dir. Gaspar Noe
Gaspar Noe clearly wants to pull your skin off while forcing you to watch the whole thing in a full-length mirror. Between this and his earlier effort, I Stand Alone, Noe revels in making his audience as thoroughly uncomfortable as possible. This one steps it up several notches and if there was an Olympic games for terror porn this would certainly have an excellent chance at taking home the gold. Yeah, this film is certainly not something I would recommend for your toothless grandmother with her pills and TV dinners. It’s grinding, hypnotic, and filled with several scenes of blistering brutality that simple cannot be forgotten once they have burned themselves onto your retina.
The film is told backwards so the horror is experienced before the relative innocence that proceeds it. Vincent Cassel plays Marcus, a man who simply cannot say no to a good time. He has stolen Alex (the fiendishly lovely Monica Bellucci) from his pal Pierre (Albert Dupontel) who seems to take this horrid blow with nonchalance. The basic story is exceedingly rudimentary and if told in a straightforward narrative would remain rather pedestrian. But knowing what will happen to the exquisite Alex beforehand somehow transforms her plight into more of a tragedy than it would seem otherwise. It’s simple. We see a man get pummeled into absolute jelly by Pierre who is wielding a fire extinguisher. It isn’t enough to see Pierre get a few blows in and call it a night. We are allowed to view both the fury of his assault and the face of his victim which is a most bloody sight. Then we see Alex being hauled off on a stretcher, her face unrecognizable, and we learn she is in a coma. Finally, there is the scene where Alex, dressed scantily but certainly no more deserving of her fate, walks through an underground tunnel alone and seeming unaware of the ridiculous amount of danger she is putting herself in. She comes across a man beating up one of his whores and stops as if she has been drawn into the magnetism of the scene. The man turns around and becomes enraged at seeing another woman, a possible witness. So he attacks her and forced her onto the ground where he visciously rapes her anally and as if that isn’t enough, he kicks her in the face, pummels her face with his fists, and slams her head repeatedly into the ground.
So, we get these events in reverse and it’s a bit difficult to gage what is happening upon a single viewing. Noe employs a neatly nauseating trick throughout the film that is interesting the first few times but becomes tiresome the more he does it. He takes the camera and swirls it around so that we get all kinds of strange, unsettling angles. One scene in particular takes place in what looks like the bowels of hell. With its red lighting and the ubiquitous swirling camera, we are introduced to a gay club called Rectum where there are men lining the walls in search of cheap sex. The camera and the lighting both make this into a type of Francis Bacon tableau. As Marcus tries desperately to find Le Tenia (Joe Prestia), the man responsible for the rape of Alex, the scene becomes increasingly more difficult to bear.
Vincent Cassel plays Marcus consistently on the verge of some great act of violence. He’s nervous, edgy and his penchant for snorting coke doesn’t help calm him down. Cassel is quite good in establishing Marcus’s basic character but we don’t really get too clear of a picture of where his mind is at. The same can be said for both Alex and Pierre. Alex remains something of a cipher whose attack we are most likely supposed to lament more stringently because she is so insanely hot. A frumpy, sexually galling actress wouldn’t cause us the same kind of uproar. Pierre is melancholy and possesses a certain amount of poetry in all his crude strivings but we aren’t left with a clear picture of the kind of person he is. Still, in a film ostensibly about the inevitability of certain acts vis-a-vis fate or predestination, it doesn’t matter how the characters are necessarily hot-wired. The purpose of this film seems to be to show that we are all doomed to live out our lives in a strict fashion in accordance to rules we cannot control. Alex is beaten because she was meant to be. The series of events leading up to her rape are inevitable and follow an obvious pattern. This is why Noe shows us the whole thing in reverse. He wants us to consider consequences before the deeds that initiate the process in the first place. That he assumes the need to do so showing a nine minute rape sequence merely provides the film with immediacy and potency. The act is certainly brutal but by focusing a static camera on it and refusing to edit, or cut away, the audience isn’t allowed to be given an out by editorializing or the manipulation of the director. However, after a certain amount of time the audience merely becomes bored and whatever effect the director intended is necessarily lost. Too much of one thing can short circuit a story and this scene manages to do just that. It doesn’t ruin it, however, because there is much left to discover about what went on to lead to such a frightening event.
Overall, this film has pretentious elements as well as a firm grasp on using novel techniques to tell a story. The violence is horrific at first but gradually it loses its ability to shock or offend. Still, it remains interesting to consider that the two lead actors decided to make such a blatantly uncommercial film in a time when most actors would run screaming from such a project. It is a testament to their bravery and their willingness to explore difficult material for the sake of their art. Ultimately, this isn’t necessarily a bold or innovative film despite its skewed time structure and Noe’s penchant for torturing his audience with that damned twisting and turning camera that looks like it could have been made manifest by any drunk college kid bored and alone in his dorm room. It is of course worth the price of admission to see Monica Bellucci naked but this is undermined by her rape scene. The final thirteen minutes or so simply focus on the naked forms of Cassel and Bellucci. They have recently made love and she lies on top of him. They dance, they kiss, and their chemistry is so pronounced it’s obvious they are a real life couple. It’s rare to see such a clear depiction of love on the screen and it somehow makes the proceeding events all the more horrifying. Then we get an overhead shot of children playing and one is left feeling rather upbeat after all the carnage that comes before.