Going home to an empty house after seeing “High Life,” I saw the sharp dichotomy of absence and presence in a new light. I was acutely aware of the sensations of being alive and being alone. As the absences in “High Life” call attention to the meaningfulness of presence, the empty sofas and chairs in my living room are heavy with the weight of empty space.
“High Life” calls to mind “2001: A Space Odyssey” and perhaps a dystopian “Star Trek.” Rich with brilliant colors and mind-bending interstellar graphics, the film immerses the viewer in space. Pun unintended, “High Life” revolves around a black hole — an absent center representing absence itself. The film follows Ship 7, its crew comprised of society’s rejects: Death-row inmates sent to be the conductors and subjects of experiments beyond the solar system. Ship 7 has a dual mission, at once seeking a way to harvest energy from a black hole while simultaneously investigating human reproduction in deep space. It is the latter which has greater consequence and which drives the film’s temporally convoluted plot. Jumping between past, long past and present, we see humanity from every angle.
Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) gives a monumental and career-defining performance as Monte, our main protagonist. Monte is unique among the crew for his thoughtful interiority and genetic strength. The gentleness at his core is most evident in his relationship with his daughter, Willow (Jessie Ross, “The Frankenstein Chronicles”). Monte remains grounded by tending to the ship’s fertile garden. A garden to remind the crew of Earth and the viewer of the potency of life and death. Not unlike the womb, the garden is a place of cultivation; Monte is the lone cultivator among chaos and sick minds. For the early part of the mission, Monte and the rest of the crew are at the mercy of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoché, “The English Patient”). It is the doctor who controls the investigation of reproduction, much to the dismay of her subjects. Seeking life in the most inhospitable of environments, Dr. Dibs is a twisted personification of female sexuality. Mia Goth (“A Cure for Wellness”) compliments Binoché’s performance, offering a juxtaposed relationship between a woman and her body. The cast plays well off of one another; tension and passion saturate each scene and bleed into the theater.
Director Claire Denis (“Beau travail”) probes the human experience of solitude through Monte’s powerful will to live. Toward the end of the film, Monte asks Willow, “Cruelty? What do you know about cruelty?” Having spent an eternity sailing through space, Monte poses the question to the viewer as well. What is left of our human nature when the human is so far removed from home? Travelling at lightspeed, time passes more slowly for the crew than for those on Earth. If I follow the film’s math correctly, the roughly 17 years Monte spends on Ship 7 is equivalent to over 200 years on Earth. Monte and Willow share an unfathomable experience of love bounded by solitude, stretched to eternity’s end. The relationship between father and daughter stands in refreshing contrast to the lustful, mechanical presentation of sex and reproduction throughout the film. Filial love does more to sustain Monte than the ship’s life-support systems — a poignant statement about love as a fundamental requisite for survival.
Without spoiling anything, I would be remiss not to mention the film’s finale. The final scene emerges from a collaboration between Denis and artist Olafur Eliasson and incorporates Eliasson’s 2014 art installation “Contact.” A site-specific work exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, “Contact” evokes the horizon, and is used in “High Life” as a representation of the event horizon, a black hole’s theoretical point of no return.
The film comes together beautiful in its final moments. The incorporation of Eliasson’s work echoes the thematic use of evocative color throughout the film, while the diverse soundtrack composed by Stuart A. Staples fits each scene perfectly. I really dig the intro track, “The Garden,” which reminded me of Schoenberg’s 12-tone work. As the credits roll, Pattison’s voice fills the theatre on the original track “Willow”; a mellowed-out Donovan meets The National with a Max Richter chill.
Stanley Kubrick would be proud of Denis’s artistry behind the camera. “High Life” rightfully joins the ranks of science fiction classics like “2001,” thrilling at every turn and questioning the very nature of humanity in the face of eternity.