Still from High Life (2019) | Wild Bunch
John Semley,  August 2

The Fleshly Frontier

The wayward aesthetics of cinematic revulsion

Still from High Life (2019) | Wild Bunch
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“Alas, the gates of life never swing open except upon death, never open except upon the palaces and gardens of death. And the universe appears to me like an immense, inexorable torture-garden. Blood everywhere and, where there is most life, horrible tormentors who dig your flesh, saw your bones, and retract your skin with sinister, joyful faces.” — Octave Mirbeau, The Torture Garden (1899)

“When I was a little boy, my mother used to sing me a song. It went like this: Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over.” — Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996)

In 1925, before his vain Abyssinian campaign and well in advance of World War II, Benito Mussolini declared war on spaghetti.

In an effort to muscle Italy toward economic and agricultural self-sufficiency, Mussolini’s fascist government levied tariffs on pricy grain imports; Il Duce also called for the cultivation and consumption of rice and citrus fruits instead of traditional starchier staples of Italian national cuisine such as bread and pasta. Mussolini, a former socialist, was tapping into an avant-garde strain of gastronomic rebellion on the Italian scene. Futurist art theorist, poet, and crackpot bon vivant Filippo Tommaso Marinetti advanced a far more wide-ranging case for pasta abstention in his 1930 “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking.” Marinetti assailed his countrymen’s perverse predisposition to penne, rigatoni, cannelloni, vermicelli, etc., as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” Pasta was heavy and “anti-virile,” and so had no place in an Italy flexing toward economic, aesthetic, and moral brawniness.

The Futurists believed they needed to retool their diets in order to boldly reinvent themselves in anticipation of a glorious day of modernist reckoning—a moment when heavy starches were sentimental and “passéist,” as Marinetti wrote two years later in The Futurist Cookbook. Any committed pasta-lover who honestly appraised their acculturated affection for the food, Marinetti maintained, was bound to “find within the gloomy satisfaction of stopping up a black hole.”

Marinetti’s indelible image of moist tendrils of spaghetti spiraling into a void rushes to mind when thinking about High Life, French filmmaker Claire Denis’s recent deep space Grand Guignol. High Life includes, amid a truly cosmic assemblage of gross-out moments, what critic Jessica Kiang has hailed as “the single most unflinching portrayal of spaghettification ever committed to film.”

In its weighty exploration of materialist unpleasantness, High Life manages to do something truly revolutionary.

As Stephen Hawking memorably explained in his bestselling 1988 account of quantum physics, A Brief History of Time, “spaghettification” describes the ghastly fate that would befall a hypothetical astronaut careening into a black hole. Because the power of gravity at the doomed spaceman’s feet would be monumentally stronger than it would be at his head—assuming that our theoretical astronaut is falling into the collapsed star feet-first—the respective difference in that force would, per Hawking,  “stretch our astronaut out like spaghetti . . . ”

It’s undoubtedly a nasty end, which High Life realizes with a climatic, utterly unforgettable splat. But it’s just one among many splats, splurts, and arterial explosions in a film singularly devoted to moments of destabilizing ickiness. And in its weighty exploration of materialist unpleasantness High Life manages to do something truly revolutionary, even futurist, in a non-pejorative sense of the term: it rethinks the form and function of the contemporary science-fiction film.

Abjects D’Art

High Life stars teen-hearthrob-cum-auteurist-objet-d’art Robert Pattinson as Monte, one of a gang of strikingly attractive convicts (including Nymphomaniac’s Mia Goth and OutKast’s André 3000). The inmates’ death sentences are commuted in exchange for their participation in a mission to explore a black hole just beyond our solar system. It recalls a comparable arrangement (euphemistically code-named “Project Amnesty”) in Robert Aldrich’s 1967 sleaze thriller The Dirty Dozen, which has a troop of WWII-era solder-convicts dragooned into a top-secret suicide mission. In both cases, the bargain is similarly enticing: trade the imminent inevitability of certain death for the prospect of a less imminent, but no less certain, death.

Yet in High Life’s case, the stakes of the existential gambit at the core of the plot are raised immeasurably by one Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche)—a sexually predatory researcher carrying out reproductive experiments on the rest of the crew. With her scarred body, and Rapunzel-like ponytail, Dibs is a figure of equal menace and allure. And she duly draws the convict-cosmonauts into a twisted, seemingly unending, drama of violence and exploitation. Alternately radiating scientific curiosity, vulturine menace, and raw eroticism, Dibs diligently sets out to harvest from her crew-mates what Sterling Hayden’s conspiracy-addled general in Dr. Strangelove terms “precious bodily fluids.”

It’s at the hands, and prodding turkey basters, of mad scientist Dibs that High Life plunges fully into what Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and critic Julia Kristeva termed “the abject.” For Kristeva, certain bodily expulsions—blood, semen, menstrual fluid, shit, sweat, vomit, foul smells—stage confrontations with the material reality of death. The frisson of such encounters with the abject, in Kristeva’s account, permits us to apprehend the underlying biological processes of existence and death that the conventions of public life continually urge us to suppress, sublimate, or otherwise purify. As she writes in The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.”

What is a black hole, after all, but the corpse of a dead star?

The abject, for Kristeva, marks a breakdown in order, a blurring of a border, a radical destabilization in the object permanence of that thing we call “the self.” Crime, too, she considers abject, “because it draws attention to the fragility of the law.” From this vantage, we can see how the passengers aboard High Life’s deep space penal colony have already entered a state of abjection even before their bodies are violated and their innards loosed.

Even so, the ultimate embodiment of the abject is the literal one: the human corpse, which shocks and repulses not merely by producing foul smells or unpleasant fluids, but via its all-too-vivid conjuration of the tangibility of death itself. “The corpse . . . is the utmost of abjection,” writes Kristeva. “It is death infecting life.” High Life inflates this idea to a cosmological scale. What is a black hole, after all, but the corpse of a dead star? It is, moreover, a star that’s fallen in on itself—cadere, the Latin meaning “to fall,” is, as Kristeva notes, the root of our word “cadaver.”

Kristeva was primarily interested in the role religious ritual and certain literature (drawing on the works of Georges Bataille, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline) play in depicting and containing the abject. But her criticism has obvious implications for the horror cinema canon. To take but one example, Barbara Creed engagingly adapted and rethought Kristeva’s insights in her landmark 1993 book, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. More directly, of course, Kristeva’s work helps account for the sheer proliferation of abject imagery throughout the history of horror movies.

Bodies of Work

Think of classic horror movie creatures like vampires, zombies, stitched-together Frankensteinian monsters, and lumbering Egyptian mummies—each a different kind of animate corpse or un-dead being. Or consider the oceanic plentitude of blood, gore, and putrid fluids that have spilled throughout the many frames of modern horror cinema. These undead quasi-protagonists and the tidal waves of viscera they typically unleash all fall under the putrescent umbrella of the abject. At an even more fundamental level, many horror films hinge on the threat of human bodies becoming debased to the abject status of corpse-hood, at the claws and teeth of a cannibalistic horde, or the knife-blades and chainsaws of this or that psychotic masked killer. (And, as Creed notes, following Kristeva, abject imagery even informs the ways in which horror films are positively qualified: we may commend a film for its ability to “scare the shit” out of us, or make us “darn near puke.”)

Denis, for her part, had previously indulged the abject, and all the carnage it implies, in 2001’s Trouble Every Day. Occupying the artier end of a turn-of-the-millennium trend in Franco-transgression that Artforum’s James Quandt designated “the New French Extremity,” the film cast Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle as two people suffering from a mysterious libidinal affliction: their convulsions of sexuality spike a cannibalistic hunger. If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because it was copped by the more popular 2016 cannibal coming-of-age flick Raw—a film that, in a classic Hollywood domestication of the abject, used its ability to send audiences into fits of convulsive vomiting as a marketing tactic.

In one of Trouble Every Day’s tougher-to-stomach sequences, Dalle’s blood-sick vixen seduces and devours a leering neighbor, proceeding to tear his flesh asunder and vigorously flick, with her bloodied fingers, at a hole torn in his body. It’s a smart corrective to the blunter violence of horror cinema; and it cannily inverts, along gender lines, the traditional relationship between penetrative violence and repressed, demonstrably masculine, desire. It’s also a scene that highlights Denis’s ability to subvert the expectations, and ostensible pleasures, of the horror genre.

With High Life, however, Denis is clearly no longer content to unsettle the clichés of genre—she’s embarked on the more ambitious project of exploding sci-fi cinema altogether. This is more than simply a matter of fusing horror’s abjective tendencies with the generic trappings of science-fiction to create a hybridized space horror experiment on the order of Alien or Event Horizon or, sure, Jason X. Rather, High Life uses abjection—and its animating anxiety over the direct confrontation with the material ick of death—to re-think science fiction’s contemporary function.

God All Messy

In press notes accompanying the film, Claire Denis hints at her contempt for the modern sci-fi blockbuster. “I find they all have the same NASA sheen,” she grumbles, “too pretty, civilized, hygienic.”

It’s certainly true that, excepting certain scenarios set in the ruddy post-apocalypse, most sci-fi vehicles rarely stoop to the muck and mire of Denis’s film. Films about space travel are, almost by definition, not especially concerned with earthbound affairs. In a movie like Christopher Nolan’s massive Interstellar, the ruined Earth is a thing to be abandoned and humanity a thing to be redeemed by Matthew McConaughey’s super-genius spaceman. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Matt Damon’s marooned astronaut marshals the putrescence of reality to similarly redemptive ends, harvesting potatoes in his own excrement. (His problem-solving motto—“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this!”—is similarly purifying.)

Even the grand-daddy of modern science-fiction filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, regards scientific development as an expression of mystical, metaphysical super-eminence. At its fever-pitch crescendo, the spirit of scientific inquiry is indeed what unmoors Keir Dullea’s Dr. David Bowman from the niggling constraints of time and space and blasts him beyond the realm of the senses. It’s telling that the well-appointed digs conjured for Bowman late in the film, by an alien consciousness, are decked out with Louis XIV-style furniture. This sly juxtaposition deliberately calls back to a historical epoch when men held themselves as gods. At the level of cinematic space fable, the aim of science—or at least of much science fiction—is to summon forth a future in which humanity is able to transcend its apparent constraints. Science lifts us out of nature.

With High Life, Denis develops ideas seeded by filmmakers like David Cronenberg (whose 1999 sci-fi/horror hybrid eXistenZ made emergent notions of virtual reality technology feel bodily invasive) and, more recently, the late Russian director Aleksei German, who likewise unleashed a queasy amalgam of knowledge, viscera, and power in his 2013 intellectual-rescue epic Hard To Be A God. In German’s film, a group of futuristic Russian scientists have traveled to a parallel Earth that has not advanced beyond the Dark Ages, ostensibly to civilize it. The hitch, as the protagonist realizes, is that much like the “prime directive” guiding inter-planetary colonial exploits of Star Trek, he is helpless to interfere in the development of the alternative Earth, which is deeply stinky, shitty, violent, and cruel. Evoking Andrei Tarkvosky’s Stalker—also, like Hard To Be A God, based on a story by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky—German’s posthumous opus is the rare science-fiction film that conjures a material reality so immediate and visceral that you can practically smell it.

The aim of science—or at least of much science fiction—is to summon forth a future in which humanity is able to transcend its apparent constraints.

Like Hard To Be A God, High Life is not interested in transcendence. More than that, though, the movie is palpably not-transcendent. In its radical materiality, it evokes another seminal work of art that grapples with abjection: Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony.” In that story, death row inmates are dispatched to their doom by a complicated machine that inscribes their sentence into their raw flesh with piercing needles. As the flesh eventually fissures under the endless, piston-like puncturing, the condemned inmates are expected to become radiantly aware of precisely why they are being executed—their faces transfigured in death to reflect a sense of knowing, even of tranquility. But the promise of the spirit being redeemed as the body is obliterated proves to be bunk. The face of the dead man remains, Kafka tells us, “as it had been in his life.” Earthly punishments, in Kafka as in Denis, remain elsewhere unrewarded.

High Life thus resists—and, indeed, denies—the contemporary allure of science stories that substitute the process of discovery, exploration, and problem solving for the old religious rituals, in which the spirit is hardened to overcome and outlast the physical. Think only of the figure of Jesus, whose cavorting with lepers is precisely what renders him Christlike. Or St. Catherine of Siena, who sucked the putrid pus from a nun’s cancerous breast and was, so the story goes, rewarded by Christ himself, who invited her to drink from his own wounds, suckling like a greedy little pig. 

In these religious sacraments, disgust is reconfigured as humility, and rewarded in turn. In such thinking, we are encouraged to regard the body, and indeed the whole material world, as a clunky vehicle ferrying us toward some greater, impermanent reality. There we shall live abidingly in covenant with God or are otherwise (through microchips, nootropics, or the uploading of one’s consciousness to the internet) rendered immortal. In High Life, very much by contrast, the abject leads only to more abjection, to its climactic discharge of frail bodies explosively spaghettified in space. Precisely because the film is not concerned with a sphere beyond our own sensuous, sticky, greasy world, High Life simply treats the body as such—as both vessel and cargo.

Rages for Order

“What’s inside you?” Lisa Simpson once asked the scowling school bully Nelson Muntz. His response: “Guts. And black stuff. And about fifty Slim Jims.”

Denis’s approach to science fiction is genuinely Muntzian—i.e., material. And the material is often acrid, chaotic, icky, stewed in decomposing Slim Jims. There is simply nothing to transcend. High Life offers a third way between the two transcendental solitudes of blind faith and cold rationality. It confronts us with corporeality in and of itself, mobilized toward no discernible higher end. The body is all there is.

There is a moral dimension—or, in keeping with the space-sci-fi theme, a whole moral cosmos—bound up with this revelation. And it returns us to the futurists, and the fascists, and the hatred of soft, sticky, yielding spaghetti.

Cleanliness, sterility, and the purification of anything that invites the feeling of abjection are often politically weaponized to signify a failure of moral hygiene. Think of phrases like “white trash,” or the “unwashed masses,” which conflate key sociocultural markers of class with those of cleanliness. Consider as well Donald Trump, who served pre-wrapped Big Macs and sealed packets of Sweet ’n Sour sauce to a chamber full of athletes, reflecting his own reported dietary predilection for fast food. Such foods are so routinely machine-made that they seem to deny their category as food. They are the culinary equivalent of rationalist architecture. They are drained of any intimations of the organic. They are foodstuffs.

I am reminded in this connection of a recent episode of the TLC reality show 90 Day Fiancé, in which the manager of a McDonald’s is physically revolted at the prospect of eating a perfectly delicious roast pig, prepared whole, by a Filipino family he is visiting. Even though the meal had been painstakingly presented as a gesture of love, its presentation laid bare—and indeed, overtly celebrated—its animal, organic origins. A Big Mac or a Whopper or a Wendy’s Classic Triple sails into our gullets bearing no similar echo of the abject. These are objects, unmoored from their material first causes, denying both death and life. This is the cruel, factory-made realization of another of Marinetti’s demented visions from the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking” a new, hygienic line of edible plastic foods. The latter-day franchised-burger equivalent of Marinetti’s modernist prophecy is food that denies the contingent relationship that exists between lifeforms. It is only barely food—more to the point, it is clean, ordered, and controlled.

Cleanliness, sterility, and the purification of anything that invites the feeling of abjection are often politically weaponized to signify a failure of moral hygiene.

Fascists and reactionaries are typically obsessed with moral and social hygiene, with order, with clearly delineated borders, with hierarchy, purity, and the art of tidying up. In fiction, the future is so often imagined as a clean, sleek upgrade of the present because such aesthetic landscapes are regarded, if not godliness-adjacent, certainly preferable to the muck and mess that marks the sprawling, disordered, rhizomatic chaos of actual, lived existence. Fascism abhors mess because it is an affront not only to some established political and social order, but to the idea of order itself. And this, of course, is what makes mess, chaos, disorder so valuable—and not in some crude, anarchist teenager way, like, “Ha-ha! I’m just watching the world burn!” The stakes are more substantial. Such disorder, after all, is the very stuff that binds us to the Earth and to one another.

In a piece for the Guardian analyzing Lars von Trier’s recent serial killer provocation, The House That Jack Built, critic Elena Lazic has a memorable line about the ways in which such brutally violent stories truly confront us. They command our attention not merely via their ability to shock or annoy or perversely titillate. Rather, sustained depictions of bodily violence and abjection reveal the limits of those bodies—limits that are both beautiful and terrifying. “Brushing up against the limits of human nature,” Lazic writes, “draws our attention to its shape and to its fragility.” Our relationships are not valuable because of some wooly nonsense about our transcendental spirits being bound together by some metaphysical kinbaku. They are valuable because all we have are each other’s putrid, acrid, easily puncturable, possibly-even-spaghettifiable bodies. And so, to simply be is enough. We are all there is.

This is what makes High Life so absolutely singular. It’s a sci-fi story that embraces and exposes the wonder and fragility of material existence, in all its raw beauty and universal terror. Even at the edges of the universe, and the end of time, all there is is blood and piss and shit and cum. Life is short. Life is shit. And, as it always has been, flesh is the final frontier.

John Semley is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Hater: On The Virtues Of Utter Disagreeability.

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