High Life Claire Denis (2018; Fr UK) Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche
viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 14 May 2019. Ticket £10.75
time for the deck chair
Claire Denis is reported as saying that she made this sci-fi romp as an English language film: “…because people speak English – or Russian or Chinese – in space but definitely not French.” I think this statement is as crass as the movie she has directed. People now speak Hindi and Hebrew in space. Of course French would be a perfect language for outer space where one day the astro-muppets are going to have to learn to cook proper meals.
Denis’ film is about a group of criminals deported into space to try and run through a black hole and see what happens to them. The narrative device is just a pretext as used by many sci-fi films as a set up for exploring particular issues outside the trammels of present time. Notable themes that have been examined in the sci-fi canon include: A1, the particular nature of history and and time, fear of the unknown. In Denis’ scenario fertility, fertility anxiety seem to be the cause of her concern. Given the reproductive trends we are witnessing in technologically advanced societies, in particular Japan, there is certainly something to probe; the confines of a space ship hurtling through deep space on an uncertain mission, would seem to be a promising setting.
But if her film is about fertility rather than going shopping in a black hole, the trouble is that Denis doesn’t seem to have anything coherent to say about fertility. Or, if she does then doesn’t know how to say it. We see the idea of fertility expressed in the watery mist soaked on-board garden, a short montage of which provides the opening shots for High Life. The greenery looks fertile enough, although except for Monte and his baby eating a strawberry, we don’t see much brassica put on the table.
The thrust of the script concerns coupling or rather non-coupling and decoupling. Aboard spaceship there are men and women in more or less equal numbers. But there is some sort of barrier between the sexes that inhibits or diminishes libido and creates anxiety. Perhaps this anx is caused by the radiation storm. Perhaps Dr Death (Dibs) has been paid to put something in the water. Perhaps mission control anticipated or manipulated the mass on- board sexual turn-off. For pleasure, not for fertility, they have provided for the crew a nice sex box. This a cubicle reminiscent of the pleasure/death machine that Barberella vanquishes in the eponymous movie. Dr Death expertly demonstrates that she knows how to use its pop-up steel dildo and pronounces to Monte that it is surprisingly effective. Dr Death herself is obsessed with collecting semen and using it for in vitro fertilisation which never works because of the radiation. Something always goes wrong in space. She then has a light bulb moment and screws Monte in his sleep, collecting the semen dropping out of her fanny and slapping it onto one of the sleeping women. This relatively crude stratagem works: for ‘Lo!’ A girl child is born. Halleluja! Houston we have fertility. But the only insight provided is a sort of old wives tale maxim that: “The old ways works best!” Get rid of them petrie dishes.
In a sequence positioned early in High Life, which is structured non-sequentially, Monte murders all th esurviving crew (I suppose he does have form) as they lie in their cryogenic pods. This is done dispassionately, gently, by Monte and is remeniscent of a similar sequence in 2001 in which Hal murders the spaceship crew. But whereas we understand the logic of Hal’s action, Monte’s motivation is obscure. Perhaps its to spend the rest of his life alone with his baby, to have her all to himself so he can watch her grow up and teach her about life. However seen togather they seem a bit of an odd couple. In the last section of the film (which is in sequence and is the last sequence and not the first) he and the girl child (now called Willow who is insufferably precocious and all knowing) are left in the square ship about to penetrate the black yellow hole, thereby setting up the terrible prospect of a sequel.
Denis has a script which with its lacuna and its vaulting temporal logic adds up to nothing. In the mish-mash of ideas churned through by the scenario, nothing comes out in the wash except the naturally conceived Willow who despite being brought up for 16 years alone on a spaceship with her taciturn dad, only represents smugness.
This is a dead film. It is monopaced and without tension. Unless you count the tension caused by baby-Willow’s incessant screaming at the start of the movie. This screaming is a heavy handed statement by Denis of the obvious, as if we did not know baby’s are screamers. Denis’ dialogue sounds like it has been written by an AI-script-writing-botnik trained on early episodes of 1930’s Flash Gordon serials. And the cinematography is leaden and unimaginative.
Judging by their recent work, some director’s like Lars von Trier and now Claire Denis feel like they are tired people. They are still making films because they are self conditioned to going through the motions of making films that are about nothing.. Perhaps they have the need to persuade themselves that they are not dead. Time perhaps to fold up that chair and go home.