Photo: TIFF
by Matt McCracken Film Horizon Line

High Life | Claire Denis

May 6, 2019

“The closer you get, the further away it seems.” Claire Denis’s latest takes to space to articulate humans’ place in the cosmos, with a story that follows a group of young convicts sent from Earth into the depths of the galaxy to collect data on a black hole; undergo experimentation to test reproductivity in conditions of extreme radiation; and complete daily tasks to ensure the viability of their ship’s life support systems. High Life is, then, a presentation of humanity in the state of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life,” or life in its most essential form — framed by the forces of bio-political dominance. Production designer Olafur Eliasson’s stripped-down, brutalist sets serve to amplify the film’s sexualized violence, suggesting the emptiness of human experience when reduced to bare bodily function. Denis establishes a closeness to the reality of domination, but also renders it abstract, in a sense distant — by juxtaposing its power against the greater power of an interstellar void.

The closer the void gets, the more bio-political structures themselves seem to dissolve, with Robert Pattinson’s Monte providing the clearest indication of this dissolution. Over the course of High Life, Monte goes from being a dominated subject to a person who crafts and determines his own life’s meaning, on his own terms: There’s his celibacy and refusal to conform to the absolute sexualization that surrounds him, but also his eventual acceptance of his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross), whose birth was the result of state-sanctioned experiments carried out by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the ship’s doctor. In the film’s final moments, Willow and Monte even seems to go beyond the universe itself, entering a freedom of blinding light. In a dialectical manner, Denis shows that only by pushing past established structures — beyond the furthest reaches of human knowledge — can one truly conceive of new ways of being.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 4.