Why this might not seem so easy
Characterised by garish sex and violence, vibrant colours, pounding soundtracks and restless steadicam shots, ‘un film de Gaspar Noé’ remains an instantly recognisable spectacle. Championed as a unique voice in cinema by some, perceived as a mere provocateur by (many) others, Noé remains as controversial today as he was when he exploded onto the film scene 2 decades ago, with his feature debut I Stand Alone (1998) winning the International Critics’ Week Award at Cannes.
This divisiveness can be traced back to 2 contradictory impulses that animate the work of the Argentinian-born, French-speaking filmmaker. On the one hand, Noé’s flashy filmmaking style shows a director tirelessly enthusiastic about the possibilities of the medium. On the other, his films explore extremes of violence, often veering into nihilistic territory. Though now expected in his work, the unholy marriage of these 2 conflicting drives always generates whiplash, a shock that has lost none of its power across Noé’s career.
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The violence of that clash can be frightening, even off-putting to some, but a shallow gesture it is not. In public, Noé embraces his reputation as a despised troublemaker producing superficial, disgusting movies. But his work is less a childish provocation than a shock treatment, meant to reawaken the senses rather than desensitise.
As such, each new Noé film offers another occasion to revisit the perennial debate of form versus content, ideas versus sensations – only to make these divisions collapse entirely. In Noé’s cinema, the form is the content, the sensations inextricably linked to a film’s ideas.
The best place to start – Enter the Void
Considering the cult around it – its colourful poster adorning the walls of every self-respecting young man who’s ever tried to hotbox his dorm room – Enter the Void (2009) represents the most convincing evidence in the case against juvenile filmmaker Gaspar Noé. It nevertheless remains a fitting introduction to the sensory overload that characterises the filmmaker’s work, implying a deceptive emotional depth beneath its psychedelic surface.
The dazzling film is shot from the point of view of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a French drug dealer living and dying in Tokyo. Shot to death by police after a drug deal gone sour, Oscar gets a first-hand experience of the very afterlife his friend was reading about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Enter the Void traces the sensory perceptions of this drifting soul at he glides through dark Tokyo streets, guided by the neon of the nightlife, ‘living’ the ultimate out-of-body experience – death.
If this all sounds very silly, that’s because it is, and Noé’s film is at its most effective when it doesn’t attempt to tug at our heartstrings with the personal stories of Oscar and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). Yet the rather pathetic way in which the dead young man revisits childhood traumas and follows his sister around feels like a genuine expression of love. The immediacy of the film’s sensory roller-coaster finds an echo in Oscar’s longing for a return to the basics — to the way he and his sister were in childhood; before the drugs, before Tokyo.
By the end of Enter the Void’s 142 minutes, we are moved, shaken and a little queasy, as if we’d been to hell and back.
What to watch next
While Enter the Void focuses on the visceral experience of death, the film also looks to the past (in Oscar’s memories) and eventually to the future (in Linda’s pregnant belly). Much of Noé’s work throbs with the tension between a desire to feel the moment in all its intensity, and the impulse to step out of oneself, looking nostalgically to the past and excitedly to the future.
This is never truer than in Irréversible (2002), its incremental scenes unfolding in reverse chronological order. As we go back in time and understand what pushed a man to murder, the film highlights the limits of perception and control. Irréversible is Noé’s most fatalistic film and his most nauseating by design: a low-frequency sound, known to create a sense of uneasiness in listeners, is heard through most of its runtime. Few films have made better use of the visceral power of cinema before or since.
With a pair of misguided, vengeful men at its centre, Irréversible feels like a natural successor to Noé’s feature debut I Stand Alone. Like most of Noé’s antiheroes, the butcher (Philippe Nahon) is caught between the reality of the moment and the hyperbolic story of his interior monologue. Noé repeatedly highlights the contrast between the banality of mundane events and the butcher’s excessive reaction in voice-over, embellishing the damning portrait of a wannabe killer.
As the film builds towards a violent finale – playfully signalled by the kind of on-screen text that has become Noé’s signature – our feelings of empathy and repulsion for this sexist and violent protagonist become more complex. The film ends on a note as sweet as it is monstrous, creating mixed feelings that make for a fitting summation of the frustrating and often contradictory politics in Noé’s work.
Coming 20 years after I Stand Alone, Climax (2018) feels like a return to the smaller scale of Noé’s debut, but also to the drug-induced hallucinations of Enter the Void; the doomed romance of Love (2015); the real-time violence of Irréversible. This amalgamation of Noé signifiers shows a director looking back at his career like his protagonists reminisce about their past. But it is not regret, sorrow, or murderous rage that the enthralling moves of Climax’s cast of dancers convey. Even when embroiled in a sordid story of meaningless cruelty, these young artists embody Noé’s absurd but unflinching enthusiasm for the present and the future. If “time destroys all things,” he definitely wants to see it when it happens.
Where not to start
Rather misguidedly marketed as a sex-fuelled fantasy, its title wrongly understood to be ironic, Love was perhaps always bound to disappoint viewers. Despite the sexy people who make up its cast, the film tells an unexpectedly earnest and dull love story. Murphy (Karl Glusman) did not realise how much he cared for Electra (Aomi Muyock) until she left: now, caring for a child he accidentally conceived while cheating on Electra, he reminisces about their past relationship.
Adorned with beautiful imagery and striking deep focus compositions, Noé’s most gorgeous looking film to date is also his most baffling and ridiculous. It is low on thrills — sensual or other — and high on clunky dialogue. One for the completists and the most curious only.
Originally published: 22 December 2020