An odd aspect of film festivals is that no matter how many films you watch in a day, and how entirely memorable they might each be, it’s always the last film that determines the note on which you end the day. Perhaps not unlike courses in a meal, where feeble desserts reverberate endlessly long after the plates have been cleared.
There is nothing feeble about Claire Denis’s latest, High Life, which, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now, is also set in space like so many other recent film offerings, but is unlike any of them in every other respect. This is to be expected because it’s Claire Denis, and we don’t have anyone else with her capacity to execute an image until its capacities have been exhausted, and it is turned inside-out with its face out in the world to see until you can’t see anything else. Take the closing scenes of Vendredi Soir and Beau Travail, or the dance sequence in 35 Shots of Rum, or Lola Créton walking in those heels in Bastards, or even the continual shots of Juliette Binoche’s face in Let the Sunshine In. Denis has always worked closely with the frays of loneliness in daily life, loneliness as a form of violence, and in that vein, High Life is about as far as she has gone, quite literally. It doesn’t get lonelier than outer space.
The film angered me when I first watched it this evening. I was simultaneously horrified and incredibly moved. Ostensibly, High Life is about Monte, a former prison-inmate-turned-space-experiment-guinea-pig, and his baby—eventually, teenage daughter—who are the only two survivors on a radioactive space ship in a distant solar system. Really, though, it’s about the perversities of the human body: bodies lactate, bleed, miscarry, tear, shit, spurt and give way, even in space. On a space ship where everyone is slowly losing their minds, both men and women are raped, inseminated and handled in equal parts with delicacy and hysteria. “Even here, black ones are the first to go,” says a black inmate on the ship. A mother lactates all over her naked body, crying, saying, “They got me, they got me”, over and over again.* (*-paraphrased)
I think I’m still angry. There’s an unexplained machismo to the sexual atrocities that feels like teeth being pulled off a bared jaw. Humans on this ship flatline from the moment they try to be anything other than human: they attack and rape each other, and then they all fall to their death, one after another like a stack of dominos. A scene involving Juliette Binoche and a “fuck box” is expertly filmed—never has a woman’s back been infused with more power—but Binoche’s Dr. Dibs is mostly a creepy doctor-turned-high-priestess who likes to harvest men’s semen for reasons that are inadequately explained by her quest for the “perfect being”.
After a while, it was wearying to watch them all go for each other the second they thought the others weren’t watching. I pulled myself back out of the film more often than not, because I couldn’t care about any of them. Giving up on the characters because you wish they’d all die sooner rather than later because isn’t it inevitable in another fucking solar system—that’s what nihilism feels like.
And yet, Denis does not make nihilist films. There’s much to appreciate in High Life about the clarity with which Denis addresses the complete loneliness of existing in a human body that knows its time is near. It was remarkable to watch, for instance, the violence of birth revealed so blankly. I was mesmerised by the dark emerald of the garden, where life seemed to return momentarily as the inmates worked their hands hard. The way the empty rooms glowed in red light, giving off the impression of a secret inner life that exists only when you aren’t looking, like a club lit up in UV light and shadows.
Most exquisite of all were Monte’s scenes with his child, and I cared about them to the point that I didn’t need or want the intense flashbacks that explained the history of the ship; these tender scenes with his daughter were almost (almost) an antidote to the spectacle of hyperviolent masculinity that characterises the rest of the film. He sews a broken arm off her red soft toy, he makes her laugh, he comforts her and he teaches her to walk, and he fears for her safety. When she gets her period for the first time, she is interested in the blood, but refreshingly not repulsed, as she has been socialised entirely around a single other human being—a man who is not repulsed either. A haunting scene involves father and daughter discovering their movement over another spaceship, hardly believing their luck at possibly finding human contact, only to discover howling dogs at the other end. “It would be cruel to abandon the dog,” says his daughter. “What do you know of cruelty?” asks Monte wearily.
These moments string up the film like fairy lights, because what Denis does best is help us remember that on the other side of an abandoned life is a parallel life that views human intimacy as desperately sacred. Denis gives us this, unfortunately with more restraint than ever before. I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch High Life again—the thought of it makes me sick, if I’m honest—but I know I will be thinking about it for a long while.
Rafiki, in heavy contrast to the Denis, is light, feather-shawl-falling-off-your-shoulders light, and so imaginatively edited as to let this lightness hover till the last frame. The film observes two young women falling in love in Nairobi as their fathers battle for the same seat in the local elections. Wanuri Kahiu’s world is made of teasing neon colours, a compelling all-female Kenyan soundtrack, lively feet and livelier glances. Women watch each other: at roadside shops, in courtyards, and in abandoned cars. I felt an instant, intense affection barreling towards Kena and Ziki, the two young women, from their very first encounters on screen. Their love is fierce, black, adoring; a dark rose perfume fading in a hot nightclub, bright fuschia flashes around a football game, kisses on upturned wrists, hair braiding in public. Their love is gracefully worn, in a land where it is granted no grace.
I can’t remember the last time I watched a romantic couple on screen enjoy their love so much. Ziki and Kena couldn’t be more different from each other; extrovert Ziki is doe-eyed, sharply dressed, distracted and moves like a dancer even when there’s nobody to dance for, while Kena skulks, shyly watching Ziki from afar, riding motorbikes with the boys when she isn’t playing a very good midfield. Ziki is openly demonstrative of her affection, whereas Kena wants only to touch her away from all prying eyes.
But Kahiu asks us to watch the two women through each other’s eyes. When wide-eyed Kena watches Ziki dance for her, we watch with her. And when Ziki tells Kena that she’s going to be a doctor, not a nurse, because that’s how good her grades are, nothing feels easier or more possible in the world. Their love feels effortless, until it doesn’t, but the film remains so throughout.
Amongst the many, many memorable scenes in the film, one in particular has washed over me all day. Ziki and Kena are on a date-ish excursion, which quickly turns into an all-night affair. They enter a club, laughing, cheeks flushed, and are suddenly cast in UV light. In the neon darkness, their world blooms instantly, and their love is suddenly visible. Kena and Ziki look at each other for a long while.
This time, I could not pull myself away. Later on the train home, I thought of Fred Moten in his poem “elizabeth cotten/nahum chandler”:
‘this is the music of my own head and you can hear it in the way I sound when I come away from that for you, twisted away in being folded up when I move away from that to turn my lines out for the other line inside. but let me stop beginning to let you come to this openness I hope for. hopefully it’s forming itself from behind against just about every other folding you could think of just for you.’
An ultraviolet love. The least lonely of them all.