Gaspar Noé and Transgressive Cinema

With Noé’s movies, it is possible to question the boundaries between art and pornography. Even though it is as incredibly explicit as a porno, Noé’s movies are more than that. Showing everything in detail is his way to be transgressive and shock the audience. Even though in some cases it might just be a failed attempt and exploitative at the same time, it is still a way of being transgressive. The term categorizes movies that somehow shock the viewer, whether it is through violence, sex, drugs, or whatever way the filmmaker finds. The purpose is to create something unexpected that is not usually seen in cinema.

In the early 20th century, art movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism emerged as an attempt to reject logic and reason. With its bizarre imagery and distorted reality, it shocked society and became popular all over the world. Art became not only about representing reality but to cause something in people, even if it is through shock. In 1985, the American filmmaker Nick Zedd introduced the term Cinema of Transgression with his series of bulletins called The Underground Film Bulletin, to describe the underground film movement in New York City that, like Dadaism and Surrealism, used shock value in their pieces, mainly related to mental illness. In 2004, the Artforum critic James Quandt used the term New French Extremity while discussing the French transgressive films in the 21st century. He writes, “cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh…”. As part of this new wave, the Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noé, who is based in France, shocks audiences with his explicit imagery.

Gaspar Noé

Gaspar Noé

Noé, born in 1963, only has made four feature-length films. Even though his movies are categorized as “transgressive films,” they are the exact opposite of art movements like Surrealism. In fact, Noé is known for his hyper-realistic movies. As Quandt said, he breaks every taboo in cinema and explicitly shows sex, drugs, and violence. For instance, his latest movie Love (2015) was described as “3D sex” in a review by the film critic Mark Kermode in The Guardian. The Noé’s impact in cinema started in 1998 with his first feature movie I Stand Alone, which won the Mercedes-Benz Award in the Cannes Film Festival and started the “ritual” of having all of his movies screened at Cannes. In comparison to his other movies, I Stand Alone is an exercise that prepared him for his following work. In general, his movies have a present camera that sometimes makes the audience wonder how he was able to do such movements, but in his first one, the camera still follows a standard language seen in most movies (static shots, perfectly framed shots). Even though Noé was still trying to find his voice, I Stand Alone is already really shocking.

I Stand Alone (1998)

I Stand Alone (1998)

It starts with a monologue about morality that keeps being interrupted by a black screen with words. At first, it even reminds of a movie trailer with the words introducing what the movie is about. As the movie continues, it follows a butcher who starts to lose control of his life when he understands the indignity of the world around him. Noé creates tension through the constant loud sound of random gunshots in the transitions of some shots. It sounds so out of place, which gives the impression that Noé is also going to show something unexpected. In fact, at first, the violence does not start visually, but instead, it starts with the voice-over. The voice-over of the butcher let the audience know his aggressive thoughts, especially when he thinks about beating up the pregnant lady he lives with. Even though Noé is known for his violent movies, I Stand Alone is his debut, so the audience was not prepared for the violence of the following scenes. The butcher repeatedly punches the pregnant woman in the stomach, and to add to the visual violence, in the voice-over he says, “Your baby is a hamburger now. He’s ground beef”. However, the biggest scene, the climax of the movie, is when he reunites with his daughter, has sex with her and then kills her. Instead of being a quick death, the butcher watches her bleeding and suffering on the floor, and then, after some minutes, he finally decides to reshoot her.

The scene is extremely graphic: it is visible the wound on the girl’s neck and the blood draining out of her neck. Even though Noé warned the audience with a 30-second countdown to “leave the screening of this film” before the final scene, it is still hard to anticipate what was coming next. While Noé is not the only director who shows explicit scenes to its fullest, the tense atmosphere he creates in his movies – whether if it is through loud unexpected sounds, the aggressive language in the voice-over or actually explicit imagery – is what makes it so excruciating to watch.

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (2002)

Noé shocked audiences and the press with I Stand Alone but it was with the movie Irreversible (2002) that he got in the spotlight and caught the attention of cinephiles and the industry. The movie opens with an angry man furiously searching for someone in a gay S&M parlor. As he walks through the crowd, people have sex, and Noé does not have a problem with showing everything with detail. If the audience is already cautious with the extremely explicit beginning, it is surprised when the character finally finds the other person: he grabs a fire extinguisher and crushes the man’s face. Noé only cuts to the next shot after the audience is forced to watch the character’s face become completely disfigured. The scene is only a preparation for what comes next.

 

Irreversible is not the movie for those with weak stomachs. In fact, it is known for a large number of people leaving the theatres or throwing up on their seats. As a woman walks in an underpass to the subway, she is attacked and raped. For nine minutes that feel like thirty, Noé shows the violence and pain. Even though he has previous violent and explicit scenes, the rape scene is different and even harder to watch.  The imagery is absolutely shocking, but the message behind it is even more – there are people in real life who do this and feel pleasure from it. Rape is one of the most significant invasions of someone’s dignity and destroys the victim’s life. The fact that it is such a touchy topic and too personal for some people brings a lot of controversies, especially directed to the reason why the director included the scene in the movie or made it so graphic. The director later justified this with, “If you do a movie with a rape and don’t show it, you hide the point . . . the thing is that if you show it in a disgusting way, you help people to avoid that kind of situation.”

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (2002)

However, the affirmation might come off as a big statement that is not close to reality. Even though he tries to show the brutality of rape to shock the audience and that it has to stop, in real life, it will not do anything. At this point, the statement can even come off as a way to soften the negative critics about the movie. Even so, the scene still makes the audience reflect on rape, and at the moment, raise awareness. The movie is not necessarily categorized as “feminist,” but it still degenerates male sexuality at first sight.

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (2002)

After watching it, it is impossible to feel indifferent to the inability of a woman to escape in a situation like this – even though in some cases it is possible, there are others that are impossible, like this scene where the woman is beaten up and left unconscious. However, the shot design can also be questioned: Noé mainly uses a close-up of the woman’s face throughout the scene.  It is true that it would be more shocking and raise even more controversies if he was more explicit in the scene, but at the same time, his true intentions might not be related to the prevention of rape. Especially after watching all of his work, there is a morbid and sadistic pleasure for explicit violence and current representation of it. At first sight, the rape scene is in favor of the woman, but at the same time, it can sexualize her. A lot of people find pleasure in pain, for instance, the BDSM practitioners, and in this case, the sadomasochists. The fact that Noé basically only shows the character’s pain might be interpreted as a reflection of his own desires and pleasure, instead of a statement close to the idea of public service announcement. At this point, it can even question whether it is transgressive or just an exploitation of sexuality from the BDSM point of view.

While Irreversible is full of controversies regarding the true intentions behind the movie, it still makes a statement about the brutality and cruelty of rape. However, his other movies do not necessarily have such impactful messages. Even though all of his movies can be seen as statements about something – especially about the degraded society – they are more directed to entertainment with messages more implicit. For instance, the movie he directed after Irreversible does not have such emblematic scene like the rape one.

Enter the Void (2009)

Enter the Void (2009)

When thinking about Enter the Void (2009), there is not a way to describe the whole movie based on a straightforward scene. However, it is as intense and violent as the first one – this time not so much with visual imagery but more with the atmosphere created.

Enter the Void (2009)

Enter the Void (2009)

Indeed, there are still some provocative scenes that cause some discomfort, which Noé uses to not break his transgressive style, such as the death of the main character Oscar in a filthy bathroom, and an abortion that forces the audience to look at the dead fetus. Nonetheless, Enter the Void is not necessarily a “shocking” movie but instead, it is more provocative regarding the way Noé filmed it – camera movements, shot composition, lighting. The movie opens with a title sequence with strobe lights and words with different letter fonts. It is shown so fast that it is impossible to read it. When the title sequence ends, it shows the POV of Oscar that is about to take drugs. Then Noé takes the audience on the trip with Oscar: they become one person, almost breaking the barrier between viewer and character. Throughout the movie, in the scenes with Oscar, everything is seen from his POV. Even though the technique is often used, it is usually seen in short periods of time. However, in Enter the Void it is constant. After seeing the action happening through the character’s eyes for so long, it can cause discomfort, especially for not being the expected experience while watching a movie. In the other scenes without Oscar, the camera is still extremely present in the movie. It follows the characters and flies above the buildings – even if a shot looks static when looking closely, there is always movement. These constant movements add a nauseating sensation.

Everything is always spinning, and it never stops. The story involves strip clubs, drugs, and deaths, which already indicates a heavy environment. Furthermore, after Oscar’s death, his sister is constantly suffering from the loss and is metaphorically haunted by his ghost. Her pain becomes suffocating, and the camera movements only intensify the distressing atmosphere created with the plot. The camera placements also have a great impact. Noé jumps back and forth regarding the proximity to the action: the camera is either too close or too far away. For instance, in a sex scene between Oscar’s sister and her lover, the camera is placed in the corner of the ceiling, showing the entire room from a weird distorted perspective.

Enter the Void (2009)

Enter the Void (2009)

Noé repeats these angles over and over, and it starts to remind of security cameras. At some point, it looks like he is showing the audience something that should not be shown, but he is doing it anyway. Simultaneously, the movie, in general, shows the nightlife in Tokyo and its famous neon lights. Even though there are scenes during the daytime – only flashbacks – the majority are nighttime shots. The shots are dark, but when they are not, the colorful neon lights are trippy and hallucinating.

Enter the Void (2009)

Enter the Void (2009)

The story of Enter the Void goes beyond the actors, even the lighting and camera participate in it like characters and add to the narrative as crucial elements. The movie can be visually violent in some parts, but what really shocks the audience is the intensity created. When the movie ends, it is when the tension is noticeable, and the audience can finally breathe again. The critic Peter Bradshaw writes for The Guardian, “Enter the Void is about life after death… that troubles all of us atheists and rationalists most of all: the life after death that we all believe in.” Indeed, it is a movie about the mourning of a woman who had already lost her parents and now loses her brother as well. Even though he is dead, she still feels him present because it is hard to let go of someone that special. With all the drugs and colorful neon lights, Noé creates a bridge to the spiritual world and shows the presence of someone who is already gone. However, the message is more implicit, and it is more a matter of interpretation than a direct meaning, like Irreversible and the rape scene, that has an explicit and visible message.

Noé creates three movies that even though they are all different; the brutal atmospheres are present in all of them, as well as violence. However, he explores an entirely different way to be transgressive with his latest movie Love (2015). In contrast with the other ones, the explicit scenes are not related to physical violence. As the title says, it is a movie about love. Noé explores another way to make the audience feel uncomfortable and shocked: this time, through sex and the violence of the feelings in toxic relationships. In fact, since the very first shot of the movie, Noé tells the audience what to expect for the next two hours.

Love (2015)

Love (2015)

Love opens with a couple masturbating each other, a shot that lasts three minutes, and then it cuts to the main character Murphy a year later. In his other movies, there are incredibly violent and gory scenes, but for the first time, Love does not have that. Through funkadelic jazz music and red neon lights, Noé creates an erotic atmosphere that overflows lust. It goes from close-ups of penises, threesomes, sex clubs, and it even shows a penis surrounded by flesh walls resembling a vagina, to show a condom exploding. Once again, Noé shows every single detail. The shot of the condom exploding does not add anything to the story, but it is still there. Even though in Love the imagery is not violent like in Irreversible, both movies share the pleasure that the director has for explicit imagery. Whether he intends to make a statement or not, Noé breaks all the taboos and shows everything in detail.

He does not leave anything out. In fact, as a reinforcement of this idea, in Love, two scenes star the filmmaker. He plays an ex-boyfriend of Murphy’s girlfriend Electra who inaugurates an art exhibition, in which Electra and Murphy end up attending. Some scenes later, Noé’s character meets Electra again in a bar, resulting in the two having sex.

The fact that Noé puts himself in this situation confirms that this is indeed his fantasy brought to life on the big screen. However, Love is not the only film where he makes an appearance. In Enter the Void he is one of the extras at the strip club, and in Irreversible he is another extra at the S&M parlor. He not only forces the audience to be a voyeur, but he also puts himself in the same position by always being present in these environments. In an interview with The Guardian, he talks about the days when he used to be a consumer of pornography and the need he felt to masturbate to it. He says, “In a way, it’s an interactive movie. Some are good and some are bad, but you’re not passive watching porno – you become active.” Although the director defends the opposite, his movies, specifically Love, are often considered pornography. One of Noé’s arguments against it is that he is not showing pornography, but instead “joyful presentation of adult love.” However, even though that might be true, he attempts to make his movie the so-called “interactive movie,” which to be successful in his eyes, it should be something that he would like to see and would provoke physically what he expects. That way, he needs to take some pleasure for himself out of it. Whether it is by the sentimental sexuality in Love or the brutal rape scene in Irreversible, Noé is a voyeur who enjoys the explicit imagery.

Gaspar Noé on the set of the music video "Love in Motion" (2012)

Gaspar Noé on the set of the music video “Love in Motion” (2012)

With Noé’s movies, it is possible to question the boundaries between art and pornography. Even though it is as incredibly explicit as a porno, Noé’s movies are more than that. In the case of Love, just like how it happens in real life, it shows the sex life of a couple. Even though it might stimulate some people the same way pornography does, and create the interaction between the audience and the movie, there is an attempt to make something with deeper meanings than the pornographic movies. Showing everything in detail is his way to be transgressive and shock the audience. Even though in some cases it might just be a failed attempt and exploitative at the same time, it is still a way of being transgressive. The term categorizes movies that somehow shock the viewer, whether it is through violence, sex, drugs, or whatever way the filmmaker finds. The purpose is to create something unexpected that is not usually seen in cinema. Even though the reasons behind scenes like the rape in Irreversible might be pure sadistic, it still caught the audience off guard and left everyone talking about it. Noé always finds a way to surprise the viewer, whether it is through a graphic image of a penis inside a vagina or a father having sex with his daughter; and it is always hard to predict what is coming next.

Noé’s work can be considered an author work since he created his own language with its tropes: the instability of cameras that seem to fly around characters and buildings, the intense neon lights, the violence and explicit sex, drugs, and strippers. His work is already known for these current themes, so now it becomes a matter of choice from part of the viewer to watch his films or not, because one thing is certain: they will always shock in some way. Noé might have hidden and unknown intentions behind his obsession with the explicit imagery, but he is indeed a transgressive filmmaker.

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