Second Sight: The Quiet Apocalypse of Claire Denis' High Life

"What do you know of cruelty?" 

Parenthood is a miracle unto itself.  Managing to somehow raise another human being while hoping to avoid the pitfalls that your own parents made is not only a Herculean challenge, it is a rarity. The concept of instilling a sense of morality in a child among a world gone awry has been explored across artistic tableaus for centuries.  Claire Denis' latest opus, High Life, distills this theme through a terrifying filter of base human instincts and existential dread which ultimately crystallizes into a profound reflection on the mysteries of life.  

Monte is a convicted felon serving a life in prison in a dystopian future whose sentence is commuted in exchange for him (and a group of other prisoners) agreeing to participate in a high-risk space mission to harvest energy.  In the cold blackness of space, the crew members are subjected to sexual experimentation and other horrors as their vessel drifts closer to oblivion.  One of the most resonant aspects of this film is how Denis controls tone.  From the first few frames its evident that this is going to be a feel bad affair, and yet, despite the dreary ambiance, there are moments of genuine kindness, courage, and love dappled throughout.  The manner in which these moments are interwoven through a non-linear presentation allows them to wash over the viewer without pulling them away from the darkness inherent to the story.  These are flawed, dangerous people stripped down to their souls and the revelations are, for the most repulsive and heartbreaking.  

Despite this narrative truth, Robert Pattinson's bravura performance as Monte effortlessly manages to endear his plight.  The core of the story focuses on his relationship with a child on the ship.  His dedication, his triumphs and failures as a father are both natural and awe inducing.  Pattinson's object rage in one scene of weakness is sublime perfection, perfectly emulating any parent at their wit's end.  These scenes are spliced in between the story of the ill-fated crew.  At first the jumping from one timeline to the next may seem jarring, however as the film enters its final act, the import of this decision becomes clear.  The interactions between the prisoners and their devious controller Dibs (Juliette Binoche, in absolutely disturbing turn) build a moral fiber that threads everything together.   The interesting juxtaposition is in how this is transcribed.  In apocalyptic settings, such as the The Road (or even Logan), the parent child relationship is built upon the concept of what was.  There is a fundamental understanding that the parent is passing the torch, hoping that the next generation will continue to carry the fire.   In Denis' carnal madhouse, there is no escape, no future, and thus the relationship is defined not on the passing of knowledge and tradition, but in a mutual sense of unspoken despair.  How does a parent prepare a child with no knowledge of life (in virtually any form) for death?   Denis has no interest in answering this question for the viewer and High Life is all the better for it.  

Great science fiction asks difficult questions that ultimately reflect on the nature of humanity.  Beyond this, there are a handful of films in the genre that eschew convention by using fantastical ideas and technology to question the limits of reality.  2001:A Space Odyssey not only redefined the possibilities of the medium, it asked audiences to expect more from entertainment and to embrace challenging art as a means of self-exploration.  Tarkovsky's Solaris obliterated genre conventions by housing one of the greatest love stories ever told inside a science fiction carapace, using the concept of a haunted space station as a means to symbolize loss and grief. High Life joins this august group of films by using the extremities of the human condition as a crucible on which the other side of lies the most important part of the human experience: hope.  There are scenes of sexual violence and death throughout and these horrific events are the demons that haunt the lonely corridors of the ship, uncomfortable provocations given form through Yorick Le Saux's ethereal cinematography.  One of the most memorable scenes involves bodies in space, and the manner in which Le Saux captures them achieves a sense of poetic symmetry that is perfectly at home within Denis' flawless creation.  

Available now for digital streaming, High Life is one of the most important science fiction films of the century and an absolute must for fans of art house cinema.  This is a difficult film both in content and in its ramifications.  The durance of existence is an oppressive, inescapable leviathan that hides within each of us.  It is films such as this that are potent reminders that it is ultimately more about how we choose to face the darkness than whether or not we triumph.  

--Kyle Jonathan