Features and Columns · Movies

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: To circle back to silence, it might be interesting to look at High Life as a film that just doesn’t care. I’m not going to say this film failed for me because there were parts that I really liked. But it didn’t hit me like other Denis has. That said, maybe there wasn’t emotional resonance, but holy crap does she know how to make space scary.

AS: Literally one of the first shots of just the wrench or whatever it was, falling away…

MS: Gravity could never.

AS: I thought of Sandra Bullock spinning and even when there’s a terror to those scenes there’s a magical quality to them, a sense of being weightless.

MS: And then to see a body drop. Drop? In space!?

AS: Terrifying. And again: silence. There’s nothing. These are bodies falling into nothing. Even an earth-bound conception of nothing doesn’t articulate it.

MS: One of the best title cards I’ve seen in a long time.

AS: Oh, hands down.

MS: A whole star just for that title card.

High Life Binoche

AS: If I can defend the sort of, “not caring,” problem for a minute. I think it might be kind of intentional, and it might even be productive to consider what Denis is getting at in terms of what it means to be human when there’s nothing binding you to human conventions. Like when it’s just Monte and the baby…he could kill her.

MS: He talks about it! Like: “man it’d be really fucking easy to kill this baby” (laughs).

AS: He could toss her out of the fucking airlock and what’s there to stop him?

MS: Also, what’s there to keep him? I could have used more of what made him shift to caring. Because all the exposition that we receive imparts this sense that there’s something in him that just does not care. And then that flips at some point.

AS: And then we see him care intensely almost to the point where he decides not to care anymore. Because I think he realizes that he can’t give the baby anything else.

MS: Not even a puppy.

AS: Not even a puppy!

MS: I cannot articulate why I found the ending so peaceful. I was so relaxed for the last ten minutes and I don’t know why.

AS: Well a lot of the ends of her movies are about letting go. Beau Travail, Vendredi Soir, 35 Shots of Rum

MS: Don’t you find that nihilistic?

AS: There’s something kind of tender about it.

MS: It’s almost like at the point when all the other characters stopped caring, he found a reason to care again. And I think you’re right, he began to care so much about that situation that he decided to just let go.

AS: If you think of Willow later in the film getting older and getting to this age where she is maturing and she is becoming an adult, she’s going to want more than what Monte can offer her.

MS: Quit while you’re ahead.

AS: Yeah.

MS: Do we want to talk about how Dibs’s braid definitely clogged up every vent and drain on that ship? That was an irresponsible amount of hair.

AS: She’s an irresponsible woman.

MS: I don’t think she makes a single ethical choice in this film.

AS: She did what she wanted to do. She created life.

MS: Mission accomplished, baby. Time to go. Is that how Denis thinks about parenting?

AS: (laughs) People are going to hate this film.

MS: I think a lot of people are going to hear that people didn’t like this movie and go into it expecting to hate it, which would be a mistake.

AS: There are people who are genuinely big fans of all her films who didn’t love this as much.

MS: I had so many feelings and I didn’t feel like I had anything to buoy them up against. That’s a big ask when your film is this disgusting. I don’t know if that was part of the intent or where you go from there.

AS: This is her only film that’s futuristic. I feel like the film is her thinking about how humanity can become reduced to nothing more than the machinations of bodily functions and there’s nothing left for you to live for.

MS: In that sense, High Life almost feels like an anti-Denis. It is a film with no care, where I am repulsed by the idea of tactility because it means something horrible is happening. I don’t know that there’s a genuine human connection in High Life. And I would even go so far as to extend that to Monte and Willow. He treats her like a reason to live. Which is massively dehumanizing in my opinion.

AS: It does fall in line with Monte as a character, though. He’s not connected to other people or himself as a person. We establish that the thing he cares about before Willow is a dog. A baby and a dog are not the same thing, but they both need care. And they’re smaller than you.

MS: (laughing) So when she menstruates and becomes a woman he’s like “I can’t relate to you anymore.”

AS: It feels like it would almost be too much for him to have to live with her becoming an adult, and to find a way to connect with her. When someone depends on you, you have a power over them. You are extending your empathy and humanity to them and they are benefiting from it. When you’re on equal footing you lose some of that power and maybe that’s what he’s afraid of. This is someone that’s been stripped of all agency and power except for the power he has as the one who cares for Willow. And when she becomes more capable

MS: And sexual right? There’s a weird amount of tension in those scenes. I was very worried. He’s seen what hormones do to people. He’s just spent x amount of years watching nothing but sex crimes.

AS: He’s afraid of humans. He’s afraid of people and the connections between them.

MS: Relatable!

AS: As much as this is unlike anything else Denis has ever done, she’s putting together familiar ideas in an interesting way. It does say something about Denis that if this were made by any other filmmaker it would be one of the most original things I’ve seen in the last decade. But with her, and I mean this in the best way, I’m like “she’s done some of this.” I think that says more about how fucking far ahead she is compared to everyone else. As we said, I’ve never seen space like this. I’ve never been scared of space the way I was watching this movie.

MS: No one knows the void like the French.

High Life hits U.S. theaters on April 12, 2019. 

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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).