Music in the Void: High Life and the Use of Music

“Willow / Do you crouch among the rooftops / Willow / Listening to a city wheezing / And your dreams they stretch / Beyond the clouds and pass the moon”

‘Willow’, Tindersticks ft. Robert Pattinson – High Life (dir. Claire Denis)

Film music, we are told, should rarely ever be front-and-centre of a film. It should be the emotional backdrop, a shortcut guide to the emotive texture of a film or a scene. That’s generally been the attitude for most of Hollywood’s sound-based history – the score has always been a small part of the picture rather than its primary building block.

We respond to music much more abstractly than we do to films or books; it is harder to pin down why a certain sequence of sound-waves resonates with us than it is to simply point at a character and say: “they resonate with me”.

Some films, however, find musical moments that so perfectly match what is being said onscreen that it’s impossible to disassociate the music from the image. High Life manages to find that moment in its closing credits. Here, an already sonically and visually majestic film latches onto one final beacon. Written by Stuart A. Staples of Tindersticks and sung by Robert Pattinson (who also stars in the film), the film’s closing track ‘Willow’ is a beautiful, quiet masterpiece that takes all of the film’s themes and seems to coalesce them in one nigh-perfect piece of drowsy ethereal pop.

The song’s basic building blocks are much the same as Staples’ soundtrack for the rest of the film; a bedrock of organic, analogue synths (often sounding as if half-decaying) and the occasional burst of colour via a distorted guitar or some other sound. It suits High Life’s mood, as we follow a group of prisoners on a lonely space ship, chosen for a suicide mission for which there is no expectation of return. Though it cuts back and forth in time, the spaceship on which the film is set is mostly seen as a gradually decaying entity – leavened with organic entity but predestined to rot and entropy. The music reflects that.

In some ways it’s a film about socialisation. On a ship full of convicts where the sole figure of authority, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), is a mysterious figure with an ugly past, the inmates have to find ways of getting along, or not. They seem to bristle with hatred as if repelled by each other’s very existence, unable to leave the foibles and pettiness of Earth life behind. As such, many of our worst behaviours on this planet are repeated and exacerbated in space: rape, violence, abuse. The ship’s life-support shuts down if not given regular updates as to the mission’s progress, like a game imposed from on-high to simply remind everyone you exist. A TV beams long-distance cultural ephemera into the spaceship, remnants of a forgotten culture.

Image result for high life monte and willow
Jessie Ross as Willow with Robert Pattinson as Monte in High Life (2019)

Monte (Pattinson) stands apart from all this, as if repentant. Where nearly all the other characters frequently masturbate and use the ‘Fuckbox’ (a mysterious black box which actualises your sexual fantasies), he rejects sex and focuses on gardening; Bruce Dern’s monk-like protagonist in Silent Running (1972) comes to mind. Is there a psychosexual element here? I think the implication is that Monte’s lack of concern with earthly frustrations gives him the psychological tools needed to survive long-term. Breaking our bonds with the past is the only way to survive.

Amidst this comes Willow, a young girl born on the ship and Monte’s daughter. Growing up in a tiny world where her only physical human contact is with her father, her existence is limited. But it seems she’s picked up good habits. She’s kind, gentle and intelligent, free from the ugliest elements of life back home. Will she lead a fulfilling life? Unlikely. The closing track’s lyrics read like a list of all the things she’ll never be able to do or experience:

“The spiders and the centipedes / Crawl across your hands, across your knees”

“Willow, do you walk across the sand? / Willow, do the waves crash and fall?”

“Do you crouch among the rooftops?” That sense – of experiences never known, a life withheld, a futile inability to ever go beyond our immediate confines – permeates the film and is the central tragic element of Willow’s character. Sung at a whisper by Robert Pattinson, he sounds as if he’s sighing in acknowledgement but attempting to find a light, a hope at the finale. The ethereal washes of synths, the sparkling shudder of guitar that permeate the track, the two repeated bass notes – like heartbeats – all seem to reflect that balance between melancholy and hope. On one side: the void, the emptiness, the impossibility of going or finding home. On the other: the possibility of a new life, of a new type of thinking, of a new imagination. Who knows if Monte and Willow ever find it?