“Women & Horror” is a four-part series of features on horror films directed by women.
Content warning: This article discusses plot details, which include sexual assault and disturbing subject matter.
One of the opening scenes in Claire Denis’ High Life shows the main character, Monte (Robert Pattinson), baby-talking the word “taboo” to his baby daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). They are alone on a spaceship, and the scene is initiated by Monte’s discussion of how people do not eat their own body waste.
“Don’t drink your own piss, Willow. Don’t eat your own shit. Even if it’s recycled and even if it doesn’t look like piss or shit anymore. It’s called a taboo,” Monte explains.
The set-up, a father talking to a baby—who cannot possibly comprehend a word that he is saying—on an abandoned ship lost somewhere in space beyond Earth’s solar system, seems like a throwaway scene. Yet, it is a pivotal moment in the film because, as the audience soon learns, each moment in High Life’s nonlinear narrative is intentional. After cooing “ta-boooooo” to his daughter, Monte stops and realizes, “At least it is for me, but not for you.”
The film’s opening dialogue of taboo incites a discussion on one of its major themes: bodies and power. Through this discussion, Denis explores the intersection of gender politics and abjection with how she positions the bodily functions of the female and male characters, primarily that of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), Monte, and teenage Willow (Jessie Ross).
Denis describes High Life as a film that “speaks only of desire and of fluids.” Whether it is the dewiness of the ship’s garden, the gurgling water tanks, or the discharge that seeps out of the Box’s gutter, fluids configure greatly in High Life’s filmic identity, especially for a film set in a vacuous place like outer space. With their ship headed toward a black hole, essentially toward death, fluids are not just something to withstand but to value for they offer a chance at life. This hopeful chance of sustaining human life in their doomed mission requires boundaries to be redrawn or blurred completely. A great portion of the film is dedicated to Dr. Dibs’ quest to reproduce a healthy baby. Dibs contaminates those gurgling water tanks with sedatives; she rapes, steals sperm, and force-inseminates sleeping women. Most of the babies die, not being able to withstand the radiation exposure on the ship. Dibs, in her mission to sustain a future for human life, defiles life itself with the abject. Dibs uses the abject to overpower the crew and to further blur the boundaries. The crew may all be criminals that Earth has thrown out of its orbit, but she is categorized and feared to be the worst of them all for killing her husband and children. It distorts her mission of reproducing life after she obliterated the life she created on Earth.
Dibs commands the ship’s crew, despite there already being an assigned captain. She achieves total control by sedating them or trading drugs for semen. She also does not allow the crew to engage in sexual activity with each other, controlling their desires as well as their fluids. Monte is the only man who abstains from self-pleasure, refusing to let Dibs take his sperm for her experiments. Monte’s response is likely due to him feeling threatened by Dibs’ cunning and controlling power, and it is exactly Dibs’ devious wiliness, however, that has her deeply sedate Monte and molest him in his sleep in order to get his sperm, which results in Dibs’ ultimate desire: a healthy baby.
In an interview, Denis describes Dibs as “almost a new Eve,” the biblical figure who crossed boundaries herself by eating the forbidden fruit. Dibs is both condemned and feared, and much of that has to do with her positioning as a monstrous feminine figure, especially in opposition of Monte, the non-boundary passing male—arguably the Adam to her Eve. Her desire to play god and the proliferation of bodily fluids she creates and encourages is in contrast to Monte, whose “monk”-like character and refusal to use the masturbation box or provide semen for Dibs’ forced insemination experiments presents a character who is still upholding earthly societal rules that define what is or is not taboo. Monte understands, possibly even more acutely, the ramifications of violating boundaries, as he murdered someone who had killed his dog when he was a kid. His abstinence and calm temper defy the characteristics one may associate with a murderer. Yet, that juxtaposition of murderer and good conscience can also be considered abject.
In “Powers of Horror,” philosopher Julia Kristeva writes that abjection isn’t only associated with uncleanliness, but also what exists in “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior…” Kristeva’s list reads like an accurate description of the personalities that make up the crew, which further emphasizes the film’s strong ties to abjection. To cite Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine, Denis, like Kristeva, explores a myriad of ways in which abjection exists in human societies, “as a means of separating out the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject.”
This comes to a head when the crew dies, and Monte is left alone on the ship to raise Willow. As Creed and Kristeva both note, it is usually the mother that helps the child map out the boundaries of the body, arguing that usually a child’s first contact is with a maternal authority that teaches them about their body.
As seen in the opening of the film, where Monte feeds, potty-trains, and cleans Willow, he assumes the role of “the maternal authority.” Since these interactions occur between a father and baby, any discomfort or concern is mitigated temporarily because of her age. When we are reintroduced to Willow as a teenager, Denis focuses on her growing body and the bright red stain of her menstrual blood. The sight of Willow’s menstrual blood forces the audience to confront her female sexuality and the implications it naturally draws. If Dibs goal was to reestablish continuity of life with the conception of Willow, the doctor is then also transforming life into the epitome of abjection. In an interview with Sight & Sound magazine, Denis confirms Dibs’ long-lasting motives, “she’s attracted by Monte, but she’s more attracted to accomplishing this incredible mission of, after death, giving life.” Even in death, Dibs is still forcing Monte to cross the line, to face what human society may consider the ultimate taboo: incest.
When asked how she would sum up High Life, Denis admits that is not easy but goes on to describe the film as “the story of a man alone in space for the rest of his life, with a baby, most likely his, who will become a young woman and eventually his femme fatale.” By describing Willow as a “femme fatale,” Denis clearly addresses in this interview how Willow has the power to overcome Monte’s will, much like Dibs had to in order to conceive her. The film walks around this taboo, not exactly breaking or following it. The film relies more on Denis’ visual style to convey the discomforting inevitability of such a transgression. The long takes on the characters, the slow tracking shots of the ship’s fertile garden in contrast to the wheezing machinery of the ship, the understated acting and scarce dialogue all allow the unsaid to float to the surface. As noted in this analysis of another film by Denis, I Can’t Sleep (1994), her style comes to together to create “a condition where you are no longer sure about the limits of your subjectivity but seem to be floating between a position as subject and object.” As seen in its opening title card, with the dead bodies of the crew falling away into space, High Life commits to infinitely floating in the abject.
High Life is Denis’ most recent exploration of power dynamics among a disenfranchised society that seems to—in her words—”carry the weight of an entire degenerate and decaying civilisation on its back.” It implies that even earthly society which sets the rules or minds the boundaries are hurtling toward death, devolving into abjection. With that in mind, High Life challenges its audience to contemplate how far we are willing to go to preserve our existence. On the other hand, by upending the expectations aligned with gender roles, Denis presents how matrilineal society can survive through abjection and how the erasure of boundaries allows women room to gain power. This push-and-pull of accepting and rejecting the “monstrous” reality of fate and survival successfully questions the rules that bind society and what it means that women are able to thrive when those bindings start to fray.
High Life is streaming on Prime Video.