Warning: This contains spoilers for High Life.
The first thing you should know about High Life is that it is oozing with every kind of bodily fluid. (Seriously, this film is obsessed with the abject — period blood, semen, urine, feces — you excrete it, it’s there.)
The second thing you should know about High Life is that you will most likely leave without a sense of closure. Claire Denis’ English-language debut, starring Robert Pattinson as a convict turned number-one-space-dad, isn’t all that interested in black-and-white answers. Instead, the haunting, beautiful film dwells in the dusty cracks we usually avoid.
The plot of High Life is a tangled web, each sequence acting as a fragment of a much larger narrative that doesn’t become clear until, suddenly, it does. The film almost feels dream-like in that sense: You can remember the overall feeling, and individual parts make perfect sense; but try and explain it to someone else out of order, and it all comes off random and disjointed. So, before attempting to parse the film's ambiguous ending, here's a little recap of the plot.
The film’s beginning is actually the middle of the overall story. When we first meet Monte (Pattinson), he and his infant daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsay) are the only survivors of a group of death-row inmates sentenced to a dangerous space mission trillions of miles away from Earth. The first sequence deals with him caring for the baby, who we later learn was conceived as part of a sexual experiment run by scientist and de-facto leader, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). A criminal herself, Dibs was tasked with attempting to create life in the void of space, a task rendered near-impossible because of high radiation levels.
Through a series of flashbacks, we get to know the group and their routine before the events leading to their deaths. Tasked with harvesting the energy from a black hole, theirs is a mission with no return — the closer they get, the more they have to come to terms with the idea that they’re not coming back.
As far as film settings go, space spans a broad spectrum of genres, from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: Space Odyssey to Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a void that can be used as a backdrop to examine the human condition, or as cool contrast for lasers. In High Life, space is “the ultimate jail.”
“What is nothing, when there is no time and no space?”
The clunky, artless ship, despite its small patch of lush, thriving greenery, is a sterile cage. These inmates may have escaped prison, but they’re no less captive. When they’re not being used by Dibs, they mostly lounge around in their bunks, their drab, uniform clothing suggesting the anonymity of prison garb. They have no real control over their existence.
And yet, the film’s ending does represent an escape of sorts. In the final moments of High Life, Monte and Willow (now a teenager, having grown up with no human contact other than her father) are finally faced with the black hole in question, rimmed with an eerie yellow light that she dubs the “tiger’s eye.” They’ve arrived at their final destination. And with nowhere further to travel to, they board one of the ship’s smaller shuttles and dive into the black hole, completing the mission that Monte set out for nearly 76,000 days ago. The final words spoken are a brief question, and it’s even more succinct response: “Shall we?” “Yes.”
So, what does this mean? The most obvious assumption is that the only way out of this predicament is death. And indeed, the film’s opening credits, which overlay the title over the falling bodies of Monte’s fellow inmates, doomed to float in space for eternity, do point towards that kind of fatal outcome.
Up until reaching the black hole, Monte could still harbor even the faintest hope of rescue, divine intervention, some technological breakthrough — anything that might provide him and his daughter with some means back to Earth. The fact that the two encounter another ship, empty except for dogs (animals that hold weighty significance for Monte, as we learn throughout the film), moments before making their final decision, is no coincidence. It’s a sign, a coming-to-terms with the idea that there is no other option. There is no hope left.
But Denis isn’t really known for easy. Asked about the film’s ending during a Film Comment Free Talk on Thursday at New York City’s Lincoln Center, the director teased another option.
“Let’s say you could enter a black hole. Some people believe you might reach another universe, or something,” she said, adding: “If you reach this limit called the singularity, where time and space become zero. I thought that was the perfect image for infinity.”
“As I was reading books, learning about black holes, I [found] that there are probably huge black holes where you’re not condemned to death if you enter,” she said. “Everybody knows that if you enter a black whole, there is a limit. But now, scientists believe that if it’s big, there is a possibility that you can maybe reach, after the horizon of the black hole, a point where time and space are equal. It stops.”
The yellow light, she continued, symbolizes the opening of that realm of “nothing,” where father and daughter could technically dwell forever.
As for what that actually looks like — haven’t you learned by now that nothing in this movie holds a definite answer?
“What is nothing, when there is no time and no space?” Denis mused. “I don’t know.”
Neither do I. And that’s the beauty of it.