Sometimes we need to take a break from virtue. All things in moderation, I say, including virtue. Sometimes, we need to look deeply into the abyss. Someone once said that the abyss looks back at you, but it’s more accurate to say something else: it blows out its breath at you, like the open maw of a hungry grizzly bear, if you happen to be unlucky enough to be near his jaws.
And then you catch a good whiff of that dank, fetid breath.
Filmmaker Gaspar Noé has spent his professional life smelling the breath of the abyss. And he’s managed to teach us one or two things about the dark corners of our brains that we might prefer not to have known: the perverse attractions of nihilism, random violence, and voyeurism.
He is an Argentinian director living and working in France. And despite the lurid, dark nature of the subject matter that he deals with, his three films–I Stand Alone, Irreversible, and Enter the Void–pulse with creativity and undeniable artistic brilliance. He, along with Jacques Audiard, is the greatest director currently making films in the French language.
I Stand Alone (1998)
The original French title is Seul Contre Tous.
If one were ever to get a window into the most personal, most private thoughts of a man on the edge, it would sound something like this movie. It is the most personal film ever made. It chronicles the misery and apparent breakdown of a man who hates everything and everyone.
The main character is one of those nameless, anonymous souls you might see any given day of the week in any city in the world. Not quite over the edge, but teetering on it, and needing very little to push him over the edge. The themes here are loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.
He is a butcher by trade. And he seems never to have enjoyed a single day of happiness. The film’s narrative style–using voice-overs that are little more than random thoughts–is compelling. Noé has a flair for the avant-garde, but this never seems forced or out-of-place. We get staccato gunshot noises, rapid cutting between scenes, and even a text warning on-screen at the film’s climax.
We learn in the film’s first five minutes that he was orphaned at an early age and abused as a child. He serves a term in prison, and gets out with no purpose in life. For lack of anything better to do, he impregnates the owner of the bar he works at, but she is a nasty woman who clearly despises him.
In a fit of rage, he assaults his “girlfriend”, likely causing a miscarriage. This sends him on the run. The remainder of the film is a series of scenes showing the butcher’s attempts to re-enter society, which always result in failure, for one reason or another. Former associates give him the cold shoulder, and potential employers are uneasy around him.
He finally decides to revenge himself on society.
What makes all of this misery worth watching? It is the narrative style, the sincerity of the portrayal, and the brutal honesty of the voice-over. Never has a wounded psyche so exposed itself to public scrutiny, and never has an audience been granted such intimate access to the mind of a deviant.
Even a walk down an empty street takes on grand proportions in this movie, as the butcher pours out his scorn of humanity in a stream of consciousness that has nothing to do with logic but everything to do with his own personal truth.
Character is everything, and character is destiny.
The word shocking in connection with movies has become so overused as to have nearly lost its meaning. But the word can truly be applied to this horrific portrayal of a rape and its vengeful aftermath. This is not a film for the faint of heart.
Starring Monica Bellucci in what must have been the most difficult role of her career, the film draws its power from several different sources.
The first is the narrative structure: it is told in reverse. So we see the revenge scene at the beginning, and are left to follow the movie scene by scene to find out why it happened. Noé’s key purpose here is to keep us, the viewers, off-balance and off-guard. He wants to shatter our comfortable illusions, and roll a grenade into our living rooms. He succeeds.
The opening scene–a dark philosophic dialogue between two men–introduces a suffocating atmosphere that only gets worse. Then we are treated to an extended scene of cameras spinning through alleyways. Again, all of this is precisely arranged for a specific purpose: to unsettle us, throw us into confusion, and make us feel the same sense of dislocation and pain that his characters undergo on-screen.
What we take away from a visceral, brutal film like this is a greater appreciation for the randomness and irrationality of some types of violent crime, and the suddenness with which it can intrude into the lives of the innocent.
Noé’s films can be criticized for being nihilistic, but I don’t really see it this way. He is not so much concerned with nihilism than he is with something else: the dark currents that run under the facade of everyday life, and which can burst up from below like chambers of magma in the earth’s mantle.
Enter The Void (2009)
Noé has stated that watching Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a life-changing experience for him. And after seeing Enter the Void, we can believe it.
There is only the barest bones of a plot here. An American living in Tokyo is shot by police during a drug raid. The dead man’s spirit then undertakes a bizarre nocturnal journey all over the city, flying into houses, rooms, and various other places. All of this is shown with psychedelic intensity: weird lights, sounds, and camera angles give the impression of an out-of-body experience.
Here again, the goal is to disorient the viewer, to draw him into the director’s world, and to show him something that he might never have considered. While this sort of film is not for every taste, I found it absorbing. It is not as visceral or powerful as the two previous films discussed above, but it is engaging in its own right.
Noé’s films are for cinema lovers. If you are not prepared for challenging experiences, these are not the movies for you. But if we can set aside our preconditions and prejudices, then we may just learn something new.
We may just smell, from a safe distance, that dank and fetid breath of the abyss, blowing into our faces.
Read More: Steven Mitchell’s “The Iliad”