Thursday, March 21, 2019

the Directors: Gaspar Noé

I love trying to explain the work of Gaspar Noé to someone who is unfamiliar with his films. How do you justify the carnage, the brutality, and the seemingly civility-free world that Noé loves to depict? Sometimes, you can’t. Noé’s films are so singular in their provocative vision, that they polarize everyone who sees them. Many revile his work, others embrace it.

For me, Gaspar Noé is the cinema provocateur. He’s a disruptor, a filmmaker who does not give a damn about adhering to convention. And he is a man who is very, very curious about how people behave when they lose control. I’ve spent the past week rewatching all of his films (what a week), and that was the theme that most clearly presented itself: The loss of control.

Please advise, as I am a huge admirer of Gaspar Noé’s films, this will not be a post in which I condemn a director’s choices. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every aspect of Noé’s movies (has anyone?), but I am undeniably drawn to a filmmaker who has something new to say, and isn’t shy about saying it exactly how he intends. (Also note: Noé has directed a number of short films, music videos, and chapters of anthology films, but for the most part, I’m choosing to focus on his feature film work.)

Short Film: Carne (1991)
Noé’s first long short film opens with a horse being killed and butchered for meat (the shot construction of this sequence is a direct homage to Georges Franju’s film, Blood of the Beasts). Shortly after this, we see a real infant girl actually being delivered from her mother’s womb. And the fact that this all happens before the four minute mark is a very clear indication that we are indeed watching a Gaspar Noé film.

Through a quick passage of time, we watch that infant girl grow to become a mute young woman. The problem is, as the girl gets older, her grizzled father, known only to us as The Butcher (Philippe Nahon), becomes increasingly sexually attracted to her. We know this because The Butcher tells us directly via his ongoing interior monologue, which accounts for most of Carne’s dialogue.

What’s interesting about Carne is how it has so clearly informed much of Noé’s work. This begins with the film’s playful credits (no one does opening credits better than Gaspar Noé), and extends to the film’s fourth wall-breaking title cards. Narratively, Carne culminates with a grotesque act of violence in which The Butcher is so overcome with rage, he ends up hurting the wrong man, which is a consequence echoed in Irréversible. It’s always great to watch a filmmaker’s earliest work, and see how their ideas and influence carry over into the rest of their career. B

I Stand Alone (1998)
Noé’s first feature film is a direct sequel to Carne, with Philippe Nahon reprising his role as the doomed Butcher. After The Butcher is released from prison for the crime he committed at the end of Carne, he goes about getting his life in order. During this portion of the film, we watch The Butcher aimlessly chug through a life he detests. It’s an interesting character study, a senior Travis Bickle, mad at the world and himself. He begins a relationship with an old friend, even though he appears to despise her, and works dead-end jobs he hates. Then, roughly 25 minutes into the film, things go very bad very quickly, and the full carnage of The Butcher is revealed.

In Carne, The Butcher has things to live for. He has a successful butcher shop, and a daughter he cares about (though, admittedly, his definition of “care” differs from most). His disposition is light at times. He smiles, he chats, he tries to fit in. By the time we meet him in I Stand Alone, The Butcher has lost control due to his own self-loathing. He’s a miserable son of a bitch who wants to inflict pain by any measure.

The Butcher’s transgressions force him to flee to Paris, where he is eventually reunited with his daughter. Now, what transpires next, and takes up the final third of I Stand Alone, is a sequence of such bold infamy that it made Gaspar Noé, Gaspar Noé. Noé dutifully alerts us before this sequence begins, by flashing a text warning on the screen that instructs viewers that they have 30 seconds to leave the theater, or else. Dare you stay to see how it all ends? B

Irréversible (2002)
Irréversible is a film about violence. It’s about people losing control due to pure, animalistic rage. The film is designed to show how rage can turn the most levelheaded person into a monster. This experiment in carnage has been discussed by many, and passionately hated by several. And I may have been one of the film’s detractors, had Noé not made the decision to play the film in reverse. By flipping the chronologically of the film, Noé begins his nightmare in hell, but ends it in heaven. Portions of the film remain unbearable to watch, but had it been told conventionally, I’m not sure the movie would need to exist.

The best way I can sum up my feelings on Irréversible is that I appreciate its vision. I appreciate that it was made by a man who had something intensely disturbing to say, and he said it in the exact way he wanted. I don’t enjoy the film – I’ve only seen it twice, once shortly after its release, and again for this post – but I admire the fact that its uncompromising aesthetic is rarely matched in film. Simply put, I’ve never seen anything like Irréversible, and that’s enough for me to look beyond the violence, and try to understand why (and how) Gaspar Noé made this film.

The movie, most infamously, chronicles the aftermath of a horrific rape, in which two men seek vengeance for a crime committed against a woman they love. The cruel joke here is that the men are so overcome with anger that they end up brutalizing the wrong man as a result. Most movies reveal their intentions to us as they end, but because Irréversible plays in reverse, we know exactly what Noé is trying to tell us early on: Time destroys all things, and if you lose control, it’s going to alter your entire life.

But that’s not fully what the movie is about. The latter half of Irréversible focuses on the fiery but loving relationship between the woman who will eventually be assaulted (Monica Bellucci) and her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel, who was married to Bellucci at the time of filming). Ultimately, the movie reaches a gorgeous and tender conclusion not unlike something you’d find in a Terrence Malick film. So, to be clear, Irréversible is a cruel and unusual movie, but it does have purpose. It has intention and style. This is not an easy film to stomach, but it is a film of merit. A

Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noé’s favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was famously marketed as The Ultimate Trip shortly after it was released. And upon watching Enter the Void, it’s clear that Noé wanted to take audiences on a trip unlike anything they had experienced before. Enter the Void is about losing control of your life, specifically as a consequence of drugs. After the police gun down Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American drug dealer living in Tokyo, his spirit rises over everyone, and we view moments from his traumatic life, while also monitoring his sister in the present. If you died and had the ability to review your life, or watch over someone currently, what path would you follow?

The film’s plot is secondary to its aesthetic. Critics may claim that Enter the Void is all style over substance, but when the style is this refreshing, it’s hard to argue against it. The visual appeal of Enter the Void begins immediately, with what could be the greatest opening title credit sequence in the history of film. Once the movie itself begins, we spend several minutes in the literal point of view of Oscar. (Noé even accounts for Oscar’s blinking, with faded crashes of black occasionally filing the screen.) After a few moments, Oscar smokes a strong hallucinogen called DMT, and we’re off.

Once this DMT sequence begins, Enter the Void’s astounding visuals never let up. The film is full of mesmerizing computer-generated drug trip sequences, and breathtaking practical cinematography that still confounds me. The camera often assumes Oscar’s POV, or rises above him, or follows him, in a way that is dumbfounding. I still have no idea how Noé (who operates his own camera), and his longtime cinematographer, Benoît Debie, actually captured this neon-soaked nightmare of a film.

Noé took a long time to make Enter the Void, utilizing the street justice security of the Yakuza during filming, and painstakingly perfecting every detail of the film in post-production. The effort rewards, as Enter the Void is unlike anything I have seen before. And while many have ripped off the film’s style (Kanye West’s music video for “All of the Lights” is a blatant, attribution-free rip), it’s almost impossible to repeat the high of watching Noé’s film. Because, after all, Enter the Void is The Ultimate Trip of the 21st century. A

Love (2015)
Let’s get the salacious stuff out of the way. Gaspar Noé’s Love is a modern love story about two people who are brought together and ripped apart by the intense love they share. The kicker is that the actors in the film had actual sex during most (but not all) of their love scenes. For added kicks, Noé and Debie shot the film in 3D, using a mostly static camera. So there.

Like all of Noé’s work, a lot of people had issues with Love. And look, I get it. Is it pornography? Hell, I don’t know. Labeling it as such doesn’t help or hinder the film for me. Nor do I mind all the self-referential things Noé put into Love, like calling the baby in the film “Gaspar,” or Noé casting himself as a man named “Noé.” Many suggest that Murphy, played by Karl Glusman, is an autobiographical portrayal of Noé himself. Murphy is an aspiring filmmaker whose favorite film is 2001, and he has an intense desire to make a movie about love that features real sex. Okay, fine.

All of those things speak to the provocateur within Noé, but they do not define the movie as a whole. Because, ultimately, Love is about losing control due to an unexplainable connection you have with someone. And for that reason, I believe the film succeeds on many levels. Point in fact, I love everything about this movie. I respect its uncompressing vision, and remain stunned by the beautiful, picturesque photography. There are sequences in this movie that have stayed imprinted in my mind, solely based on the way they look, and the fitting music Noé chooses to score scenes to.

There are many ingredients to a relationship – happiness, sadness, jealousy, fear, betrayal, joy, sex – and in Love, Noé depicts them all with equal energy. The arguments are as intense as the love scenes, and the joy the characters receive from their shared love is as strong as the despair they feel once it is gone. Truly, Love is one of the best, most unflinching encapsulations of love that I’ve ever seen. I stand proudly with my appreciation of this movie, and doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again. A+

Climax (2019)
If the central theme to Gaspar Noé’s work is people losing control, Climax is the first film Noé has made about characters losing control through no fault of their own. The characters in I Stand Alone, Irréversible, Enter the Void, and Love all have moments when they can stop what they’re doing. They can pause, think, reflect, and make wise decisions. The characters in Climax are never given such a luxury. Instead, they are thrown into a psychedelic nightmare, and forced to make it out alive.

Early in the film, we meet a group of dancers who are being interviewed individually to participate in a dance troupe. After watching their brief and amusing audition tapes, Noé throws us into a room with all of these people, as we watch them engage in a mesmerizing dance sequence. The camera, operated by Noé, never cuts away during this dance number. It glides up and down, side to side, ceiling to floor, capturing each dancer’s unique and impressive moves. Once the rehearsal is complete, everyone celebrates with glasses of sangria, which, unbeknownst to them, have been spiked with LSD.

Let’s go back for a second, because I cannot minimize the visual power of this opening dance sequence. It is something so aesthetically profound, that my jaw was literally dropped both times I saw this movie in the theater. This sequence is a great example of Noé’s impact on cinema. You may not like his films as a whole, but it’s very difficult to deny that this is a filmmaker with a singular vision, who has the optical ability to absolutely floor us.

As the LSD kicks in, the film turns from a joyful celebration of art to a complete fucking nightmare. No character reacts to the drug the same. Some laugh and cry in the corner, others unleash horrific fits of violence; some people have sex on the floor, others simply keep dancing. For a bulk of the film, we follow the group’s unofficial leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as she attempts to navigate her horror trip during one continuous shot lasting more than 40 minutes. This sequence, which utilizes the Birdman technique of carefully disguising editing cuts, is on par with the finest work Noé has released yet. We slowly descend into the nightmare, and are never given a moment to breathe.

Of all of Noé’s films, Climax is the one least driven by plot. How can you define a motivation for a character when they have no idea what is going on? These characters aren’t people, they are animals, forced to rely on their predatory and survival instincts. Climax is also the most accessible movie of Noé’s career, which is an odd thing to admit, given how batshit crazy this movie is. Regardless, I remained utterly transfixed by Climax. It is yet another example of a filmmaker boldly saying what he wants to say, and never making the mistake of apologizing for it. A+

In Summation
Masterful
Irréversible (2002)
Enter the Void (2009)
Love (2015)
Climax (2019)

Great
None

Good
Carne (1991)
I Stand Alone (1998)

Eh
None

Just Plain Bad
None

18 comments:

  1. I still haven't seen Climax as it's likely it won't be at my local multiplex but fortunately, there's been some torrents that have made the film available as it might be a possible film that I might watch for my upcoming Cannes marathon as he's also planning to release a new short film at this year's festival.

    I fucking love Gaspar Noe. I love that he's uncompromising and not afraid of making audiences uncomfortable as well as display a realism into his work. Even if it's violent or sexually explicit. Here is my list of what I've seen from him so far... He is a genius.

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    1. Hell yes! I love how much we love this guy's films. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Climax. I saw it twice in one weekend, and it is really something else. Definitely one of his best. Can't wait to own it and watch it whenever I want.

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  2. I saw Enter the Void a while ago, and remember liking it, but I absolutely loved Climax. Saw it a week ago and have spent the last week thinking about it.

    It's interesting you mention 2001: A Space Odyssey, because I had heard that Noé viewed Climax as a kind of reversal of that, wherein 2001 was about evolution, and Climax is about devolution.

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    1. I'm so glad you liked Climax! And I ready that bit about 2001-to-Climax as well. 2001 has informed Noe's work so much. I love the influence it has on his films.

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  3. Interesting read, as always. Love your director posts. Its strange we've actually both done one about Noe within a week! Albiet I'm a lot, lot fonder of his early work. I managed to catch Climax at a festival screening and having tried it again since still find the thing a frustratingly tedious experience. So little to love- and don't get me started on fucking Enter the Void. Yet, at the same time, Irreversible is a movie I will forever be in awe of. Polar opposites with this guy- really hope he gets the chance to make more movies. http://musicmotionmadnessfilm.blogspot.com/2019/03/gaspar-noe.html

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    1. I love how much you go to bat for Irréversible, which is a very important, so long as you look closely at it, and not just judge its surface. I certainly hope he continues to make more movies. I love that we didn't have to wait too long between Love and Climax. Hopefully he'll keep making them at that speed!

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  4. I've only seen Enter The Void, which I liked. I know Irreversible would make me way too uncomfortable so I've never watched it. Climax I'd definitely watch if it comes out near me, and Love does sound like an interesting story. Your description of his style is spot on.

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    1. Thanks so much! Irréversible is a different sort of beast. There is value to be found in it, but it is an incredibly tough movie to sit through. But I do think it's an important movie, based solely on how the story is told. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Climax!

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  5. I actually watched my first (and so far only) Gasper Noe film with the man himself. Climax premiered at FrightFest (a horror film festival) rather than the more prestigious up-market London Film Festival. I thought the film was incredible, especially the technical aspects, and even had the briefest of chats with him. I shook his hand and told him I liked the film and he said 'thank you'

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    1. That is so cool! Ahhh I would love to meet this guy and pick his brain. He has such a unique way of viewing the world and telling stories. I'm so glad you got to have that experience!

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  6. I need to see these films! I haven't even heard of them and they sound like films I need to experience. Thank you for the article.

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    1. Sure thing! Once you enter the world of Gaspar Noe, films simply look different. He does not make easy movies, but I absolutely adore all of them. Let me know what you think if you watch them!

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  7. Climax is my favorite thing he's done so far. I think because there is not plot whatsoever, thus giving him the freedom to do whatevr he wants. It's such an ingenius decision to not depict any of the visual hallucinations but simply show how the people react. There is one scene whereSelva is facing a mural of the woods and she starts tripping. Who the hell knows what is going in in her head. I also love that Noe took cues from Zulawski's Possession. Specifically the horrific tunnel scene.

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    1. YES! The fact that he didn't show us what they are seeing was so smart. He has obviously done that to great effect in Enter the Void, and I appreciated that he didn't try to match that here. It's so much scarier imaging what they're seeing, as opposed to actually seeing it. I read an interview with Sofia Boutella in which she broke that entire long take down, in terms of what her character was experiencing. When she sees the mural, she's finally hit with a sense of calm, so she sits on the couch to relax. Then she puts her hands under her stockings and, in her character's drugged-out mind, her hands actually get stuck to her own legs, like they were glued there or something, which causes her to flip out. Again. God, I loved that movie.

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  8. Irreversible is the very definition of a tough sit but the filmmaking was utterly brilliant. Enter the Void was a transcendent cinema-going experience for me. It expanded what I thought was possible in terms of film and narrative structure at the time; definitely among the best films of the last decade and an essential part of my personal canon.

    After all that... I somehow blanked on Noe's last two films. Perhaps because they got little play even in my high-minded (read: pretentious) circles. I'll have to rectify that.

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    1. I love that you're a fan! I honestly like all of his movies, but I do have a specific appreciation for Love. Like all of his films, it certainly isn't for everyone, but I absolutely adore it. I'm also stunned that Netflix still has it available for streaming. It's... pretty intense. Climax is such a thrilling ride.

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  9. Really good breakdown of Noé career! Enter the Void floored me and that is my favorite of his. You've sold me on Love (2015), need to seek it out!

    I liked Climax, even if the story loses some intensity in the middle part of the film. The opening dance and nightmarish final 35 minutes impressed me. Has an excellent soundtrack too.

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    1. Thanks Chris! Love is definitely a unique movie, but it is pure Noé. I still cannot believe that that movie is available on Netflix. And I'm glad you liked Climax! I haven't seen anything so far this year that comes close to that for me. What a nightmare of a ride.

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