The Films of Gaspar Noé By Scott Lefebvre. "If some people get offended, it’s their problem, not mine." – Gaspar Noé My first encounter with the films of Gaspar Noé was Irréversible (2002)...

"If some people get offended, it’s their problem, not mine."Gaspar Noé

My first encounter with the films of Gaspar Noé was Irréversible (2002). Coming out the same year as Marina De Van’s In My Skin, these films set a new standard for extreme/confrontational cinema. Surprisingly, both films were available for rental from Blockbuster Video despite Blockbuster’s notorious family-oriented branding efforts which prompted them to dump all of their pornographic films to the great pleasure of my college room-mates who bought the porno videos they were dumping by the armful at a dollar a VHS tape.

Irréversible soon became infamous as one of those films, like Passolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975) or August Underground (2001), that were not the kind of film that you would recommend to your parents or co-workers unless they already demonstrated an interest in extreme films. They weren’t the kind of films you’d probably let your children watch. These were the kind of films that transcended and confounded the concept of film rating. These were the kinds of films you’d suggest someone would watch on a dare just to see if they’d make it all the way through till the end.

One time I had a MySpace blind date with a girl that said she liked extreme movies, the more fucked up the better. I showed her Sick:The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan (1997) directed by Kirby Dick and August Underground (2001), directed by Fred Vogel. She left immediately after the second film taking the rest of the six-pack with her. There was no second date.

Although the nine minute-long rape scene followed by a brutal beating is the first thing that most people remember about Irréversible, it is a challenging film on a variety of levels. Noé uses intentionally disorienting camera movement, a punishingly intense score by Thomas Bangaltier (half of infamous electronic music duo Daft Punk) and, in addition to rape and brutal violence, the film also subjects viewers to direct and undiluted explorations of the dynamics of human relationships, the human condition, and sexualities on the periphery of the perverse.

Gaspar Noé’s filmography is a textbook study in the use of extreme film as a method of publicly experimenting with the themes of sex and sexuality, the underlying inhumanity in otherwise banal existences, examples of moral relativism pushed to its limits, and the corruption and downfall of the innocent. His exploration of the themes of sex and sexuality is most prevalent in his short films, frequently included in anthologies exploring similar themes, although sex and sexuality are also primary themes in his features: Carne (1991), I Stand Alone (1998), Irréversible, and Enter the Void (2009).

Those who haven’t seen Noé’s work might compare it to Richard Kern’s Hardcore films (1984-1993) or the writing of Hubert Selby Jr., writer of Requiem for a Dream.

Selby’s writing explores the inner-psychology, moral conundrums and existential despair of his characters. More often than not, terrible things happen to everyday people. The world in his work is a cruel and unsympathetic place without any justice or a benevolent higher power. Although his characters rarely die, they almost always end up physically maimed and emotionally scarred. The same could easily be said of the films of Gaspar Noé, although he lacks Selby’s reticence to kill his characters. The death of a character is always a pivotal plot point in the feature length films of Gaspar Noé.

For cinematic influences on his film-making, Gaspar Noé has mentioned Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Kenneth Anger, and Gerald Kargl. The influence of Lynch and Buñuel is most exhibited in his short film Tintarella de Luna (1983). The film is dark, both cinematographically and in tone. It readily brings to mind watching Eraserhead inter-spliced with Un Chien Andalou based on a screenplay written in a three-way misery contest between Hubert Selby Jr., Franz Kafka, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The influence of Gerald Kargl’s Angst (1983) is clearly evidenced in the cinematography of Noé’s feature films. Although Noé’s work is not directly analogous to Angst thematically, stylistically they seem cut from the same cloth.

Particularly striking in Angst is its use of snorricam – a camera rigged to the body of the actor, facing the actor directly where they don’t appear to move while everything around them does. This effect had been most memorably employed by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and Jonathan Kaplan in Truck Turner. In addition to unusual compositional framing and canted angles, the director utilizes swooping pans, zooms, and tracking shots with jarring effectiveness.

Noé uses similar visual style, making these cinematic tropes his own by choosing camera movement disorienting to the point of defying the conventional use of film as a medium of visual storytelling, and punctuating his crash tilts with a pseudo-symphonic audio sting for increased effectiveness. Particularly disorienting are the transitional moments in Irréversible and the out-of-body journey of the spirit of the main character in Enter the Void. Dominique Colin served as director of photography for Carne and I Stand Alone while Benoit Debie lensed Irréversible and Enter the Void.

It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker admit his stylistic influences and push the envelope of conventional expectations of narrative expectations. Another stylistically unifying element in the films of Gaspar Noé is his use of titles and inter-title cards with a distinct graphic design style. The films Carne (1991), I Stand Alone (1998), and Irréversible (2002) include the use of titles and inter-title cards with red, yellow, and white lettering in a bold IMPACT font against a black background, frequently accentuated with a symphonic sting in the same way that he accents his crash tilts. The inter-titles are often brief epigraphs which serve to either accentuate or provide contrast to the scenes either preceding or following the inter-titles. Of particular note is Noé’s warning the audience when a particularly graphic scene is about to be shown. In I Stand Alone the director even provides the audience a 30 second countdown as an opportunity to leave the theater before the finale. "Vous avez 30 secondes pour abandonner la projection de ce film"/"You have 30 seconds to abandon the screening of this film." And no discussion of Noé’s iconic use of graphic design in his title sequences would be complete without mentioning the opening credits for Enter the Void. The opening credits are a stroboscopic mindfuck acid flashback utilizing almost every conceivable variation of font and color combination in two brief minutes that you’ll never forget.

Noé also seems to select distinctively interesting looking actors to populate his films. This use of interesting looking actors will be familiar to enthusiasts of the "auteur" filmographies of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. In particular, Gaspar Noé uses Phillipe Nahon as the principal character in his first two features and in a cameo appearance in the wraparound story for Irréversible. Phillipe Nahon is a masterful actor whose ability to incarnate intensity can only be compared to the greatest actors of our time, although American audiences will probably recognize him most readily as the hulking murderer in Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension / High Tension (2003)

Carne / Meat (1991)
Carne is the story of a butcher who sells horse meat. Phillipe Nahon plays the butcher father of a mentally-disabled daughter (Blandinne Lenoir). The butcher mistakenly assumes that his daughter was raped by a Hispanic man when she’s seen by a neighborhood man who sees the Hispanic man in the ruins of an abandoned building with the butcher’s daughter. Coincidentally, she has had her first menses which begins to leak through her clothing, ostensibly confirming the butcher’s suspicions that she’s been raped. The butcher murders the Hispanic man in a moment of fury before he’s apprehended by the police.

Seul Contre Tous / I Stand Alone (1998)
We revisit the butcher who has been released from prison having served his sentence. He’s since married the owner of the café her frequented in Carne. The proprietress is pregnant with his child. She promises to buy the butcher a new shop but frequent delays in the purchase frustrate him. She’s patronizing about this, reminding him that it’s her money that will buy the new shop.

The butcher gets a new job as a night watchman at a nursing home where his feelings of misanthropy, xenophobia, racism, and perceived injustice intensify until he finally snaps. He attacks the café owner, repeatedly kneeing her in her pregnant belly to induce a miscarriage. He flees the scene and retrieves his daughter, taking her back to the hotel room where she was conceived.

Irréversible (2002)
The story of a young couple, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Alex (Monica Bellucci), Irréversible begins with Alex telling Marcus that she may be pregnant. The couple goes to a party with their mutual friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel), a former boyfriend of Alex. At the party Marcus indulges in drugs and alcohol in excess, flirting with other women. Alex leaves the party in disgust. On the street, she sees a man beating a transsexual prostitute. The man stops menacing the prostitute, following Alex into a tunnel where he brutally assaults, rapes, and beats Alex, leaving her for dead. Just as Marcus and Pierre leave the party they see Alex being loaded into an ambulance. A few sketchy locals tell the men who the rapist is so they can try to attain some justice before the police catch up with him. Marcus and Pierre track the rapist, La Tenia (Jo Prestia), to a gay bondage club called The Rectum where Marcus attempts to attack him. Instead, Marcus gets his arm broken and is about to be sodomized on the floor of the club as the patrons look on when Pierre comes to his rescue, smashing the head of the man pinning his friend to the floor into a pulp. Pierre is arrested for murder. There is a brief wraparound story featuring the Butcher from Noe’s previous two feature films. Have I mentioned that the story is told in reverse?

Enter the Void (2009)
Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a drug-dealer living in Tokyo, Japan. He has a best friend named Alex (Cyril Roy) and a sister named Linda (Paz de la Huerta). In addition to dealing drugs, Oscar also uses a wide variety of drugs, the effects of which the director attempts to simulate from the first person perspective for the audience. Alex tries to get Oscar interested in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist interpretation of the experience of death. Alex accompanies Oscar to complete a drug deal at a club. The deal goes bad, the intended recipient having set up Oscar to be busted by the police. Oscar is shot and killed while the audience looks on. Our point of view merges with his and we experience Oscar reviewing his life up until the events that just occurred before accompanying his disembodied spirit through Tokyo, witnessing the aftermath of his death. His sister breaks off her relationship with the owner of the strip club she works at and begins a relationship with Alex. While they consummate their new relationship, Oscar takes turns occupying their bodies and enters into his sister’s vagina. I thought that this was symbolic of Oscar reincarnating as their child, but "According to the director, this is a flashback to Oscar’s birth in the form of a false memory." [Den of Geek]

The films of Gaspar Noé are mandatory viewing for cineastes enthusiastic about extreme, experimental cinema and are a mandatory inclusion in any short list of subversive films and filmmakers.

Back to Issue 17