The following is part three of my coverage of Film at Lincoln Center’s 50th Mixtape: Free Double Features series. Part one can be read, here and part two, here. I’ve previously written about Stalker, here, and High Life, here. There will be spoilers for both films, so if you haven’t seen them, I recommend doing so before reading ahead. Otherwise, the linked posts above are spoiler-free.
Here are two films that present a world on the brink of extinction and humanity’s ensuing, desperate search for an answer. In one, the heroes turn towards faith. In the other, science. Ultimately, both fail. Stalker (1979) centers on three men who journey into the “Zone”, an area afflicted with paranormal oddities. At the heart of the Zone lies the wish-granting room. High Life (2019) centers on death-row prisoners shuttled into space for the sake of experimentation. The story flits back-and-forth between the past, where the prisoners participate in their daily routines, and the present, in which the only survivors are Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross). Each film traffics in a bleak and existential atmosphere, but the connection between the two goes further than a shared genre and atmosphere.
Both films deal with characters wrestling with desire be it material or sexual. In High Life, the prisoners are made into guinea pigs by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is attempting to breed a healthy child in space. In an act of rebellion, Monte refuses to masturbate. When Willow grows into a young teenager, Denis hints at Monte’s own reverse-Oedipal struggle. Perhaps more terrifying is Stalker’s ambiguity in relation to what form desire can take.
When the titular stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) arrives to the room with his escort, he reveals the grim truth: the room doesn’t grant a person’s wish per-say, but rather, their innermost desire. He tells them the story of Porcupine, a stalker who had attempted to resurrect his brother, but was instead granted wealth. Realizing he had desired this more than his brother, Porcupine killed himself. The Stalker’s journey into the room is in hopes of finding someone with a pure soul—a Christ-like figure, if you will. The trio never enter the room, because they fear what it would reveal about themselves. They return home, empty handed.
Both High Life and Stalker end on rather dour notes, but beneath their grim veneer does lie a glimmer of hope in the form of love. Neither Tarkovsky nor Denis are as hokey—or perhaps outright sincere—as Nolan is in Interstellar (2014), but each film ends with a focus on family. Of course, family is Denis’ forte, whether it’s the father-daughter story told in 35 Shots of Rum (2008) or the tale of a French family in colonial Cameroon in Chocolat (1988). Tarkovsky’s style may be rooted in faith, but here, too, the family is central, such as in the father-son relationship in Solaris (1972) or Tarkovsky’s semi-biographical film Mirror (1975) which includes poems written by the director’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky, and whose story is inspired by Tarkovsky’s mother. But, I digress.
At the end of High Life, faced with no hope of survival, Willow and Monte board a small cruiser and dive into a black-hole. In the final scene, they’re shown standing within a metaphysical space and hold hands before presumably walking into the black-hole’s core. Stalker, on the other hand, ends with a monologue delivered straight to the camera by the Stalker’s wife. She laments the difficulties in her relationship with the Stalker—the two live in squalor and their daughter Monkey is afflicted with psychic powers—but she also reveals that she has no regrets. Both films seem to say that in the absence of higher-power, all we have is each other:
“I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow. But I’d rather know bittersweet happiness…than a gray, uneventful life…. There was a lot of grief and fear and pain. But I’ve never regretted it nor envied anyone. It’s life. It’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better. It would be worse. Because then there would be no happiness either. And there’d be no hope.”