[G]aspar Noé has made his mark in a cinema which has generally gone under the name ‘New French Extremism’, a body of films which mark French cinema’s attempts to rehabilitate itself after being virtually done in by Hollywood’s continued success in Europe. Some of the other directors held as belonging to this group are Francois Ozon, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Patrice Chereau, Jean-Claude Brisseau and Leos Carrax. While the complex eco-system of French cinema has also been cited as the cause of this cinema – which has been deliberately transgressive and determined to break all taboos – a simpler explanation is that this body has arisen as a direct consequence of Hollywood’s (and America’s) cultural hegemony.
The relation between American cinema and French art cinema was a much friendlier one in the 1950s and 1960s when directors like Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol were even inspired by Hollywood. The Auteur Theory, postulated by Francois Truffaut was primarily engaged in detecting personal expression in studio films from Hollwood and the American directors eulogized by the French included Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, William Wyler, Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Douglas Sirk. American cinema perhaps began its decline in the Regan years – the early to mid 1980s and American cinema, if one were to look for a way to characterize it today, is marked by blandness. Several explanations have been offered for its ‘feel good’ tendencies but one (at least in my view) is the revelation that market consumption is stimulated when the consumer feels optimistic.
A corollary to this is the arrival of merchandizing – using cinema to sell assorted products in the way Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) was used to sell rubber dinosaur models. One needs only to compare Jurassic Park with Jaws (1975) (both billed as ‘horror’ films) to understand how much tamer Jurassic Park is – where the reptiles are allowed to eat only the minor characters. It can be argued that if Jurassic Park had been truly horrific (as Jaws was) it would have been difficult to sell rubber dinosaurs. The blandness of American films goes hand in hand with the demise of the stronger kind of cinema.
If New French Extremism tries to position itself in relation to Hollywood, the best directors from the group are political in their emphasis. Catherine Breillat is preoccupied with feminine sexuality as an end in itself and tries to work against the American sense of heterosexuality as directed towards family formation. In Fat Girl (2001), for instance, Breillat’s use of rape towards this end is even outrageous. Bruno Dumont is perhaps the most interesting director of the group – especially with Flanders (2006), about a group of French farm hands enlisted to fight a war in the Middle East. A film like Flanders can only be understood in the context of the politics of representation in American war films – where the white body is sacred and inviolable. In Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), each American soldier dies with dignity, tended by his comrades in his final moments while his enemies are mowed down in masses, neither mourned nor even counted. Dumont works against this in Flanders where a white soldier who rapes a Muslim woman is castrated and a shell which falls on a French infantryman leaves behind only lumps of charcoal.
Gaspar Noé is better known than Bruno Dumont or Catherine Breillat but he is a far less interesting filmmaker perhaps because he has no political viewpoint to offer. Noé attained fame/ notoriety with his second feature Irreversible (2002) which critics (like Roger Ebert) pronounced ‘unwatchable’. If the story of film is related in linear order, it is about a young couple Marcus and Alex. The girl discovers that she is pregnant and a little later the couple goes out to a party with a friend. After the party Alex ventures into a subway, sees a transsexual being assaulted but when she tries to intervene, she is anally raped and beaten unconscious. Marcus sees her being carried away on a stretcher and is heartbroken until a man offers to help him get revenge in exchange for money. They locate the transvestite who gives the name of the rapist as Le Tenia, who hangs out at a gay nightclub called The Rectum. There, they assault the wrong person while the actual Le Tenia watches and Marcus is himself badly injured. Across the street two men talk in a hotel room and one of them, who admits to having had sex with his minor daughter, says that ‘time destroys everything’. This is the story or it would have been if it had not been related backwards. Since projecting it backwards would have made it truly unwatchable, what we have are straightforward sequences arranged one before the other with the ultimate event being the first one seen and so on.
The film is considered ‘unwatchable’ for two reasons – two interminably long sequences involving rape and battery and a score which uses low decibel sound to induce nausea. If the first device makes the film only titillating, the second is like administering a strong laxative to the audience in the cinema hall though bottles of coke and pretending that the frequent visits to the toilet are part of the cinematic experience. It is perhaps not easy for a film to truly ‘disturb’ and putting in a 10-minute rape and battery sequence hardly achieves it – perhaps because the spectators get enough breathing time to reflect and realize that what s/he is seeing is all make-believe. I am not sure that making an ‘unwatchable’ film is welcome but Ingmar Bergman managed it more convincingly in Cries and Whispers (1972) in the guise of being religious. For us to be deeply disturbed, it is not essential that that we see gore or violence but that what is shown is disturbing in conception – and Irreversible is completely banal.
If Irreversible makes one doubt Gaspar Noé’s intelligence as a filmmaker, his next film Enter the Void (2009) takes one more step in the same direction and one hopes that he will not recover to make one more ‘unwatchable’ film. The earlier film was constructed around the ‘philosophical’ pronouncement that time destroys everything; this apparently justified the backward narration, although in what sense is uncertain. Enter the Void is based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which apparently proposes that dead people hover above their own corpses, reflecting on their own pasts until they are eventually whisked off to the next life.
In Enter the Void, Oscar lives in Tokyo and supports himself by dealing drugs, against the advice of his friend, Alex, and his sister, Linda. Alex attempts to turn Oscar’s interest toward The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oscar and Alex leave the apartment to deliver drugs to Oscar’s friend Victor. On the way, Alex explains parts of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to Oscar. They arrive at a bar called The Void. Oscar enters alone and sits down with a distressed Victor before they are surrounded by the police. Oscar seals himself in a bathroom stall and attempts to get rid of the drugs. When the toilet does not work, he yells through the door that he has a gun and will shoot. In response, a police officer fires and hits Oscar, who falls to the floor and dies.
Oscar’s viewpoint rises and looks at his corpse from above, and then we begin to witness his life in a roughly chronological order. Instead of a first-person narrative reminiscent of the film Lady in the Lake (1947) as hitherto, the camera shoots constantly from behind Oscar’s head. Oscar’s parents were killed in a car crash; Oscar and Linda, devoted to each other, were sent off to different foster homes. Oscar moved to Tokyo and earned money through drug dealing until he could afford to bring Linda to live with him. Linda found work as a stripper for the nightclub owner Mario. Oscar started using potent psychedelics more frequently. Victor discovered that Oscar slept with Victor’s mother; and finally, we again see Oscar meet Victor at The Void to sell him drugs, only to be shot in the bathroom.
The last part of the film is very confusing as far as the relationships are concerned. Noé has little or no skill in drawing characters or in exploring relationships and this means that the breathless camera work is all. Oscar floats over Tokyo and witnesses the aftermath of his death. On one occasion Linda wishes that Oscar would come back to life; Oscar then enters Linda’s head, after which he wakes up at the morgue. Linda and Mario arrive and pick him up, but they are disgusted by him and he is unable to speak. Oscar is eventually convinced by Alex that he is dreaming, and returns to watch his friends from a floating perspective. Oscar hovers high above Tokyo and enters an airplane, where he sees his mother, who breast-feeds a baby who is apparently Oscar. The view then drops to Linda and Alex, who take a taxi to a Tokyo hotel and have sex. Oscar moves between hotel rooms and observes several other couples having sex. Oscar enters Alex’s head and witnesses the sex with Linda from Alex’s point of view. He then travels inside Linda to witness her having sex with Alex – from the inside – until Linda’s actual fertilization. The final scene is shot from the perspective of a baby being born to Oscar’s mother. This might equally be Oscar being reincarnated through Linda but according to the director – and we would do well to
rely on him – this is a flashback to Oscar’s birth in the form of a false memory.
Gaspar Noé is particularly popular among young people but if his films provide evidence of anything, it is the younger cinephiles’ partiality to simple sensation, their inability to reflect critically upon what they are seeing. Perhaps Noe’s inattention to issues outside the spurious mystical notions peppering his films parallels their inattention to history and politics. In any case, it is a misnomer to describe his cinema as ‘extremist’ in any sense. If anything, Noé has simply tried to make a viable corner for himself outside the enormous reach of Hollywood. Enter the Void could, in fact, be the cinematic negative of Gus Van Sant’s execrable Restless (2011) which also deals with death and the afterlife, although in predictably cloying terms.