Ela Bittencourt on Juliette Binoche in High Life
If all movies are documentaries about actors, as Godard once claimed, at some point they must form a unique biography, particularly for actors whose extensive careers and multiple roles start to enter into dialogue with one another. Juliette Binoche is certainly such an actor, and of all her films, the one image that came to my mind first when considering her is of her standing before a fan, her long, witchy black hair billowing softly, as she offers her face to the artificial breeze in Claire Denis’s High Life. This role borrows amply and freely from her career, but at the same time manages to subvert it. Ultimately, and largely thanks to the complexity of the performance that Binoche constructs, Denis manages to make a poignant plea for the expansiveness in our most elemental relationships, an urgent call for—yes, that word—love.
Let’s say first what is being borrowed: in the image in question, it’s a color. Blue is not specific to any particular film, of course, but there is no way to think of Binoche without recalling the image of her wounded, painfully drawn face as the grieving widow in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993). The color in that film symbolized not just fraternity—Kieślowski’s original intent—but also an urgent death wish, a complete emotional breakdown. The character’s name, Julie, alliterating with Juliette, seemed to suggest that Kieślowski was tapping into Binoche’s inner fragility.
The echo of the color blue makes for an odd resonance in High Life, a film that, at least on the surface, is all about life—about the mad perfectionist obsession with reproducing it, and in so doing, reaching the genetic sublime. And yet this seeming contradiction—invoking death in a film about life—eventually proves cohesive. There emerges a poignant balance, between the desperate desire to live and the agonizing, nihilistic yearning for death. Binoche’s role is crucial to sustaining this yin-and-yang. More than any other actor in High Life, she waivers between assertiveness and crushing vulnerability. Yorick Le Saux’s fluid cinematography translates these constant swings into an oppositional palette of warm and cool colors, particularly ochers, yellows, and reds, offset by deep blue.
Binoche plays Dr. Dibs, a scientist who has given up her life on earth to cruise in space with a group of young outcasts as her guinea pigs, as part of a eugenics experiment designed to produce a perfect human. Much of the film is devoted to how she subdues the youths she is in charge of, by administering various pills, and how she goes about impregnating young women with the men’s sperm—without actual sex onboard. Binoche as Dr. Dibs has a punishing, authoritarian, though at times motherly presence. We first see Binoche in close-up—she smiles softly, bringing to mind the many reassuring characters she has played: the protective, cool, sister-in-law in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown; the soothing attentive nurse in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient; the woman of inner radiance in Denis’s Let the Sunshine In; and the more nuanced, slightly neurotic Maria in Oliver Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (also shot by Le Saux). Mostly, there’s a certain softness that Denis seems to know well. But what’s delightful, and a little risqué, about Denis, here and in her previous films, is that she goes for the counter-punch. The unexpected.
In High Life, Denis pushes back against Binoche’s naturalism and softness early. After that first close-up in which Dibs smiles, the next image of her—a flashback of one of her inmates, Monte (Robert Pattinson)—shows her sitting behind a closed door. We glimpse her face and upper torso through the door’s small glass opening: a frozen portrait, like in a picture gallery. Poised yet somber, unavailable, caged in. It is a striking image, but it passes so quickly it barely registers. Yet it’ll reemerge, again and again, within the film’s symbolic structure: a suggestion of a prison, whose claustrophobia starts to close in on Dibs, its main custodian.
We come to understand the full meaning of Dibs’s imprisonment only towards the end, and even then it comes as a surprise. That’s because Binoche’s Dibs is a master first and foremost—or so she’d have us believe. Denis withholds the revelations about Dibs’s past, until it is almost too late for us to empathize with her. Denis instead introduces us to the spaceship through Monte’s point of view. There is a female character in the film from the beginning, but she is still a baby (in fact, Monte’s baby, though we don’t know how she was conceived until much later), and so Pattinson’s view—his melancholy vision of the world—initially predominates.
Dibs exists in Monte’s memories; as such, our understanding of her is necessarily incomplete and fragmentary. And yet Binoche electrifies the screen whenever she appears. In an early shot, after Monte and the young female inmate Boyse (Mia Goth) fight, Dibs wields a large needle and a thread to stitch up Monte’s nasty cut. The procedure looks crude and painful. Binoche plays Dibs mending her patients with an air of weary expertise, but also occasional meanness. She is maternal yet superior, even sneering, calling Boyse, “a fine specimen,” and “a filthy little crack-head.”
Dibs’s power borders on miraculous; considering that there are no other guards on the ship, one would expect much more chaos early on—instead, she seems to instill order over this particularly unruly bunch all by herself, by sheer force of her authority. In this sense, Dr. Dibs is more like the head of a perverse family. Its members don’t love each other, yet they come to depend on one another for survival—without Dibs’s experiments there would be no reason to prolong their lives. Her relationship with the male inmates is particularly complex. They are attracted to her, without exception. Seeing Dibs standing at the fan, enjoying the cool air, one of them starts to masturbate. His desire spurs him to attempt raping Boyse, suggesting that Dibs is partly responsible for the demise of her own mission: the sexually charged comradeship is a doomed dystopia. How could a perfect being possibly emerge from it?
In this scenario, Binoche is the embodiment of an emancipated but cruel older woman. She has no need for the young men onboard, and instead has sex with a rather ominous apparatus that also includes a piece of pelt, as if skinned off a large animal—at one point we also glimpse something resembling a paw as it reaches out to touch Dibs (though in this mysterious, cult-like sex box, it is never clear what happens in Dibs’s mind and what in reality). Once inside the demonic sex incubator, Binoche takes off her black, dominatrix boots, and straddles the apparatus with a metallic phallus. Her body writhes with an uncanny athleticism, and when Binoche’s face finally comes into view, its expression conveys pain rather than sheer pleasure. Binoche swings her head side to side rhythmically, as if Dibs offered herself up, in a carnal sacrifice, bringing to mind the savage carnality in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. (In fact, Isabelle Adjani, in her most notorious scene in that film—not from the one in which we see her, as Żuławski famously put it, “fucking the octopus”—writhes in a city underpass in a dim bluish light; there too the color hinted at consummate desire, at death.)
Is High Life then really about reproduction, and if it is, what are we to make of it consistently linking the female figure to sacrifice and death? For sure, there are snares in the film’s torpid logic: for one, why should we believe that the rebellious inmates—whom Dibs berates as derelicts and some of whom prove to be genuinely unhinged—could produce anything like an ideal human race? As a eugenics project, Dibs’s mission is decidedly flawed. And yet, at the very heart of the film, particularly in Dibs’s complex relationship with the young Boyse, lie exchanges that ring true, and which are eerily disquieting. It is to Boyse, who doesn't want babies, and yet whom Dibs tricks into having one, that Dibs opens up about murdering her own family and, more importantly, about her attempted suicide—a story that brings her an inch closer to the fragility of Julie in Blue. In High Life, her facial expressions are harder, more set, enigmatic. Nevertheless, her attitude towards Boyse is increasingly maternal, and the two ultimately emerge as equal, respected rivals—theirs is a true battle of wills, to see who gets the upper hand. Will it be Dibs, who pushes Boyse toward motherhood, or Boyse, who resists it with all her might? And is it possible that Boyse/Dibs are in fact mirror images of womanhood and the desperation it can bring on?
When Boyse finds her breasts oozing milk, suddenly realizing that she is pregnant, she whimpers, “They caught me,” clearly meaning Dibs. On the spaceship, Dibs represents the oppression of law and order. Yet Dibs is also a woman. “Is it true that you killed your kids?” Boyse asks when Dibs carries out her gynecological exam. In the context of the mission, it might seem that Dibs’s gruesome act would deem her family DNA inadequate. Denis, however, is a master of ambiguity, and Binoche’s performance only thickens it in this crucial scene. She is filled with repentance when Boyse mentions her children’s death. However, when Boyse touches on the death of her husband, Dibs’s face freezes into an impenetrable mask. “With a knife,” is her only comment.
We never find out what hides behind this pragmatic, unemotional response. Is she hinting that she had been victimized by her husband and acted in self-defense? This wouldn’t be far-fetched, given that in a few of Denis’s films women suffer abuse at the hands of men. Denis is hardly ever literal, but she does present a sobering vision of maternity as a prison, as “being caught,” subjugated. In this sense, Dibs wielding her power—what she calls her “total devotion to reproduction”—is also a slavish act of treason. She is a victim, and yet she becomes a tool and perpetrator. Denis’s film clearly should not be construed as a direct or simplistic commentary on the current political climate, in which women are often denied the right to abortion and so end up dying in risky, illegal medical procedures—and yet, it is quite plausible to think that the image of dead young female bodies, which end up deposited in blue plastic bags after giving birth, may bring to mind the fact that women’s lives continue to be subjected to cruel societal rules—which are often beyond our control, dictated by men.
In this sense, the film plays on a much broader theme—what does freedom mean? And what is it worth? Boyse responds to “being caught” in a maternal web by planning an escape. Denis is unsparing in presenting Boyse’s escape scene: the image of this frightened young woman, alone inside the cramped, violently shaking pod as it approaches an annihilating orbit in deep space, is one of the film's most heartbreaking. This act makes it clear, however, that, to Boyse, freedom is priceless; it asserts her dignity—something she’s been denied. After such an audacious act, Dibs’s own decision to abandon the ship—to float into the ether, we presume—is but a mournful coda. In her final moment onboard, Dibs gazes back at Monte as she stands in the ship’s entrance, her white scrubs splattered with blood. She has been attacked and wounded in the fight after Boyse’s escape. She doesn’t appear to be mortally injured from the skirmish, so the reasons for her exit are unclear. Is it rather that, beyond the narrow scope of her mission—and now beyond the reproductive age—there is no place for Dibs on the ship, or anywhere? She has already “seduced” Monte, extracting semen from him while he was asleep. Now she says to Monte, “That child is your daughter,” referring to the baby she’s leaving behind. “To me, she’s perfection,” she adds. One might expect Dibs to gloat at this crowning achievement, but instead of acting triumphant, Binoche keeps her voice low, stern, admonishing.
In the scene in which Dibs has sex with the sleeping Monte, Binoche plays the role of seductress fairly literally—whispering in Pattinson’s ear, rubbing her body against his, and sucking his thumb. Dibs’s revelations about her family and attempted suicide, plus her melancholy finale, suggest that the mission she imparts to Monte goes beyond nurturing perfect offspring. What is perfect, anyway; what does it mean to be perfect, as opposed to free? The film’s final section further investigates this dichotomy: Monte proves his capacity to love, as both mother and father, in the absence of a female figure. Unlike Dibs, he shows authority without being doctrinaire. In other words, from his conscious decision not to use the sex machine on the spaceship, to his defense of Boyse, preventing her from being raped, to now his unconditional love for his daughter, he emerges as a man capable of selflessness and protectiveness—qualities that redeem his own violent past, in which he murdered his friend for killing his dog, repaying cruelty with cruelty.
Denis set in motion a similar transformation in her other films, perhaps most strikingly in the sister-brother relationship in Nenette and Boni (1996). And this protective, rather than virile, sexualized male role, is one that Dibs cast—or forced—Monte into. In High Life’s final image, set many years later, as enigmatic as the entire film, father and teenage daughter climb into a pod to approach a slowly expanding band of light. They are risking themselves to find possible new life, though the darkness that surrounds them, coupled with the immense intensity of the light that suggests great heat, imbues the scene with a sense of foreboding. A mix of euphoria and dread, but also of enormous tenderness—all this seems to have finally blossomed from the inner torment that Binoche conveys: a postmodern utopia of what male-female love might be, beyond our fear of death, beyond possession, and sex.