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Double Take: ‘High Life’

In space, no one but Meg Shields and Anna Swanson can hear your bodily fluids. You’ll need to keep reading for the context.
Dt High Life
By  and  · Published on April 11th, 2019

MS: Did you like the flashbacks?

AS: I did. Because I think it helps to see who they are before space prison.

MS: I wish there had been more inclusive flashbacks for like, everyone so that we could care about them a little more. Either that or no flashbacks at all.

AS: Boyse’s flashbacks are some of the most beautiful scenes in the film.

MS: Agreed. I really liked Goth’s character. Her fear of losing control over your body when it’s the only thing she had left was super fascinating. I actually wish she’d been the focus of the film.

AS: By the end, she’s had all control over her body taken from her. Being ripped apart is a perfect visual articulation of what she’s experienced, and plays into the film’s larger themes of how people behave when they have no agency and nothing to lose.

MS: To pivot a little bit, I think people have been talking about how different High Life is to other Denis films in terms of the genre. She’s never done sci-fi. But to me, this felt different because there was so much dialogue and there was no music! I mean, there was music and it was great but there was no classic Denis dance shakedown.

High Life PosterAS: Can I submit to you the idea that the Fuck Box scene is kind of a dance sequence?

MS: I’ll allow it.

AS: I also think that the lack of dance reflected the film’s claustrophobia.

MS: Right. And if you’re going to break that sense of isolation it has to be for something good. Ergo: not that train sequence.

AS: So unnecessary.

MS: There were some really good sound-dropping-out moments.

AS: Oh yeah. This film lacks natural sound in a really cool way.

MS: I feel like that fed into the way the film dealt with artifice. All the routines. All the ways they tried to keep some part of themselves alive up there.

AS: Yeah, there’s such an emphasis on the bodywhich is in pretty much all of her filmsbut I think it’s interesting how HIgh Life is more about the body than anything else she’s done. Even her horror movies.

MS: How many fluids do we see?

AS: Various types of blood. There’s semen. There’s breast milk. There’s spit. There are three types of human wastewater.

MS: There’s so much organic matter in this film and it’s all completely disassociated from the context of the body.

AS: Yeah, so much of High Life is about not really living and simulating pieces of life. I think that comes to define a lot of how Willow understands her world. It’s just like this game of life and death. There’s a lack of emotion.

MS: It’s the horniest movie I’ve seen in a while and no one really has sex with anybody. There are people jacking off at each other. There’s the Fuck Box. Which is so funny in the context of those self-cleaning Paris public washrooms. Like how long do you think Claire Denis has been like: but what if?

AS: (laughing)

MS: Like, even the thing that happens to Monte happens while he’s unconscious.

AS: Even having a child is perverted into an incredibly traumatic thing.

MS: It’s pretty fucking bleak. And I can appreciate parts of it, but my experience of her filmmaking is that it comes from this intense place of care. Misplaced care too, like in Trouble Every Day. But I just don’t see a lot of care in this movie apart from Monte and the baby, Willow. Because intimacy here is just people standing at opposite ends of the room furiously jacking off to one another, it’s really hard to feel for anyone. 

AS: I think part of the point is how these characters have been pushed to not caring, how they’re distanced from their own humanity. I think we can look at it as her criticizing the State or the system they live in, as she often does in other films. It’s the thing that has put them on this ship. The idea that every day they have to go and log this information and that just extends their life support for 24 hours. I think that’s really about a lack of agency under the State and the horror that comes from that — from serving the machine — we even see that reflected in the machinations of bodily fluids.

MS: Monte says it at one point: “the only power I have is to not jerk off.” And I think we’re led to believe that that’s why the conception happens. Or at least that’s my jizz-theory: that his balls hadn’t been irradiated in the same way as everyone else’s had. But then he gets that taken away from him without his consent. The one thing he had left was that he wasn’t giving them his cum and then they took it from him!

AS: True.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).