What do you know about cruelty?
Redemption can be an illusion to so many people. They try so hard to make up for past misdeeds that they often fall prey to even more along the way. That’s what happens when you give your quest a tangible goal—achieving it becomes paramount, the process a means to an ends. If you tell a murderer that they will be forgiven upon saving their victim’s family, who’s to say they wouldn’t simply kill another to do so? If you tell someone that saving humanity’s future via the safeguarding of reproduction from the extreme elemental conditions brought on by a nuclear winter could be their penance for a heinous act committed years previous, what’s to stop them from leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake?
It’s not truly a matter of being corrupted at birth either. You don’t have to be bad from day one to make a mistake and in turn be treated as though you were. That external projection cemented in the minds of everyone you cross paths with afterwards defines you regardless of whether it was earned. Who wouldn’t find themselves embracing it as a result? If you’re to be treated like a monster anyway, why not provoke instead? That way you can tell yourself you deserve the hatred. That way you can quell the pain felt when attempts at redemption are ignored because preconceptions forever mark you with a stain present reparations can’t erase. This is what it means to be an ex-convict sentenced for rehabilitation nobody believes possible.
Just such a demographic therefore proves the perfect guinea pigs for writer/director Claire Denis‘ English-language debut High Life. Co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, this meditative sci-fi drama at the mouth of a black hole centers upon a spacecraft tripling as prison and laboratory. All aboard have been told their participation will grant absolution. Work the mission to discover an alternative energy source within this massive gravitational vacuum light years from Earth, assist in fertility experiments seeking to combat the radiation emanating from its event horizon, and return home with a pardon of time served. Maybe it’s a one-way trip or maybe it isn’t. Maybe those who want to repent can or maybe those who don’t will simply be free to act on impulse yet again.
So rather than rot behind bars, Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is able to utilize her in-vitro skills on a quartet of willing incubators (Mia Goth‘s Boyse, Agata Buzek‘s Nansen, Claire Tran‘s Mink, and Gloria Obianyo‘s Elektra). Opposite them is a foursome of men acting as sperm donors (Robert Pattinson‘s Monte, André Benjamin‘s Tcherny, Ewan Mitchell‘s Ettore, and Lars Eidinger‘s Chandra). Some have taken to the quiet expanse of space as a gift (Tcherny basking in the unbridled life of their garden) while others see the isolation as a playground (Ettore’s violent predatory behavior only grows). There’s a “fuck box” masturbatory room with which to relieve one’s sexual tension when things grow too dire and a dormitory in which to hide and keep one’s head down until the inevitable end.
This is a Claire Denis art film, however, so don’t expect a linear progression of plot when the displays of human nature’s comparable penchant for destruction and salvation are much more important. Our introduction to this world is therefore at the end with nobody but Monte and baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) left aboard. She cries as he consoles in an attempt to not lose his mind before hitting the computer screen each night to activate another twenty-four hours of life support. Their walking the corridors triggers memories of his former crewmates and the tragic circumstances that led to their demise. Soon we’ll discover the identity of Willow’s real parents, the horrors endured, and the true cost of their expendable lives. Were demons exorcised or amplified? Does hope exist?
These are the sorts of unanswerable questions you’d expect to be asked at the outer limits of space with nothing but our humanity to prevent us from diving off the edge of sanity. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to provoke us either, using rape amongst other things to both extinguish and create life. Everything possesses this inherent duality—sex, love, and violence all revealing themselves to be tools and weapons alike depending on who wields them and when. Add the circle of life providing a second generation to put nature versus nurture to the test (an infant raised far away from the bleak nihilism of war, famine, and greed that surely influenced the crimes of those meant to educate her) and you’ll begin to understand the complexities in play.
It’s a quiet journey with visuals and sound design as staid as the characters within are wildly unpredictable. Enough time passes that we’re only able to figure out when we are at any given moment due to the state of the spacecraft’s disrepair or the abundance and/or lack of suits hanging by the door. Denis isn’t interested in holding our hands any more than she must, letting her sensory economy speak for itself by ensuring no excess risks clouding the details we’ll need to interpret her intent. You can either be annoyed by the fact that the crew’s suits only connect halfway around their helmets so that a flap of canvas “protects” them from space or appreciate how such innocuous surfaces are no match for the substance beneath.
Because lets face it: space isn’t the point. Denis isn’t looking to have her setting dictate more than its imperative of desolation. The radiation, black hole, and vessel itself merely place these nine (and a half) people in close proximity to see how they react. She increases the cabin fever, decreases morale, and lets blood boil to the point of explosion to witness whether cooler heads will prevail. And when there’s but one man left in a futile situation with no chance of proving himself to anyone but his own flawed God, does he revert to the animal he’s believed to be or embrace the paternal nature of selfless sacrifice? When the end arrives and he faces oblivion, will redemption be earned? Only he will ever truly know.
[1-3] © 2018 ALCATRAZ FILMS / WILD BUNCH / ARTE FRANCE CINEMA / PANDORA PRODUKTION