The New French Extremity was the latest movement in French cinema to throw off the yoke of convention; but unlike previous artistic vanguards, its attack was less formal than existential — it seemed to be addressing something beyond abstruse territorial grievances. What the New French Extremity was challenging seemed larger and more discomfiting, locating a fresh weak spot in audience sensibility to assault with gusto. Gaspar Noé’s approach is of a more methodical tenor than provocateurs like Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier; Noé manages to unsettle in a way that transcends outrage and becomes hypnotic; he is similar to Harmony Korine in his capacity to use the medium as a bludgeon. But where Korine has veered towards the blackly comic of late, Noé has set forth on a quest for the sensual.
Noé’s 1998 debut feature I Stand Alone established his New French Extremity credentials, but it was 2002’s Irréversible which signalled the beginning of Noé’s transition from extremity to sensation. Irreversible still bears many of the hallmarks of the New French Extremity, but it begins a different kind of assault, in which Noé seeks to find a means of rendering subjectivity within existing cinematic vernacular, to herald a truly first-person cinema. Irréversible presents a world tilted, figuratively and literally on its axis, shorn of certainty and stability; linear comprehension is disrupted, there is no fixed viewpoint; the audience sees the world from the vantage of a discredited God. The stylistic and structural disorientation Noé creates leaves the viewer feeling unmoored from a stable frame; in this regard, Irréversible is firmly within the orbit of the New French Extremity, but its musings on the nature of time and predestination point towards the more philosophical tone of Noé’s subsequent work.
Irréversible feels strikingly current in its exploration of the revanchist impulse, and how one loses their humanity in following the imperatives of “the primal brain”; though it plays with revenge movie tropes, Noé is keen to repudiate “fucking B-movie revenge crap.” When his girlfriend is raped, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) descends into an underworld in which “there are no bad deeds, just deeds,” trapped in a labyrinth where he is assailed by beasts that may spring from within himself, giving full vent to his subterranean impulses. Marcus becomes culturally dispossessed; like the attacker who mocks Ally (Monica Bellucci) in the course of assaulting her by asking “the world’s your due, right?,” Marcus seeks to recover a lost pride and power. Marcus’ friend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), is an avatar of bourgeois values; he tries to keep a lid on Marcus’ inflamed id, but ultimately becomes its purest manifestation. Pierre is emblematic of the ease with which the carefully cultivated veneer of control slips away.
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As Irréversible works its way back to the beginning, the frame stabilises. But this proves illusory, forcing viewers to witness with harrowing clarity a descent into another underworld, the underpass where the infamous rape scene takes place. The scene is played out in a single protracted take, forcing the viewer onto the ground; a thrust into a sickening proximity. As the film winds back this endlessly repeating reel, it shows the gradual regression into rectitude, but it is tinged with the knowledge of what follows, that “the future is already written.” Noé seeks to expose the masquerade of the liberated self, and what happens when the established bounds are transgressed; Marcus and Ally evince a freedom which is circumscribed by the demands of a normality whose erosion sends them into the abyss. Though it carries some of the baggage of the late 90s/ early 00s “fractured time frame” vogue, Irréversible retains its capacity to shock, presaging the concerns of Enter the Void (2009).
Enter the Void has been described as a “psychedelic melodrama” and a “metaphysical thriller.” From its seizure-inducing titles, this is an attack on the senses. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his Sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), live in Tokyo, eking out a living as a small-time drug dealer and a lap dancer respectively. Seen from Oscar’s point of view, Oscar and his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead on their way to a club called The Void, where Oscar is to transact a drug deal. As Oscar enters the tenebrous environs of the club, police swarm into the building. Oscar flees to the bathroom and hides in a stall, where he is shot after refusing to give himself up. His breathing ebbs, his vision blurs, all sound recedes and his heartbeat slows to a halt. His spirit rises from his body and hovers above the scene — much in the manner of the post-shootout scene in Taxi Driver (1974). Devoid of physical form, Oscar observes those he has left behind from his existential no man’s land.
Structurally, Enter the Void echoes film noir in its non-linear narrative and use of multiple flashbacks — indeed, one of the film’s primary inspirations was said to have been Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from the point of view of its protagonist. Noé recreates each stage of being with a keen eye for detail: the restless consciousness of the scenes in which viewers experience Oscar’s corporeal form perfectly captures his chemically impaired state, while the gauzy, flickering photography and throttled sound of the ethereal scenes play like a cosmic Nickelodeon film. The scenes depicting events from Oscar’s past are shot from over his shoulder; as if, detached from his physical form, he is able to play back his life in an attempt to locate an overarching theme. The use of this device imposes a further layer of subjectivity to these scenes.
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Noé harnesses a myriad of techniques to create an amazing yet horrific landscape. Tokyo is transformed into a decadent theme park, a garish Day-Glo maelstrom where pleasure can be purchased and everything is out of kilter. This version of the city functions as a simulacrum, within which Noé dramatizes man’s rapacious death wish. Noé navigates the labyrinth and stares into the abyss, but Enter the Void veers away from the nihilism of Irreversible. Noé is willing to envisage a renewal of humanity’s beleaguered spirit. Enter the Void is a sensory shocker, its power stems from its ability to place viewers within an utterly subjective terrain; Noé’s real gift is his ability to create a sphere of pure perception, acting as an intermediary between different states of consciousness. Noé deconstructs the edifice of the self, in order to discover the universe that dwells within us all, proffering it in all its ugliness and excess.
What remains of Love (2015) when one strips away the 3-D and unsimulated sex scenes? The intertwining lives of Murphy (Karl Glusman), Electra (Aomi Muyock) and Omi (Klara Kristin) fail to lend weight to the sex scenes which make up the lion’s share of Love’s running time. There is certainly a place for an artful and sexually explicit romance, but Noé is so enraptured by the compositional possibilities that he neglects an emotional framework. The sex in Love is not in service to anything more weighty; there are elements of gothic romance, but these are not adequately developed. Noé’s professed “sentimental sexuality” gets lost in an aesthetic miasma; sensation becomes all-encompassing. Noé once again conflates pleasure and death, regarding them as being part of the same process — that every sensation sets in motion the negation of that energy, that each merging carries the germ of dissolution.
Conceptually, Love hinges on the miniature of the “Love Hotel” from Enter the Void which sits beside the bed of Murphy and Omi — who now have a child together. The Love Hotel comes to represent the dichotomy between passion and responsibility, with Electra and Omi occupying different rooms: Electra’s is a self-directed space filled with books, movie posters and musical instruments; while Omi’s is an other-directed milieu in which Murphy is permitted his own small corner for remnants of his carefree, creative past. Within the family home, Noé creates frames within frames to articulate this sense of confinement. Electra haunts Murphy’s consciousness, a ghost of the erstwhile carelessness to which he yearns to return. Which room in the Love Hotel one eventually finds oneself residing in permanently is largely a matter of happenstance — Murphy is named after the law which bears his name.
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Love finds Noé at a unique moment of uncertainty; he appears to be grappling with his place in the cinematic firmament; his earlier bravado has given way to apprehension. The camerawork is measured, almost tentative; the grand sweep of Enter the Void has given way to physical specificity. Noé concedes that the cineaste’s refuge can only offer a safe harbour for so long, that one must eventually emerge from this vicarious state of existence to embrace the world. With that said, Love consciously seeks to position itself in a lineage of sophisticated erotica that began with Last Tango in Paris (1972); it abounds with Godardian flourishes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) looms large — as it does in Irréversible and Enter the Void. The conflict seems to have been resolved over the course of production.
Murphy operates as Noé’s mouthpiece; parroting the director’s manifesto — “I want to make movies out of blood, semen and tears” — while also stating that “maybe we aren’t the great artists we thought we were.” On the whole, Noé’s inexperienced cast struggle to breathe life into their characters. What is most astounding is that there is no sense of their creative identity; Murphy describes himself as a filmmaker and Electra is an aspiring painter, yet Noé presents nothing of their life beyond the bedroom but signifiers of passion — t-shirts and posters. The sex act becomes the primary vehicle of expression, dissipating any other creative impulse. Murphy realises that his creativity has found its purest expression in his son, that this is his masterpiece of blood, semen and tears. The child is named Gaspar for a reason.
Climax (2018) finds Noé in an oddly political frame of mind, responding in his own oblique way to the turbulent world events that have occurred since Love. Once again, sensation is the vehicle with which Noé confronts contemporary events, though he travels to the past to do so. Climax is ostensibly about a French dance troupe in 1996 which is preparing for a tour of France and the US, but it serves as a grand metaphor for identity, belonging and belief in the present-day French state — Climax proclaims itself as “a French film and proud of it.” The film documents the dissipation of idealism and the gradual slide into self-annihilation; at the beginning, there’s an ecstatic, rigorously choreographed dance routine performed in front a giant, spangled French flag. There could be no clearer representation of the liberal consensus than this diverse group of dancers; the flag binds them as they put aside their differences to unify in the spirit of the dance; the communal impulse has superseded individual identity.
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But this consensus is fragile, and the second half of Climax dramatizes the unravelling of the structures which channelled these disparate energies into the dance. Sensation degenerates into disgust, and Noé adjusts his style accordingly. The God’s eye view of the first half gives way to Noé’s default pitch of hysteria. Noé’s old camera gymnastics return, and it feels like he’s returned back in the stygian environs of the Rectum fetish club from Irreversible. Climax assumes an almost comic tenor, lurching between tragedy and farce. Noé strains for Zulawski-grade histrionics, but his cast isn’t up to the task; they function more as components in Noé’s schema than fully formed characters. Noé shares the audience’s own grim fascination with the darkest recesses of the human psyche, how our worst impulses can be leveraged against us.
A poison has been entered into the system, the celebratory sangria has been spiked with LSD, which precipitates the breakdown into recrimination and factionalism; the old assumptions and resentments rise to overwhelm the flimsy truce that persisted in the spirit of collective sensation. Climax further develops Noé’s ambivalent relationship to sensation; he questions whether we were all dancing while the world burned, imbibing the spiked punch that will ultimately unhinge us. The destruction is no longer personal, it is no longer “just us, our body and sensations”; the stakes have been raised dramatically, entering a space where “life is a collective impossibility.” Noé’s work has always been concerned with errant self-expression, what happens when we are wrenched from sensation and how we adjust to the comedown.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.