Last Man: On Claire Denis’s “High Life”

A work of art can occasion great ideas and conversation without being good art. The actors deliver their lines as if mimicking actual human interaction, as if spontaneous thought and feeling were wholly unfamiliar, all inner life lost. There are, then, two machines of extraction, and the human beings — disposable from Earth’s perspective — are neither overseers nor laborers; they are components, bits of the mechanisms. It is an apparatus that harvests the sights and sounds of the pre-existing, sensorial world, dissembles and rearranges them, and then generates its own moving images. Whether they are ripped apart inside the black hole or live their days out on the ship, these are the last ones. More scenes follow, nothing builds. Everyone dies — having killed each other or themselves — except Monte and his child. Like the space program itself, space movies are often exercises in ideology, celebrations of technological innovation, expansionist aspirations, and, of course, great men: scientists and pioneers and fathers. Dibs extracts semen from the male crew members and inseminates the women, feeding them pills for their troubles, keeping the bodies docile. Slowly and elliptically, High Life, Denis’s latest and only English-language film, moves backward in time to provide the thinnest thread of narrative. Dibs’s experiments, though, are not working; the bodies are not doing their job. The crewmembers sleep, eat, exercise, and excrete on command, while the spaceship barrels toward near certain destruction. And yet while the violence breaks out like a shattering bomb, apparently so unmanageable as to send festival moviegoers from their seats, it is, on the other hand, absolutely predictable. “I’m obsessed with reproduction,” she purrs, dead seriously. ¤
The cinema is also a reproductive machine. The audience takes in these projections, and these sounds and images in turn live on in us, becoming part of who we are, and something we share with others. Since the means of her production were never aiming at the creation of human life, but rather at technological success, the baby is really less a human being than a product. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), whose work may or may not be part of the ship’s official operations (as it turns out, she is also a prisoner). What seem at first like the film’s formal failures — lifelessness, drift — turn out to be functions of its organizing theme: obsessive extraction and reproduction, driven to the point where human life is made to serve the needs of the mechanism, rather than the other way round. The alien of Alien is a menace but is not cruel: it is simply driven to live and reproduce (this is especially clear in the director’s cut, where Ripley discovers that the alien is not actually killing the crew but using them in an elaborate reproductive system that swamps the inner walls of the ship). Instead, they tend a small green garden, practice calisthenics, and render their bodies to Dibs’s failing experiments. Denis’s films are filled with brutal harms. The others leap around, screaming and wrestling him away while Stuart Staples’s score blasts louder, and Denis’s otherwise reserved and patient camera joins the commotion, swinging around in the frenzy. Dialogue is pared way down, as is affect, as is intimacy. There is so little narrative logic that scenes do not so much lead one to the other as simply pile up. But this is a crew not of scientists or astronauts but of death-row inmates, men and women, given the “opportunity” to commute their sentences — that is, to swap one death sentence for another. As Marx says, at the apex of productivity, “the automaton itself is the subject, and the workmen are merely its conscious organs.”
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High Life engages the language of other iconic space movies, placing it in an ongoing cinematic conversation. Denis makes films risky, difficult, and accomplished enough to justify such vast ranges of response. Monte is one of nine crew members on a state mission to extract the rotating energy from the lip of a black hole. In the days and weeks after viewing High Life, I discovered that this movie had spawned trains of thought and image that continued to unfurl in me, linking up with other thoughts and images and memories and affects. Working this zone of undecidability is, in fact, Denis’s métier (with the exception of Beau Travail, which everyone loves and which you’d be wrong not to, you’d have seen the film incorrectly). There is only an elaborate grinding machine that must deal with occasional spasms of dysfunction, of bodies momentarily exploding in resistance before being subdued, wrapped up, and expelled. Willow grows up to become a wide-eyed and awkward teenager, about the age of Robert Pattinson’s first fans. While I find the violence vital, strangely full of wild and needful life, someone who found it awful and misanthropic would not be wrong. In the final scene they smile at each other, heads in helmets shining like two suns; Monte asks if she is ready and Willow says yes. The wet mossy garden recalls Tarkovsky’s Solaris; Ólafur Eliasson’s production design — clinical interiors and glinting half-moon helmets — recalls Kubrick’s 2001; the one lone crew member chimes with movies like Moon and The Martian and Gravity; and the theme of reproduction invokes Alien and its spawn. These brief glimpses of story are interrupted by kaleidoscopic dream-images of outer space, as though the plot simply dropped off into a captivating and meaningless horizon. This is Claire Denis, after all. The whole rotten experiment is a failure. High Life is a movie about prisoner-workers, the West’s last men (a professor on Earth marvels that the trip to the black hole is how “the Occidental governmental authorities” deal with their criminals). Tcherny has a wife and child on Earth, and he comments on the action and on the film itself: when Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), another black crew member, dies, Tcherny muses, “Even up here the black ones are the first to go.” The fact that Tcherny has one foot out — that he is not fully absorbed into the filmic world — allows him this dimension of humanity. There is one captain aboard the spaceship, the frail and androgynous Nansen (Agata Buzek). Part of me was with them, and I am still trying to understand exactly what repelled me so. The violence was terrible, but this alone can’t explain it. Willow also tries to join her dad in bed, but he sends her away (remember, “taboo”). ¤
Francey Russell is a postdoc in the philosophy and humanities departments at Yale University. In these moments, High Life feels like a film for our time. There can be science-fiction space movies, comedies, adventure movies, buddy movies, and horror movies. Ostensibly, the purpose of both of these extractions is the maintenance and reproduction of human life, either back on Earth or here on the ship. But, like High Life, the movie also supports the opposite reaction. A friend of mine left the theater wanting to see High Life again immediately; I did not. The movie cuts in and out across time and space. So it becomes quite real then: the film is not just about violence, the film is itself violent and the audience suffers this directly. The violence explodes within this zone of indifference with nothing holding it down, nothing knitting it into a proper, hence comfortable, narrative place. In the case of Dibs, her project is not for the sake of human beings; it is, as she says, an “obsession” — which is to say, a drive, a compulsion without any proper stopping point. This is what links High Life so closely with Alien, another movie about a working-class crew terrorized by an obsessively reproductive creature and an obsessively reproductive company. Another ship docks with theirs and it turns out to be filled with dogs; she begs her father for a puppy, he says no. But the movie keeps coming back to me, usually when I’m reading the news or waiting for sleep. The film executes this project on two tracks, through the government’s mission to the black hole and through Dr. Almost nothing is disclosed about the crew members or the crimes that got them on this ship (except for Dr. They fight, hissing and batting at each other like cats, not because they care about anything that’s happening — they are not revolting — but simply because the tension is rising, like noise or temperature. As the mechanism grinds and stalls, and the spaceship barrels onward, a restlessness begins to disturb the crew. DECEMBER 7, 2018

IN THE BEGINNING, there is just a muttering man and his baby in the nothingness of space. When it comes, the film’s mood — automated misery punctuated by pounding violence — pools over my mind like dirty water, called up by a world that can feel as rotten as Denis’s spaceship. And there is one scientist, Dr. She watches videos of life on Earth and mimics the movements of prayer. Such crises are internal to this kind of system. Dibs’s obsession. I love Trouble Every Day, for instance: Béatrice Dalle’s frantic cannibal was like nothing I’d ever seen before or ever since. And in this case what counts as success is the creation of a product with the capacity to reproduce itself. But one of the film’s central achievements is creating an atmosphere of absolute indifference to human life. If none of this was ever hidden, there can be no scandal of discovery (hence High Life is not “horror,” which is a genre of reaction shots). High Life explores what it would be like if the crew knew all this all along: that their lives are irrelevant and they will almost certainly die, that the company/government is using, invading, and plumbing their bodies for its own ends, that a creature obsessed with reproduction is stalking them aboard the ship. The only exception is Tcherny, played with easy naturalism by André Benjamin. Dibs, convicted of killing her husband and child). We are the “conscious organs” in an elaborate system of transitions and exchanges between life and machine: world to cinema, cinema to subject, and subject back out to the world. A young man with a neck tattoo attacks one of the sleeping females, punches her in the face, and tries to rape her. If there is no alternative, there can be no posture of opposition, no hope of uprising or escape. In lieu of context or plot, there is for a long time only a thick mood of mounting dread. Human interactions range in tone from the numbingly muted to the explosively, blood-splatteringly violent. Monte (Robert Pattinson) cuddles Willow, coaxes her to wobble toward him in a spaceship’s barren hallway, dresses her in a diaper, teaches her the word “taboo.” Monte holds his head in his hands, stares at a screen, and then zips half a dozen bodies into bags and drops them, one by heavy one, out into the void; they fall gently down, like slender white cocoons against vast black. The state’s objectives remain opaque: all we know is that we are in a space race for precious resources to no end. At the screening I attended, a dozen or so people walked out, and others left at other points, resisting Denis’s experiment. In the case of the government, the movie discloses nothing. It then projects these images out of itself and onto a screen. Dr. But for the rest of the characters, locked within the strictures of this mission, there is no space for psychology or relationships, agency or hope. I think what makes that scene, and High Life as a whole, so aesthetically abrasive is that there is no psychological or motivational cushioning, and very little formal unity structuring the film as a whole. The space movie is an elastic genre. First men. At another level, though, the film is relentlessly focused, fixated on a single concept: the project of extracting energy for reproduction. While Dibs is obsessed with reproduction and even evinces spontaneous joy when her miracle baby is born, a dead desperation hangs around her: life eludes her now and she knows it. Dibs finally rapes Monte in his sleep and inseminates Boyse (Mia Goth), who eventually gives birth. The crew’s daily activities have little to do with getting that energy from the black hole. Only Monte resists, holding himself apart from this system of exchange, which of course only stokes Dibs’s interest in him. Dr. When the tattooed man is finally ripped away from the woman, Monte pummels his head to a broken mess. This, then, is the problem: the daughter and father cannot reproduce, there are no more resources, the product is void, this is the end of the production line. We’d be seeing the same film. Outer space is isolating and disorienting, and so the human characters in these films become exemplary, a vision of us, of what we are or could be. I am still trying to digest it: sometimes this process gives rise to new and living thinking, and here the film seems genuinely creative; other times the movie sits like a hard lump, yielding nothing. I don’t know if High Life is a good film. Rather, it is the company that is monstrous — the most emotionally explosive scenes of the film show the crew reacting not to the alien but to the company and to the horrifying realization that they have been used and mislead and reduced to expendable components of this vast enterprise. At one level, High Life is so loosely organized, so lacking in the ballast of character or plot, that at times it feels like the film itself might simply drift apart.