Soft and Hard: Claire Denis on High Life

By Adam Nayman 

There is a shot of an infant being carried by its father in Claire Denis’ L’intrus (2004) that may be the most rapt and tender image of its kind I’ve ever seen in a film. The first ten minutes of the director’s new High Life offer an extension and an elaboration of that shot, observing Monte (Robert Pattinson), apparently the sole adult survivor of a deep-space mission, as he feeds, changes, cuddles, and consoles the baby daughter, Willow, who is seemingly his only (living) companion on a spaceship divided into dormitory-style cells and littered with anachronistic-looking flat-screens. When the lithe, close-cropped Monte is not doting on his kid, he’s tending an artificially Edenic garden located somewhere in the ship’s bowels, a fertile space just waiting for sin to bloom there and, in doing so, give its verdancy meaning. After all, it’s only really paradise once it’s been lost.

“Taboo” is the first non-baby-talk word spoken aloud in High Life, and it’s also probably the last word on a film that is as troubling to watch and ponder as any since Denis’ own Trouble Every Day (2001), which it resembles both in its adoption of genre tropes—here science fiction instead of body horror—and its extreme, disturbingly sexualized violence. Gradually, it’s revealed that Monte and the other members of his mission (played by, among others, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, and a nicely self-effacing Andre 3000) were all convicts rather than trained astronauts; they were originally sent into space under the pretence of exploring a black hole, but were actually chosen for other, more nefarious reasons, and with no recourse to complaint because they’re criminals. Through a tangle of flashbacks (the excellent editing is by Guy Lecorne) we see the predictable, brutal results of putting so many aggressive, desperate people together in a confined location; in one early, unforgettable, 2001-inflected shot, a cluster of space-suited corpses are shown being tossed off the ship, hanging in view of Yorick Le Saux’s camera for a soundless, miniature eternity.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, the desultory atmosphere of High Life’s premiere at the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall (with peanut-gallery-style seating for critics giving new meaning to the term “high life”) gave way, unexpectedly, to a giddy wave of online praise, which, however earnest and sincere (and inevitably instrumental in the film’s subsequent acquisition by A24) was very much fuelled by the perception of shock value. Now to be fair, it’s not like a naked Juliette Binoche doing some Isabelle Adjani-adjacent writhing on a silver dildo (one of several Zulawskian touches in a movie several light years more proximate to the Polish madman than to Kubrick) isn’t going to take possession of impressionable young cinephile minds. Nor might things have been different if Twitter had existed at the time of Trouble Every Day. If A24 releasing a line of hand-crafted miniature replica “fuckboxes” or memeing Robert Pattinson’s orgasm face Nymphomaniac-style is what it takes to give one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers her first North American box-office hit, which is extremely unlikely, so be it. But despite its marketable surface provocations, High Life seems at least as close to Denis’ more recent features, 35 rhums (2008) and Bastards (2013), and their disparate but linked visions of excessive paternal affection.

In 35 rhums, Denis deftly channelled Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) via the story of a father who has to learn to let go of his adult daughter (in interviews, she cited her mother and maternal grandfather as one model for the film’s pairing). The film’s exquisite melancholy is tied to the pain and necessity of accepting change within a set emotional framework, and its signature, Commodores-scored dance sequence features a choreography of gradually distanced intimacy. Bastards, meanwhile, offers no succour at all, going full Polanski in its nightmarish, Chinatown-style revelation of all-in-the-family sexual abuse (and recontextualizing “Put Your Love In Me” even more fully than its predecessor did “Nightshift”). Both paths lead to the anxious juncture in High Life when, displaying some truly ruthless dispatch, Denis jump-cuts in time so that Willow has become a ripe teenage girl (Jessie Ross). That this transformation is revealed via a shot of her and Monte sharing a bed is merely a sign of Denis’ directness. To paraphrase another biologically minded horror movie: if space is where nobody can hear you scream, then what else can you get away with when nobody is listening (or looking)?

“Break the laws of nature and you’ll pay for it,” says Monte at one point, and the point of High Life—or one of them, since like all good movies it seems irreducible—seems to be that even in an ugly, enclosed black box hovering at the edge of the galaxy, nature and its laws rule supreme. The question of whether overcoming taboos constitutes breaking the laws of nature or obeying them is central here, although if there is a director with as low a ratio of confrontational ideology to visible self-congratulation as Denis, I am hard-pressed to name her. (I keep imagining Yorgos Lanthimos’ version of High Life and then realize that that was Dogtooth [2009], except there are actually more dogs here, plus the whole outer space thing). Fifteen or so years ago, circa Trouble Every Day, Denis was perhaps trying a bit harder to rattle audiences than she is now. But even as it moves her into a different stratosphere of production cost and movie-star collaboration—with Pattinson continuing to show good taste in auteurs long after David Cronenberg’s first, crucial show of faith in Cosmopolis (2012)—High Life shows Denis working comfortably in the same late-style mode as Un beau soleil intérieur (2017). She never forces her images, which are striking without exceeding their narrative function, nor does she get lost in an elliptical thicket à la L’intrus, which is probably her most unsettled film. In terms of content and implication, High Life is anything but easy, and yet its craft gives an impression of effortlessness, as if its various complex, interlocking elements simply floated into place, zero-gravity style.

With this mastery in mind, I’ll suggest another angle of approach, which is that the French-braided Juliette Binoche—playing a witchy mad scientist who, it’s revealed in flashbacks, used Monte and the other supple inhabitants of their interplanetary craft for some weird, obsessive, fetishistic experiments, the result of which is the baby from the opening—is 1) as much a directorial surrogate here as she was in Un beau soleil intérieur, and 2) in a way that’s more actually about Denis’ own craft, pivoting on the idea of displaced maternity by some hot young proxies. As boring as it’s become to proffer interpretations that any cryptic, difficult movie is really, secretly a day-for-night allegory about movie-making, High Life, with its relentless focus on enclosed ecosystems, interpersonal dynamics, and endlessly regenerative visual, narrative, and thematic iterations of “creation,” seems to fit the bill. On top of which, it includes, like Kubrick’s slyly anamorphic monoliths and Tarkovsky’s Zone, a mysterious yet clearly delineated metaphor for the movie screen itself—the black hole breached by Monte and Willow in the final scene, an abstract CGI canvas whose dangerously unbound imaginative potential is underlined by the girl’s (and the film’s) final line: “Shall we?”

“Shall we?” is of course an invitation (which is why it’s usually followed by the word “dance”), and as invitations go, it sounds a lot like the mantra cited by Gérard Depardieu’s cloying clairvoyant at the end of Un beau soleil intérieur and hesitantly adopted by Binoche’s stubborn but suggestible Isabelle: “Be open.” Whatever its everyday utility, to Isabelle or anybody else, this superficially New Age, ostensibly affirmative and deceptively submissive motto is probably the best advice for how to watch High Life, although it’s not as if Denis gives us much of a choice in the end. High Life is not necessarily an easy movie to like, but its mix of elusive, fleeting sensations and full-frontal blunt-force trauma is overpowering; it’s a movie that recedes and attacks at the same time. To quote another science-fiction movie about humans going boldly where nobody has gone before, resistance is futile.

Cinema Scope: I wanted to begin with the first word of the movie, which is “taboo.” It’s almost like a promise that there’s going to be a provocation, or that something is going to be broken by the end.

Claire Denis: It could have been the title of the film: “Taboo.” In this small world of the ship, you have a young man who is suddenly put in charge of this baby. It was not the plan, you know? He could have killed the child, perhaps, but he didn’t. Maybe he’s thinking about his own death, that he won’t be there and she will, but like a lot of people he lives only in the present tense. He can’t project forward to what is going to happen, into the future. So he’s talking to her about recycling, about how in order to have water on the ship, they drink their piss, and how this is a “taboo,” and when he says it and looks at her there is something there, whether he means it or not.

Scope: We learn to be careful about the things we say in front of our children, because children will listen—they absorb everything they hear.

Denis: Yes. And then later, when she’s more like a grown young woman, and she’s sleeping in his bed…he doesn’t use the word “taboo” at that time. Because he is afraid, I think.

Scope: You talk about the present tense, and it’s interesting that Monte’s jobs—tending the garden, the ship, and his daughter—are all defined in these 24-hour cycles. He has to do the work specifically to keep the systems functioning for another day, which is maybe a metaphor for living in the present tense, as you say, or maybe just a fact of life in outer space?

Denis: I did a lot of research for this film at the European Space Agency in Cologne, a lot of studying. The space stations circling the Earth are up there, passing very fast. The people living up there are all on 24-hour schedules: it’s what they need. They have printouts with their rest time, their sleep time, their eating, drinking, and sleeping times. Everything is in 24-hour increments. They only sleep for one or two hours of that; they can’t sleep, really. It’s about building this larger routine so they can function. That 24-hour schedule over the course of a six-year journey…The one thing that our bodies can’t resist is time. So they need to try to organize time.

Scope: The movie doesn’t really try to organize time; it disorganizes it, and has a very scrambled chronology. Or rather, it begins in what seems to be a very linear way and suddenly becomes quite non-linear, with flashes back and forth in time…

Denis: The script always started with the baby and the garden, and with Monte looking after them both. And then with the first steps of the daughter down the corridor, we get a flash of the past.

Scope: It does take a bit of time for us to understand the context for everything: not just that the ship is in outer space or that the crew—except for Monte—has all died, but also that everyone up there was a criminal, and that the little bits of the past we see all led them to this jail in outer space. In a way, High Life is a prison movie, right?

Denis: It’s a jail movie, for sure.

Scope: Except that unlike most prison movies, there’s no chance of a jailbreak, because you can’t exactly break out of jail in outer space.

Denis: By dying, they can.

Scope: That’s true. And that’s where you get that incredible shot over the film’s titles.

Denis: You mean the shot of the bodies falling.

Scope: Yes, it’s incredibly haunting, both the image and the idea that for Monte, these corpses are all just dead weight.

Denis: He knows that keeping them in the fridge isn’t any use.

Scope: Besides the prison movie, there are other genres being deployed here: sci-fi, yes, but also a subset of science fiction, which is the mad scientist movie. Dr. Dibs is a bit of a mad scientist figure, I think.

Denis: Dr. Dibs isn’t a mad scientist, though. The madness lies with the organization that sent them up there in the first place. She’s a victim of this too. And an employee. To be an employee when you’re condemned to death means almost nothing. She’s more like a kapo in a concentration camp. Suddenly, she believes it’s her duty to succeed in creating a life, in making a baby. A long time ago, I was reading one of Stephen Hawking’s books, and it had drawings of the perfect incubator for a baby born in space, and it had a lid. Safer than pregnancy, safer than the body. An incubator with a lid. It was sort of funny, but he was also speaking seriously because of what prolonged travel in space would do to the body. People would age more rapidly, and by the time they reached their destination they would no longer be able to raise a child because of how they aged. There would immediately be a need for a new generation.

Scope: You can sense that urgency in the way Dr. Dibs talks and acts. It’s a very suggestive idea: she’s like the mother of them all, but she needs their bodies and their fluids to create life. She’s playing God by proxy.

Denis: The girls resent it. The boys, well, to take their sperm is not so hard. Monte doesn’t like it: she calls him a monk. It’s not religious, but he’s horrified to turn over his fluids.

Scope: She’s only able to get his fluids by drugging him—she gets him to come while he’s sleeping. It’s a very unsettling scene, essentially a rape scene.

Denis: It’s a soft rape, though. There is another rape in the film that is harder. To steal sperm from a man—his “holy fluid,” I called it—is a different thing.

Scope: The notions of “soft” and “hard” are interesting in the context of your career, because there are a few films—Trouble Every Day, and maybe White Material (2009) or L’intrus—that have a lot of “hard” imagery but feel quite tender, whereas a superficially light movie like Un beau soleil intérieur struck me in its way as far harsher—a “harder” movie than High Life, even. Un beau soleil intérieur is not light…

Denis: No! Not at all. It’s terrible. It’s a terrible story. It’s a disaster. Especially at the end, in the last scene.

Scope: You mean with the clairvoyant? Isn’t the advice he gives her tender, though? “Be open?”

Denis: Yes, although there I think in that scene “Be open” is very frightening, no?

Scope: I want to return to the idea of extremity for a minute: I found a lot of what we see in High Life to be very disturbing—not just the violence, but the emptiness and the bleakness. Do you feel every so often like these nightmarish images are just things you need to get out of your system? Do you know in the moment that you’re sort of going that hard?

Denis: I’m not aware of this “hardness” while I’m shooting. I feel so much tenderness for the characters. Even the young boy trying to rape the girl…I understand him. He’s so frustrated, he’s so young. I am with them all the way. Kent Jones, when he saw the film for selection in New York, said, “Claire, you’re so brave.” I thought, “Brave?” I don’t know about that. I’m not brave. I might be a little bit crazy, but brave, no. Things like the things that happen in this movie happen, don’t they? In concentration camps, or in prisons…it’s not far-fetched.

Scope: The aesthetic of the film is interesting: people are calling it lo-fi, but I’m curious about the design, especially of the ship. The contrast between the dormitory-like living conditions and the beautiful, natural space of the garden, for instance.

Denis: The dormitories and the corridors—that’s the jail thing. But then having a garden on board…the garden was the first image for the film. Right from the beginning. I thought that if you’re sending people into space for what is basically a life sentence, you would want this garden, for vitamins and other things. It’s an industrial garden, of course, like you would use maybe for growing cannabis. At the time the film starts, the garden has grown beyond that, it’s not an industrial garden anymore. It’s more like a paradise. The only paradise you could have out there. It’s Edenic.

Scope: I thought of Eden, and wondered if that had something to do with the number “7” written on the outside of the ship. And then in the scene with the other ship, the one filled with dogs, I saw that that ship was number “6” and wondered about the relationship between them—maybe like with the space program, they sent the dogs first.

Denis: Actually, it’s “9,” not “6.”

Scope: I was looking at it upside down.

Denis: “Number nine, number nine.” Ship number six would be more of an “inferno.”

Scope: Was there a plan to render space and space travel in a minimalist way, though?

Denis: What’s minimalist is the budget. As soon as you are using 3D special effects, it’s too much money. I designed the ship myself, with the corridor in the centre, and all the cells, like an ideal jail. So if it’s like that inside, it should be a box outside. Outside the solar system, there’s no atmosphere, no friction, so a box could fly as well as anything else. The special-effects people were a bit offended by that, they thought I was being difficult. It took me a long time to convince them to make it a box. As for the black hole, I worked for a long time on that with the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. For any special-effects movie, the budget is twice as big as it should be, but I insisted on my own choice and doing it my way.

Scope: Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. Was it the same for you making it?

Denis: I couldn’t forget those movies. Solaris (1971) is a great movie and a great example of science fiction. It was also very expensive! Tarkovsky always got everything he ever wanted. I was working with less. So I thought about concentrating on the characters more than fighting for the special effects. As I recall, though, Stalker (1979) is about a man and his daughter, and he’s the only one who can get to the Zone. And then the Zone is what? It’s colour. From black and white, you go to colour. And it’s the most beautiful special effect I’ve ever seen.

Scope: Well of course you’ve just described the end of High Life as well.

Denis: Yes.