Space is the Ultimate Prison in Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’ (NYFF)

You can’t escape the cosmic void.

High Life

In a Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of High Life on October 2, an eager fellow stumbled over a question for writer/director Claire Denis about the setting of her newest film: deep space. They wanted to know why she had chosen such a vast setting, one that has been approached by many of film history’s greats, one that she had never worked with before. They awaited her French philosophical musings on the universe and sci-fi and intergalactic travel and the like, but Denis deflected the question into irrelevance with her transparent answer: “It’s not about space. There is no hope to escape. It is the ultimate jail.”

Before I explain how Denis arranged the setting of High Life to mirror a prison, I should note that almost everything that could be said about this film is a spoiler. High Life is that beautiful brand of piece by piece plot unraveling, each scene leaving out just enough to keep you from grasping the bigger picture until much later on. The only non-spoiler is the premise, known simply from the first minute: Monte (Robert Pattinson) is taking care of his infant daughter on a space vessel deep in the cosmos. If you want to attempt chastity and wait for the unfolding to happen before your very eyes on-screen, utilize that handy bookmark tool, and come back once you’ve watched. Or, reconsider your stance by reading this UC-San Diego psychological study on the impact of spoilers, which overwhelmingly concluded that viewers enjoy stories more if they’ve been spoiled ahead of time. For those continuing, a feast of spoils awaits you.

The larger picture looks like this: a small crew of convicts, previously detained on death row on Earth, have been chosen as subjects to helm an experimental voyage to a black hole in uncharted space to measure the [trails off into various uneducated stabs at combinations of complicated science words seen on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s over-active Twitter account]. They have been trained and sent with the sensually sinister Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a convict herself, who is tasked with creating a new life on the vessel via insemination. They have a large, gorgeous green garden with fruits and vegetables, an elaborate masturbation chamber, and a lot of time to kill.

They might be free from the prisons of Earth, but their spaceship—the least cool spaceship of all-time, a terribly basic and unattractive rectangular prism that resembles the sterility that characterizes most prisons—is their new cage. Inside the larger prison of the ship are rooms, or cells, separated by gender, where they are occasionally drugged and tied down for experimentation by Dr. Dibs, but are otherwise left to their own devices (mostly depressed lounging on their hospital-like beds).

The homogeneity of things is much like prison. They wear the same solid burgundy uniforms. They are assigned manual labor in the garden or on the outside of the ship. Dr. Dibs is their witch-like guard. They have nowhere to go. Symbolically, even their masturbation chamber, obviously meant for pleasure, is an imprisoning box. Their suits are a more intimate prison from which there is no escape once they have gone outside.

Sure, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to escape Devil’s Island in Papillon (1973/2018), but at least there’s that “nearly” in there. As Denis said, “There is no hope for escape” in space. There is no “nearly.” It’s just plain impossible. This is the truest, most ultimate form of prison. It is an inconceivable black abyss, which swallows them in their already suffocating inner layers of confinement. They hurtle forth into this unknown, a concept that typically sparks intrigue, but that Denis has fashioned to trigger communal and existential dread.

At one point, Monte narrates his reflections on traveling at light speed, a nightmarish experience to say the least. He hates the feeling of “getting further away from what’s getting nearer.” They rush toward the stars in the distance, but as light stretches, the sight of the stars shrinks, deforms, and distances itself—an optical trick that makes you feel like you’re eternally sinking. But Monte obviously doesn’t care about the stars. Their distance is not what encourages or dampens him. He’s talking about hope.

As the black hole grows nearer, so does the hope of scientific discovery. But, Monte, like the rest of his fellow travelers, has no hope in discovery. The closer they get to the expedition’s hope, the further they get from any hope of returning, which is the only real hope any of these prisoners could possibly have. They are human sacrifices and they know it, no different than the lifeless bodies of dead organ donors whose parts will be used to supplement a whole they cannot participate in.

Another fellow asked Denis about the many collaborators who dropped out in the lengthy process of problem-plagued production. Zadie Smith, acclaimed author of White Teeth and Swing Time, was once attached to adapt the screenplay from French to English, this being Denis’ first film in English. But with adaptation came change. Smith wanted to alter the ending. As far as she was concerned, the prisoners had to go home. “We were so opposed on every idea,” Denis remembered. She went on to explain that there can be no shred of hope of a return from the ultimate prison. To make it even more concrete, she added dialogue between the prisoners about the relative passing of time, which for them meant that even if they did somehow return home, Earth would no longer exist.

The truth of space as the ultimate prison is omnipresent, but not glaring. Denis executes it in a structural and abstract way. The more you learn, the more you come to realize their hopelessness. One slices another’s arm open with a shard of glass, and we are frozen wondering why. Another sickeningly beats and rapes only to lead us onto the brooding sense of terror that lurks in place of hope. Another enthusiastically volunteers for a suicide expedition and the weight of it all sinks in. No one delivers a long monologue or a ready-to-publish academic lecture. It’s an atmospheric truth.

Stylistically, High Life is Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) meets Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) meets Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) with an ambient THX 1138 (1971) kind of score and a The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) narrative structure. It’s a drastic shift from her previous film, Let the Sunshine In (2017), and it is absolutely brilliant. The haunting concept of space as the inescapable jail is not just a new interpretive angle on space, but a dark parallel for the institutional corruption of prison systems, America’s certainly ranking atop the list. The difference is, of course, the impossibility of escape. But, from that comes the impossibility of hope, which is a disturbing reality for so many oppressed people targeted by the crooked, unethical, for-profit corporation that is the “justice” system. In that sense, space as an endless prison becomes relatable to the innocent who cannot dodge justice’s grimy grasp. It is a reality for fictional and non-fictional parties alike. It is a vacuum of hope.

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.