Told mostly in flashback, High Lifefocuses on the journey of prisoners who have been told that they would be sent into space for the betterment of mankind, only to discover that they were misled. Supervised by the vicious Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the convicts are left to their own depravity as they struggle to find meaning in their mission to the stars.
Directed by Claire Denis, High Lifereveals an existence that runs counter to the seemingly-positive tone of its title. As truly one of our great directors, Denis often does not shy away from the darkness in her films, exploring our modern pain and sorrows. With this in mind, High Lifeis no different as Denis focuses her attention on humanity in its worst possible context. As the maniacal Dibs, Binoche tackles what is arguably one of her darkest roles in years, creating a character reminiscent of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Broken from her own criminal past, Dibs treats her subjects as sexual lab rats, attempting to create life at their expense. In fact, only through Pattison’s silent monk, Monte, is any particular hope allowed to enter the room. Pattison, who continues to mature as an actor, has very little to say in this role, yet his expressions demonstrate his desire to live a life of meaning in the midst of tragedy.
Denis’ intent in this film appears to be to explore the nature of what it means to truly live and, for her, sexuality is key to this conversation. By forcing the men to submit their semen for the purpose of inseminating the women, Dibs’ passion to ‘create perfection’ portrays sexuality as a cold (and, at times, terrifying) process. Here, intimacy is largely non-existent as sexuality become a clinical procedure. As a result, the prisoners, who have been essentially jettisoned from earth for the purpose of sexual experimentation, have been all but abandoned by society. Having been lied to about the purpose of their mission (they were informed that it was for the purpose of scientific research and, potentially, their own redemption), the crew has become disillusioned and broken. Though some (like Andre Benjamin’s faithful farmer, Tcherny) hold on to the belief that their journey still matters, most have unravelled living lives of depression, anger and angst.
In stern contrast to this, however, stands Monte, the self-proclaimed monk. Opting to remain celibate, Monte seeks redemption by living a life of service to others. He is dutiful, hard-working and determined not to fall into the chaos that surrounds him. Despite his criminal past, Monte is determined to be a better man, setting him up as a model of integrity against Dibs’ darkness. (“I’ll get you,” she warns him ominously.) For Monte, intimacy trumps sexuality, modelled through the way he cares for the other women, including a mysterious child. As a result, there is a beauty to Monte’s character that stems out of a desire to ‘do better’, not only for himself but for others as well.
Though the film is dark and disturbing, there is a light to be found within it. Though many of the characters have lost all sense of humanity, allowing themselves to be debased, there is still a sense that life matters. While Denis does not fear delving into the darkness (especially regarding the meaning of sexuality), there is a sense that there is something greater to live for, especially if we allow ourselves to stand up against those that seek to drag us down.
High Life treks into theatres on April 18th, 2019.