Double Take is a series where Anna Swanson and Meg Shields sit down and yell at each other about the controversial, uncomfortable, and contentious corners of cinema. First up: ‘High Life,’ Clare Denis’ horny, nihilistic space romp that’s been ruffling feathers since its TIFF premiere walkouts.
The film stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, a prisoner recruited to join a space program that sends him lightyears away from earth to explore a black hole. The mission soon becomes one concerned with creating and then maintaining life when Monte is forced to raise a young child, Willow. The spaceship is controlled by the enigmatic and dangerous Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), and the supporting cast includes Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin as Monte’s fellow prisoners, Boyse and Tcherny, respectively.
Meg and Anna caught an early screening of the film and this is the conversation that followed.
The following contains spoilers for High Life.
Anna Swanson: Why don’t we each give a grounding word about High Life?
Meg Shields: A grounding word?
AS: Like a word to describe how we felt about it.
MS: Okay, I got mine but you go first.
AS: I want to say it fucks.
MS: That’s two words!
AS: “Fucks” is one word.
MS: Ok well mine is “fluids.” In space, no one can hear your fluids!
AS: That’s the name of this article: “In space, no one can hear your fluids.”
MS: Also have you seen that Letterboxd review that was like “Claire Denis watching Interstellar: hoh hoh hoh but where’s the cum?”
AS: Oh my god, my favorite review.
MS: So you saw it at TIFF? How did the TIFF crowd take it? Cause this is a very sexy film. Were they scandalized?
AS: So the first screening was the premiere at the big, big venue that is like, reserved for The Star is Borns of the world. Tickets start at like $60. So that’s a bold choice. I mean, TIFF has always screened a lot of Denis.
MS: They love her work. They just did that retrospective, too.
AS: Yeah they didn’t get Let The Sunshine In last year but they’ve premiered other films she’s made. But I don’t think in a premiere gala context like this. And there were walkouts apparently. Like, first of all, I just don’t think it was a great screening experience because it’s not a venue made for films. It’s for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It’s big and everything is curved, the screen is small, and it’s not very dark so when people walk out you notice it.
MS: So do you think people walked out because they didn’t like the cinematic experience or because there’s a lot of cum in this movie?
AS: I think different things pissed different people off.
MS: Cause here’s the thing, I’ve watched precisely three Denis, and you have been with me for all three of them. I can’t imagine, having only seen two Denis, being shocked by any of the content in High Life.
AS: Right. I think some of the audience were just like: “This is a TIFF premiere, we’ll go to a TIFF premiere.” But it’s also like, Trouble Every Day is not indicative of her work overall. She does have movies like 35 Shots of Rum and US Go Home that are more tender.
MS: So you think there were people there who had only seen soft Denis but hadn’t ventured into horn-dog Denis?
AS: Yeah. Cause if you haven’t seen Trouble Every Day or Bastards, your impression of who Denis is might be radically different.
MS: When you’ve seen a guy eat out — emphasis on eat — a woman, none of High Life is a surprise to you.
MS: So there were walkouts at TIFF.
AS: There were walkouts at TIFF. And I think for the people who stayed, who were there because they knew who she was and because they wanted that, I think it was kind of disappointing to see it in a bad room. I just don’t think she makes films that should be seen in that type of environment. These aren’t commercial fare.
MS: She’s like a virtuoso of the uncomfy moment. She doesn’t pull back when you want her to and she gets right into the action. And you need to lean into that and put it on a big screen in a proper venue and allow yourself to get into the rhythm of it—
MS: (laughs) The Rhythm of the Night. If you get into it she will take care of you. But if you’re kind of sucked out of it and aware of what’s going on around you and people are walking out…I think it would be very hard to get into. She’s an intimate filmmaker and it helps to have an intimate setting,
AS: And also the film being potentially overshadowed by the stars that were there like Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth.
MS: It sucks that people are going to think “Robert Pattinson space movie” before they think “Claire Denis space movie.” Another thing: I had a hard time pinning down a political point in this film. Maybe that’s why most of the characters are American? As a critique of the American penal system? If it was, that didn’t land.
AS: I don’t know. If we go back to Beau Travail, which is one of the ones you’ve seen, you can very clearly see what she’s getting at with her depiction of the French Foreign Legion. But in L’intrus, for example, there isn’t a clear message or political intention. With High Life, I think if we can imagine a world where that’s how the justice system decides to deal with things, there is the question of “which justice system?” and that necessitates the characters being all from one country. Also, with the issue of time in the film, there’s a lot that we could imagine happening outside of this one spaceship. Like there’s 16 years that pass—
MS: Yeah, we were at the bar after the movie and I look over and you’re just on your phone calculating the time frame.
AS: I wanted to know how long he’d been in space! Turns out it’s 16 or 17 years on the ship but in Earth time that is 208 years. So 200 years pass after they leave Earth. And that’s why I don’t like that train scene that basically explains the plot of the movie from the perspective of people who are on Earth while this is all happening.
MS: It stands out so much.
AS: Yeah, I must have just repressed it the first time I saw the film because talking about it after with other people who had seen it at TIFF— none of us remembered seeing it in that cut. That scene is unnecessary and I think it kind of lessens things because we don’t need to see what’s going on on Earth during all of this. They don’t know what’s going on on Earth and they have no connection to it, so we don’t need to see a connection to Earth.