’s a sad and profoundly tragic fate.