Claire Denis

The unique mark of an avant garde female filmmaker – if there is one – is her distinctive engagement with the female body. This body, often policed or monitored by the male gaze typical in Hollywood, is liberated to act in ways that hold its natural and often powerful functions. French auteur filmmaker Claire Denis’ striking and sensual films have put these often cinematically patrolled female traits in the forefront not for inspection – but to revel in its forceful nature.

High Life, Denis’ latest feature which premiered to audiences in Toronto last September, centers around the lives of convicts hurtling through space used as free labour to harvest alternative energy. Their mission goes wrong and the spaceship slowly unravels, and a baby is born on board. It’s a sci-fi film at its core, but it’s anything but conventional. High Life uses the science fiction genre to reveal the ways in which sexuality and physicality are integral to our existence, both past and future. Denis’ work defies expectations for the genre, and her work is anything but conventional.

The buzz surrounding High Life is not for its surface-level accessibility – after all, it is Denis’ first English language film and stars Robert Pattinson. Instead, it surrounds a “fuck box” and words on the “witch-like” nature of Juliette Binoche’s role as Dr Dibs who is fixated by the collection of sperm. Conjuring in our mind scenes of pornography, the common intrigue of High Life is in its potential shock value – especially as it comes from a director often associated with the transgressive films of the New French Extremity. However, Denis deftly weaves her story of these abandoned space travellers with a story which uses the body and its fluids for emotional value.

On these convicts’ bodies, breast milk and semen trace their flesh like dew drops slowly glistening on morning grass. Though the words “fuck box” suggest brutality and seduction, Denis’ film is more of a meditation on the earthly nature ingrained in human bodily fluids. Though these convicts fly through space on a spaceship, their bodies still connect them to earth. The fuck box is not sadistic or radical, but lyrical.

The revolutionary nature of this is demonstrating that the power of the human body, especially the female body, is in its earthly nature. In the context of a low-fi space capsule more reminiscent of a container than a sterile and high-tech starship, these bodies take on traits that are not alien, but instead wholly familiar.

The characterization of Juliette Binoche’s role as “witch-like” both by critics and by the passengers themselves relies on understanding her female sexual agency as mystical and paranormal. The common labelling of female sexuality as tantric or holy hardens the idea that female sexuality is mysterious and unknowable. Just as the female body is widely misunderstood and therefore mystised, so is her sexuality. Her ecstasy in her performance both in her self-pleasure and in her interest in semen take on ritualistic qualities at the start, but her concerns are revealed as innately human and comprehensible.

And in the end, the relationship of Pattinson’s Monte to his child created from this very sperm is what remains the most human relationship over the course of this gorgeously unsettling space odyssey.

By Laura Jacobs