I am not a parent. At least, not of a human baby. In Los Angeles, most people have dogs, because of the busy lifestyle that comes with the film/tv industry. I’ve had my dog Storm for two years, and even at twenty pounds, he still causes me a lot of grief. But I love him. My sister, however, is a single parent, and I’ve seen the struggles she goes through, struggles which only heightened my fear of parenthood. Struggles which A24’s HIGH LIFE captures beautifully.
Directed by Claire Denis (Bastards) and written by Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau (The Intruder) and Geoff Cox (Evolution), HIGH LIFE is an odd, highly sexualized tale of loneliness and regret, in which we find Monte (Robert Pattinson), a father living in an isolated space station with his daughter, Willow (Jessie Ross). While the two fight to survive, the film takes us back through the events that have led Monte to this life.
From the very beginning, HIGH LIFE is making a commentary on the life of a parent. Monte, in full space garb, is doing exterior maintenance on the space station, while baby Willow watches from her crib. Connected through a radio, Monte soothes Willow while he works by whispering sweet nothings to her, stretching his focus on the important task in front of him. Without warning, Willow lets out a screeching cry, causing Monte to drop his tools, and watch as they helplessly drift into the deep void of space. The moment seems simple, but what Denis’ film is demonstrating here is the loneliness human beings feel as a single parent. As my sister Kelsi could explain, there is no one there to help her when my niece, Mariya, needs her. It doesn’t matter how important the work she’s doing is, if Mariya cries, my sister must come running. Even in a crowd of people, the crying of her child can be one of the loneliest experiences there is because no one is going to stop to lend a hand. Whatever Mariya needs is on my sister, and on my sister alone. Just part of the sacrifice we all make when taking on the responsibility for another life.
We learn eventually that Monte is a prisoner, who was shot into space by the government with other criminals, in order to study black holes. Shortly after Monte drops the tool, we see him entering data into a computer, confirming that he is still doing the job which he was sent to do. With his message received, Monte and Willow are granted another twenty-four hours of life support, implying that if Monte is not doing his job, the government will let him die. Around that time, Willow begins crying again, a cry that is driving Monte mad, and in trying to calm her, he tells her that she’s going to kill him if she doesn’t stop. This is the counter to the idea that we must drop everything to take care of our children. To take care of them, we must work. Life doesn’t allow us to stop when our babies need us. We have to do both. There’s never a point where Monte doesn’t have to acknowledge this. If he can’t do what has to be done AND take care of Willow, all on his own, they will both die. For myself, that’s one of the most terrifying aspects of parenthood that HIGH LIFE is highlighting here. How can we take care of another life, when we struggle to take care of our own? The film makes it clear that we simply do not have a choice.
And like a lot of parents experience, having that beautiful life come into theirs isn’t always by choice. Sometimes it’s thrust upon us, and we’re forced to manage anyway because that’s life. On board with Monte before the events which lead to he and Willow being the only ones left, is the crew doctor, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Through Dibs, HIGH LIFE touches on another element of parenthood, the parent who has lost a child. It’s implied that at some point in her life, Dibs went mad, and killed her own baby. She can also no longer have children. Full of what seems to either be regret or an undeniable need to procreate, Dibs has made it her mission to create life once again, by stealing the sperm of the men on the ship and inseminating the women in their sleep. Pretty fucked up if you ask me, but that’s HIGH LIFE for you. But that’s the extent which Dibs is willing to go to experience that high of bringing life into the world again. She’ll do anything to have it.
Monte and Boyse (Mia Goth) are the unwilling victims of Dibs “experiments”, the poor bastards. The scene in which Dibs screws an unconscious Monte for his sperm, and then implants it into a sleeping Boyse, is an uncomfortable but accurate metaphor for life itself. For most, a child is a wonderful gift. For others, it’s a symbol of life fucking you over and dropping an unexpected baby bomb into your lap. In Monte and Boyse’s case, Dibs could not have chosen people more averse to being parents. You see, on this ship, is what I’ll call the fuck box, which is a room equipped with a fuck machine, aka a dildo-a-tron, which is revealed in an overly graphic five minutes of Dibs getting her freak on. Of the entire crew, Monte is not only the one person who refuses to use the fuck room, he’s also the only one who doesn’t masturbate, earning him the nickname “monk”. Monte is so disinterested in creating life, he’d rather never jerk off again than risk his seed ending up anywhere for Dibs to get her hands on, going all Golem and whispering “my precious”. Boyse, on the other hand, is opposed to any chance on procreation, which Dibs comments on during an oral exam, to which Boyse responds that she’s trained her body to lock it up. Which makes the whole artificial insemination not only wrong but extremely sad in the case of these two “parents”. They are literally fucked by life and left with the unwanted consequence: Parenthood.
The idea of being a mother turns out to be so traumatic for Boyse, that she ends up abandoning ship and heads straight for the nearest black hole, which is sexual in imagery with her pod appearing like a single sperm cell plunging into an egg cell, perhaps implying that Boyse is fucking the universe the same way it has fucked her. The results aren’t pretty. A few dead bodies later, Monte is left alone on the ship with willow, sentenced to single parenthood, a choice he never made.
Which brings us to Monte and Willow, and the ultimate irony. Towards the end of the film, we find Monte alone with a now teenage Willow, still surviving all these years later. The pair eventually comes across a ship just like theirs, only it’s inhabited by nothing but space dogs, who are sadly not dressed in doggie astronaut gear. Willow, of course, wants to keep one, but Monte refuses. This can be taken a lot of ways, but I look at it as simply as this: Monte didn’t want to be a parent, but now that he is, he’s terrified Willow will find someone/something else to love, a fear almost all of us go through. I have the irrational worry all the time that somehow, my dog will decide he’s too good for me. He’s goddamn adorable. Of course he is. We all think about that day when our babies, human or furry, will outgrow us and leave, and worst of all, may not appreciate or understand the love we have for them, one so strong that we sacrificed everything we wanted, for them.
Hammering it all home is the ending. Monte and Willow come across a massive black hole, which Willow wants them to explore. On the surface, this is Willow wanting to complete the mission. But why Monte allows it is another thing. He knows what happened to Boyse, yet they go anyway. Monte once killed someone to protect his dog, which sent him to a life of prison. Here, you could say that Monte is killing them both to protect Willow from the world. Willow is special, different, and Monte knows the world will chew her up and spit her out. The thought of her experiencing the painful loneliness which he has felt his whole life is devastating to Monte, and so, Monte decides he would rather they die together than ever let life do to Willow what it has done to him. Put another way, Monte commits the ultimate, parental sacrifice, for better or worse.
HIGH LIFE is in theaters in NY/LA and expands this weekend, April 12.