Succès de Scandale
Director Gaspar Noe's Transgressive Cinema is Just as Likely to Cause Walkouts as Put Butts in Seats
"Irreversible is the worst date movie in the history of cinema. If this is the first date, you will never get laid."
So says John Waters in conversation about French director Gaspar Noe, two of whose films--his newest, Irreversible, and his 1998 feature debut, I Stand Alone--are featured at this year's Maryland Film Festival. Each year Waters picks one film to personally introduce at the festival, and this year he's chosen I Stand Alone, a grim and graphic look at the incipient madness of an aging, unemployed butcher; his choice dovetails neatly with the imminent US release of the controversial, much-discussed Irreversible. But even while discussing two films brimming with psychotic rage and sexual violence in an amusing tone, Waters drops the following verdict: "Irreversible is maybe the most shocking movie I ever saw in my life. . . . I almost ran out of it!"
This remark puts things in their proper context. John Waters, a man who has certainly viewed--and made--more than his share of the world's most twisted celluloid, rates Irreversible among the most shocking films of all time. So why would the rest of us want to see a film that makes the Pope of Trash blush?
Answering this question requires a look at Noe's work in its aesthetic context--not an easy task, since discussion of his work tends to revolve around its extreme content rather than its artistic merit. But Noe's films don't just shock, they also tell interesting stories and pose valid questions, making them difficult to dismiss, even among critics usually skeptical of transgressive cinema. Indeed, for every review that accuses Noe of nihilism or misogyny, another turns up hailing him as a great humanist or feminist. Even Rex Reed has had kind words for Irreversible.
Noe first came to the attention of the film world through Carne, a 1991 short that earned a strong buzz at festivals. The story told in that film was expanded upon in the thoroughly damaged hate fest that is I Stand Alone. The main character, known simply as the Butcher (Philippe Nahon), vents more bile than do such notable cinematic racists as Tim Roth's Trevor in Made in Britain and Russell Crowe's Hando in Romper Stomper. But as much as he expresses a fierce hatred of Arabs and homosexuals, the Butcher isn't simply a bigot. Even as he denounces what he sees as the decline of French purity and masculinity, he also rants against capitalism and the ruling classes, making him a fascinating bouillabaisse of the intense resentments--some legitimate and some severely misplaced--that haunt many working-class people around the world.
For all his anger and posturing, though, the Butcher has a weak spot, albeit a highly disturbing one. He remains enchanted with his daughter, who has been institutionalized for years following an incident in which he lashed out violently in defense of her purity. The Butcher, whose adult relationships have been filled with scorn and misery, sees in his daughter the potential of youth and rebirth--sees them so strongly, in fact, that thinking of her has an almost womblike impact on his psyche, even though his own actions probably ruined her future. Even worse, the Butcher begins to conflate these feelings into romantic love for his offspring.
I Stand Alone appeared at a time when French cinema had renewed its interest in breaking visual and conceptual taboos. Since the mid-'90s, many films by major directors such as Bruno Dumont (Life of Jesus, Humanite), Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl), and Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day) have upped the ante on frank depictions of sexuality. Against this similarly graphic backdrop, Noe established himself as a major French director concerned with thoroughly probing the psychological underpinnings of his violent characters' sexuality.
Discussion of I Stand Alone, however, has been eclipsed by the increasingly infamous Irreversible. As Waters puts it, "I Stand Alone is training wheels for getting into the Noe oeuvre. In a way, I'm glad I'm presenting I Stand Alone and not Irreversible. . . . [Irreversible] is a movie that you recommend to someone and then change your phone number." Indeed, Irreversible's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002, according to various reports, resulted in fighting, fainting, and hundreds of walkouts, inviting comparisons to the derision that first greeted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
At Cannes and subsequent screenings, Irreversible has found many ways to piss people off--for its content, which includes a 10-minute rape scene that could hardly be more unsparing; for its presentation, which includes many nausea-inducing camera motions; and for its narrative structure, which tells its story in reverse, prompting some critics to write it off as a Memento clone. Beginning with a pair of crazed men seeking revenge for the rape of a friend, Irreversible then moves backward, showing us the rape, a party the trio attended together, and the evening's quiet beginning. Irreversible's initial explosions of violence play out like the hyperactive leavings of a Quentin Tarantino film, so saturated in hate and machismo that for many they come across as gratuitous. But Noe anticipates how we initially perceive these characters, and dares us to modify these perceptions as time regresses in the film. Even as he presents the human instinct for revenge in all its savage horror, he also confronts us with how the full power of this flawed impulse can consume all of us.
Mikita Brottman, professor of liberal arts at Maryland Institute College of Art, saw Irreversible at Cannes at a separate critics' screening that also erupted into booing and walkouts. But Brottman says she feels Noe's film offers a fresh, well-observed perspective on human behavior, and handles its reverse narrative much more fruitfully than did Memento.
"The horrors of the opening scenes are intrinsically related to the later lovey-dovey scenes," Brottman contends. "During the bedroom scenes there are lots of implications that foreshadow what's going to happen. Your instinct is to think that if these characters had paid attention to these suggestions, they could foretell what's going to happen. But of course they can't. Their future is already written."
Waters says that close attention to Irreversible's opening sequences is required to truly understand the implications of the earlier events that follow. "This one you can never get out of your mind," he says. "A movie that starts off so horrifying and gets nicer as it goes along is even more unnerving somehow. Irreversible is so powerful that it's made me forget the first one a lot, so I'm very eager to see I Stand Alone again."
Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz, who feels Noe's films stand out among the new wave of explicit French cinema and praises the writing and execution of Noe's work, shares Waters' enthusiasm, though he tempers it with the understanding that it may not be to everyone's taste. "We feel strongly about Noe's films. We've never not programmed a film because of controversy," he says. "At the same time, we want to make clear what they are. We don't want to trap anybody."
And just as Noe's work again comes into focus as brutally dark in tone--even among the subset of cineastes who seek out extreme material, some will find these films too much to handle--another humorous anecdote occurs to Waters. "When I saw Irreversible, it was 11 o'clock in the morning at the Angelika in New York," he recalls. "And there was a man there up in front of the theater--I pray he wasn't jerking off, but he may have been. I just hope he was eating popcorn rhythmically, because it was one of the two."
Forget Paul Reubens--there's a guy the feds should keep their eyes on.