Gaspar Noe, 1998 | 2002
Is there more to Gaspar Noé than a self-proclaimed enfant-terrible indulging in ‘extreme cinema’ for the sake of notoriety and self-promotion?
Born in Argentina in 1963, Noé studied photography and cinema in Paris before making Carne (1991), a film about a horse-butcher who avenges the rape of his daughter on the wrong man. It was Noé’s first collaboration with actor Philippe Nahon, who played the central role in I Stand Alone (1998, a film that more or less picks up where Carne leaves off), and who briefly (but crucially) reappears in the opening sequence of Irreversible (2002). Noé made a few TV commercials (including a sexually explicit promotion for condoms) before securing funding for his first feature. He described I Stand Alone as “the tragedy of an unemployed butcher struggling to survive in the bowels of the country”, a film that was intended to “oppose French cinema and dishonour France”. While the film polarised audiences to an extent, it provoked far less outrage than Noé expected … and presumably hoped for. He set out to “offend the complacent conservatives in the French film industry”, anticipating that they would ban the film. Instead it won the Critic's prize at Cannes and was widely praised.
I STAND ALONE is frequently likened to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1975) in terms of the disturbing first-person monologue that takes place inside the mind of the central character (and with equally scant motivational explanation). The butcher’s contemptible tirade was designed to inhibit viewer identification while allowing Noé to (as he said) “reinsert the audience repeatedly into the narrative”. Despite (or perhaps because of) experiencing the tormented self-loathing of the man from the inside, the viewer gradually develops empathy for him (which is not the same as identification, of course) while the film traces his road to a kind of redemption. While the viewer may want the butcher to resist his dark impulses, Noé denies them – and his protagonist – such an easy out.
Just when the butcher is about to make a ‘right’ choice, the carpet is pulled away and the audience is left struggling with the actions of a protagonist who does not conform to reassuring movie-going expectations. The viewer is left to reconcile the film as best they can, because Noé patently refuses to do it for them.
Noé may have failed to court the degree of controversy he sought with I Stand Alone, but he succeeded spectacularly with IRREVERSIBLE. Reports of fainting and vomiting at the Cannes premiere ensured solid box office. I dare say many people were anxious going into the film, but those who found the inner fortitude to brave the punishing onslaught of the first half would have been surprised to discover how philosophically and morally incisive the film turned out to be.
Shot quickly using a compact Super 16mm camera and no script (nearly all of the dialogue was improvised), Irreversible is composed of a series of sonic and visual provocations, such as the gravity-defying camera work (where up is down and down is up) and the unrelenting throb of the sub-heavy score (in which a 27-hertz tone is used to induce nausea). While the camerawork is responsible for most of the dysrhythmic effects (particularly in the opening and closing scenes), the most visually impacting moments were added in post-production: such as the brutal fire-hydrant sequence and the equally notorious rape scene.
Some critics have talked about a reworking of Eisenstein’s theory of the ‘cinema of attractions’ in Noé’s films (a theory based on confrontational juxtaposition intended to induce primal responses in the viewer). Noé’s avowed intention was to make it difficult for the viewer to get caught up in the narrative so that they could be more objectively aware of what they were watching and (crucially) how they felt about it. He wanted to emphasise ideas, believing that shocking viewers into a trance-state enables them to receive ideas more clearly, although one could argue that a viewer in shock is unlikely to be in a fit state to consider thematic subtexts. In fact I’m sure that many who saw Irreversible were more concerned about maintaining their equilibrium than with thematic analysis. Nevertheless, one leaves Irreversible with many thoughts and feelings that directly relate to the act of watching (and in a sense participating in) the film. The hardy viewer might be able to pull some of these ideas together while watching the film, but the full strength of Noé’s argument becomes apparent the more one reflects on it.
Like them or not, I Stand Alone and Irreversible are acts of protest. Noé literally dares his audience to condemn the films (and him) of the very things they criticise. Similar in some respects to the thematic preoccupations of Michael Haneke and Urlich Siedl, Noé’s films consider our complex relationship with violence, not only in terms of how it’s sanctioned in the real world, but how blithely it is used in movies. Films such as these function as cinematic Trojan-horses, luring viewers and critics into exposing themselves through their reactive responses.
Irreversible turns the revenge-movie on its head, literally. By reversing the order of events, Noé denies the cathartic pleasure usually associated with revenge-movies. Our relationship with the film is therefore more analytical than usual, albeit in retrospect rather than during the screening, and (crucially) much less complicit. I Stand Alone and Irreversible reveal the consequences of choice, asking us to question what we watch and why. There is no vicarious catharsis in Irreversible, just a loud and vehement NO!.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader