Few films have been as fervently anticipated in recent years as High Life, Claire Denis’ first science fiction feature. Few films, too have tapped so eloquently into the imagery of fertility and fecundity that has preoccupied so much science fiction of the last five years, from Annihilation to Arrival to Ex Machina. In these films, fertility and fecundity become a kind of science fiction spectacle in themselves, a way of addressing or assuaging concerns about futurity, especially white futurity, in a genre that was once defined above all by its futuristic assurance. True to those tendencies, High Life opens in the midst of a lavish tableau of moss, plants, soil and seeds, brimming with a sense of life that is quickly undercut, or at least complicated, by the scenes that follow. We quickly learn that this Edenic garden is situated at the heart of a vast spaceship, whose décor is much more drab and downbeat. Before we can even properly orient ourselves in this spaceship, however, Denis moves to a group of dead astronauts being dropped out of an access hatch, floating through the blankness and emptiness of outer space in stark counterpoint to the lush proliferation of plants we saw in the opening scene. The only people left aboard the ship are Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, and his young daughter, condensing this opening alternation between fecundity and sterility, and futurity and impotence, to the relation between father and child.
Denis gradually and elliptically contextualizes these images through a non-linear narrative that spans different timeframes, but also different rates and experiences of time. In these opening scenes, Monte is the last adult left on a prison ship of death row inmates that has been sent to the brink of a black hole. These inmates are supposed to send data back to Earth, but it is immediately clear that something has gone wrong with the mission, and that the black hole has had a much bigger impact on the crew than predicted. While there is no clear sense of when this is all taking place, the events seem to be occurring so far in the future that futurity itself no longer seems tenable, especially since the ship is continually accelerating, reaching 99% of the speed of light by the time that the event horizon grows near. Since time itself distorts and warps on the cusp of a black hole, it doesn’t exactly make sense to say that High Life has flashbacks, although we do learn about some events that have taken place in the nominal “past.” Most of these revolve around Dibs, the ship’s doctor, played by Juliette Binoche, who has been punished for killing her children by being assigned to conduct experiments on the ways in which the black hole affects human fertility.
The result is easily the most elliptical film of Denis’ career – so elliptical that at times I found it quite difficult to grasp the tone, or to situate myself in any clear time or space. Yet the effect of this ellipsis isn’t sublime, as might occur in an earlier film, but instead works to foreclose the cosmic and cinematic aspirations of outer space as they typically appear in science fiction. Although the ship is designed to withstand an event horizon, it is devoid of any futuristic features, and looks more like a mid-level managerial space that has been recently abandoned, or was abandoned before it could ever be occupied. Insofar as the film does actually take place in the future, this is futurism is a period effect, and particularly indebted to 70s futurism, especially since the technology never feels all that far from the present. Like 70s science fiction, Denis depends upon sets, rather than special effects, but even the sets feel half-constructed, or half-realised, suspending us in a strange space between the collective conception of what the ship should be, and the way that conception gradually deteriorates and disintegrates as its crew moves ever closer to the event horizon.
More specifically, the ship looks like it has been constructed manually, and designed primarily for manual labour, leading Denis to emphasise the awkward corporeality of the human body in space from the very opening scenes, when we see Monte move a collection of astronauts in hypersleep. Rather than being sequestered in gleaming pods, these sleepers are stacked together haphazardly, their faces pressed up awkwardly against their helmets, while Monte drags and bundles them from location to location with very little ceremony. In most science fiction, space seems to free the human body from its physical constraints, allowing it to glimpse a post-human future, but Denis’ galaxy weighs the body down further, trapping the characters even deeper within their own bodies, even or especially when zero gravity conditions prevail. This produces an unusual kind of body language that feels slowed down and sped up at the same time – a little too deliberate, or stagey, but also capable of unusual and unexpected moments of improvisation. Most of the characters spend most of the film sedated by Dibs, but this sedative actually turns out to have occasional side-effects, and to produce dramatic bursts of energy when it is not administered in the correct manner.
In other words, outer space is divested of any capacity to extend the human body into the future, which is perhaps why outer space feels increasingly blank, empty and absent as the black hole approaches. It is as if the black hole has swallowed up everything within space, leaving outer space as a negative zone, the absence of anything, rather than allowing it to retain any kind of intrinsic identity. Denis thus exhausts outer space of all the human aspirations that can be projected onto it, while also removing these aspirations to an impossibly remote Earth, captured in a series of grainy shots of damp, dank, boggy landscapes traversed by a philosopher who ruminates on the “end of Man.” These images often seem to have regressed to a period on Earth before human life, as the time-warping approach to the black hole loops the start and end of the Anthropocene into a single finitude that displaces any decision or thought that Monte or Dibs can conceivably execute.
In the process, Earth itself is gradually displaced as a point of reference. Not only does the acceleration to the speed of light preclude any possibility of return to Earth as the crew knew it, but it also displaces itself as it proceeds, leaving nothing but the black hole as a point of reference by the end of the film. Since each iteration of the ship is swallowed up by the next stage of acceleration, and since the film is non-linear to begin with, this makes High Life a profoundly disorienting experience. These disruptions around space and time crystallise around the ship’s fertility experiments and the “pleasure-box” that Dibs uses to conduct her experiments. Despite the fact that sexual contact between inmates is prohibited, this pleasure-box allows them to experience sexual release, while also providing Dibs with material for her fertility research. The exact nature of this pleasure-box is never made clear, but it appears to masturbate people while also “milking” them – extracting blood, milk and ejaculatory juices that can be used to find some way out of the infertility and impotence that seems to suffuse the ship, and the human race it has left back on Earth.
This pleasure-box thus functions as a fantasy of total fertility, albeit in a paradoxical way. During the scene where Dibs “experiences” it, Denis intensifies her sped-up, slowed-down aesthetic, superimposing different images and image speeds over one another until the film’s entire disruption of space and time is collapsed into Dibs’ orgasmic ecstasy. Entering the pleasure-box becomes a cipher for approaching the event horizon, except in this case the absence of fertility is reframed as a source of futurity, or at least as a promise of pleasure in the future, rather than as a foreclosure of futurity. In an audacious gesture, the film dissociates futurity from reproductive futurity, suggesting an inchoate and even incoherent future that depends precisely upon the destruction of reproduction as we currently understand it. While Dibs may have killed her own children, this qualifies her to embody this new mother nature, and to advocate for a form of futurity that depends precisely upon her sacrificing her maternal drive into the event horizon of the pleasure-box.
In other words, High Life advocates for a masturbatory future, one in which the rhetoric of futurity is attached to all of the masturbatory images against which futurity is typically defined. This may explain why the focus on bodily fluids in the film is so much more banal and less spectacular than the hype might have suggested, since semen, in particular, is largely divested of its reproductive volatility here, and instead presented as one bodily fluid among many, as irrelevant to the future as blood, spit or sweat. Weirdly, this levelling of bodily fluids to a common plane often recalls the ritualistic horror of certain 90s space films – Jason X and Alien 3 in particular – in which the reproductive alliance between the human body and space futurism is decimated in the name of a more sadistic and sobering aesthetic.
As the black hole approaches, and gravity intensifies, these bodily fluids grow even heavier. The sedative also seems to have more of an impact as the ship accelerates to the speed of light, making the film as a whole feel heavier, more impregnable in its opacity and remoteness. During this final approach, we learn, in a non-linear way, about the way in which Monte came to be a father while on board. Instead of depending upon any conventional reproductive coupling, Dibs instead “milked” Monte while he was sedated, before impregnating one of the women prisoners on board. With the process of pregnancy and childbirth largely elided, and the process of impregnantion reframed as rape, Monte’s relationship with his daughter seems to defy reproductive futurity rather than affirming it, especially since time fractures so radically on the cusp of the black hole that she often seems more like his partner, or his sister, or even his mother, than his daughter. In any case, there is no clear generational distinction between Monte and his daughter, no clear sense that once is more aligned with the future and one is more aligned with the past. Instead, past and future converge upon the event horizon, which slowly fills the final shot of the film.
The event horizon is thus the final note of High Life – the horizon of any eventfulness in the film, and any eventfulness in outer space, now that science fiction seems to have been exhausted in its claims to imaginative fecundity and futurity. Yet that exhaustion also makes this final image the horizon for an even in the Badiouan sense, as a disruption in being that is necessary for being to continue. Just as Alain Badiou describes this event as the thing “that is not,” so the final images of High Life present us with an ending “that is not” – a negative ending that is also not exactly a beginning. Like the Badiouian event, this non-ending is a “multiple,” rather than a discrete point in space and time, neither affirming nor negating the future, and reproductive futurity, but instead presenting it as a schism in being that can only be productive if it remains alive as a schism. For Denis, the future is the ultimate event in this sense, as a riposte to being as we know it, and as we might want to continue it, but for that very reason also the horizon necessary for being to develop further.
This gesture leaves the film in a very unusual space, since it effectively turns High Life itself into something “that is not.” As a result, my own strange experience of High Life was that it didn’t live up to the hype but that this didn’t exactly make it anticlimactic either. Rather, Denis’ film seems to consume itself as it goes, much as the ship displaces its own trajectory, turning that process of masturbatory self-regard – and disregard for its own futurity – into the enduring spectacle and experience of High Life. In a career that is comprised by unique films, High Life therefore feels even more unique, if possible, that Denis’ other releases, destined to percolate into the audience’s future because of how eerily it forecloses its own.