Daily Film Thoughts: Noe et Noir

I haven’t written one of these as of late – what with the Oscar buzzing and TIFF updates. So here, three films I’ve seen in the past 24 hour – two by controversial director Gaspar Noe and the other, a boxing movie from 1949 (and no, not Champion). May as well do it up chronologically, so here we go.

Noe

I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous), the 1998 debut feature film by Gaspar Noe. Adapted from his short-length 1991 feature Carne, I Stand Alone chronicles a mans descent into the darkest place he can go – his mind. Mostly taking place throughout two weeks in 1980 France, the film follows The Butcher (Philippe Nahon) as he snowballs himself into a self-loathing sociopath. After a decently composed examination of The Butcher’s past fifty years of existence and a snippet of a random bar patrons view on morality, we’re sent on our journey inside a man’s mind. Scene after scene of heavyhanded narration and force fed views of The Butcher, I Stand Alone stands solely on the main characters interaction with himself.

After an argument with his pregnant annoying-cow-of-a-girlfriend and just as self-absorbed (not so) soon-to-be mother-in-law, The Butcher decides it is best to split from the clutches of the two factors that cause him most mental anxiety. He grabs a lift from a passing by cargo truck and heads to France – a place where he once lived with his now incarcerated mentally-handicapped daughter. The same unfortunate soul that he had to let the government take care of because of a ten year jail stint he did for stabbing a man in the face. Don’t worry, The Butcher has some logical fibre in him – he thought the man had raped his daughter.

On the 90 minute journey with a man in despair and hardly clinging onto a reason for his existence, The Butcher ponders about why adults aspire to have children and their lack of logic, the fickle mentality of woman, his aspirations in life (or lack thereof) and the selfishness of living, most predominantly – and although I find the character to be a feverish example of the grotesque dynamic of man that’s rarely sought after in film, I did happen to relate to him on more than one occasion. His sick perceptions of life did click with me – albeit, regularly on a much smaller scale – and that’s what the majority of the films purpose is. That, of course, is for us to reflect upon ourselves. However well it did organize itself in that aspect, it equally as well faltered in the minority aspect: the shock-value and disturbance meant to be conjured by said man and his actions. More specially, the final act; this includes both rash inner dialogue pre and post “30 Second Warning” that is humorously flashed upon the screen. ‘A chance at keeping yourself from witnessing something you’ll regret as it seems.

Of course, after that warning the director has to back it up with something. Rather than a bang-bang shoot ’em up scenario that has been exhausted by many-a-film, Noe attempts to pluck at your heart strings in a way that would make you vomit (or that seems to be the intent). He knows that the average viewer has a typical mentality of good and evil, right and wrong – so he tries to exploit that with a perverse and gnawing scene. There is some violence that is beheld after the warning, as well as a semi-literate excuse for pushing the envelope in the sexual area, but all in all the climax of the film doesn’t stimulate or leave one gasping for air, but rather shrugging and saying “So what?”

The film answers many unasked questions and refuses to answer any questions it asks the audience itself. Self-indulgent cinema, but Noe handles the material in such a fetishistic way that it’s hard not to indulge in the film yourself. In order to appreciate this movie, you’ve got to be a little bit messed up yourself – a dark thinker, at the very least. A great piece of cinema for the most part – lets just say it’s a grotesque and selfish version of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Without the potent subtlety and a calm sense of morality, of course. [8/10]

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The second feature – and the perfect accompany piece to Noe’s first film, is Noe’s second film, Irreversible. A 2002 film that received its first thunderous audience reaction on May 22nd at its premiere at Cannes – a triumph said some; the trashiest film ever created said others. Needless to say, the attention surrounding the film is the purpose for its success. Even this day, 7 years later, Gaspar Noe’s second feature is getting the same reactions from new viewers… and for good reason.

In this day and age, cinephiles have experienced it all. To us, hype is just hype because generally, we’ve see it. That was exactly my thought process going into this. “It can’t be that bad”.

Well, it was. Not bad as in a poor production, but bad as in disheartening and morbid.

Intelligently executed by Noe, Irreversible is a feature that truly benefits from the decisions of the director. Of course, he knew the general layout of the film and the editing was clearly intentional and not something thought up in post-production, but the work done to achieve the emotional piercing given to the viewer while watching this is admirable.

Taking place within the span of one day, the film encapsulates the horrors that can be unraveled within a routine day. Opening on a scene that is basically a segway from I Stand Alone having The Butcher (now named Philippe) recount the final scene of the ’98 feature to a roommate in an apartment outside The Rectum – a gay, sodomistic club where Marcus (Vincent Cassell) and another man are being gurnied out. Philippe speaks to his roommate in delusional metaphors – fast tracking the films message before anything of worth has occurred. What little purpose that forms out of the four minutes of dialogue is that the film’s theme is “Time ruins everything” – how Noe is able to detract from his obvious disregard for his audience’s intelligence and assemble such a potent reinforcement of the message in such a short time is beyond me.

With excessive camera movement in the first two scenes, Noe quickly throws the viewer into the turmoil of the main character. Whilst looking for an elusive man nicknamed The Tapeworm, Marcus and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) encounter extremely perverse homosexuals in the dark and eerie club where The Tapeworm is said to be most active. Unfazed by the countless offers of sex by these men, Marcus is precipitant and asking every one of these men if they know The Tapeworm. With a worried Pierre, the confidence and professional behavior of Marcus in looking for this man is alarming. It’s clear he has murder in his heart, but for what reason?

Enter shocking scene number one: The fire extinguisher scene, aka the most disturbing scene in existence (or so say many people on the internet). Marcus encounters who some random man in the club says is The Tapeworm and his associate. Abrasive, Marcus yells at the two men asking who The Tapeworm is and one of them willful obliges to his request and thusly fights him. Marcus gets his arm snapped like a twig (well, he was in a gurnied leaving the club, so what can you expect?) and is in serious threat of being raped by the man. The crowd around eggs him on to rape Marcus, but thankfully Pierre comes to his rescue and hits the man in the face with a fire extinguisher.

And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again. And Again.

Until the man’s face is literal mush. The visual effects and digital makeup added for the scene are far too real for anyone with a normal stomach to handle. Not to mention the psychological angle the scene also works viciously – it’s really a sight to behold. For those who’ve seen the scene out of context and gone “Not a big deal”, I can only say that you’ve not experienced it the way people who saw the scene first in the film have. It’s a sight to behold and singlehandedly captures the jagged view that Noe has of the world in one short scene.

So we’re past that and we find out that Marcus’ reason for getting back at The Tapeworm was because he raped and put Alex (Monica Bellucci) in a coma. Alex, of course, being his girlfriend.

Associating with hookers, vigilantes for hire and a few friends, Marcus is set out to find who harmed Alex.

The film pieces itself together logically in a reverse-chronological order. Although after we witness the exorbitant rape scene almost all the mystery about the film is gone (a bad thing when it happens halfway into the feature), it still manages to keep audience participation by showing how the three main character valued their lives and carried themselves before the incident – a very typical, but effective bit of writing to further express how time destroys everything. In this case, our preconceptions about living.

Formula is all but gimmicky in this. After the distressing hallucination that is the cinematography in the frantic scenes with Marcus – wisely composed as such to show the state of Marcus’ mentality; almost palpable – the photography calms itself. This is even more disturbing when witnessing a rape – point blank photography while witnessing the worst atrocity that can be committed contrasts beautifully with the opening. Even going back to the first scene (aka the ending) where the setting is warming and more calm than your typical suburban dramedy, Noe unleashes one darkly eccentric atmosphere – a modernized hell.

The set-up of the film is also crucial to Noe’s intentions – to cause the audience to bare witness to unglamorous occurrences. Hollywood has truly taken the shock out of violence – now it’s almost impossible to get a rise out of a viewer, let alone appall them. To show a man getting his face caved in without rhyme or reason is one of the few ways to truly discourage a viewer. You can’t really root for the characters because you don’t know them and the photography really makes you lose all thought of possible reasons why Marcus and Pierre would go after this man. If it were released chronologically, this wouldn’t have been the case and Irreversible would’ve just had one really awesome scene of violence and lost all purpose of the scene.

Although the metaphors and foreshadowing (or… postshadowing in this case) do become heavily leaned on for support after almost all the mystery is unraveled, they do find their spot in the otherwise excellent feature in plain fashion. You know it’s too much when Marcus remarks about wanting to try anal sex with Alex (where, just after she gets raped in the ass). I’ll admit I feel hook line and sinker for the prophetic dream bit because I too have experienced such a phenomenon on more than one occasion. Really, in the end the film is yet another mixed bag with the final scenes – in this case, the use of metaphor and allegory.

I cannot say Irreversible fired on cylinders – the same general view I have with I Stand Alone – but in terms of creating a distinguishable atmosphere and hitting the bullseye on the purpose of your film, this film deserves nothing less than laudation. [9/10]

OK, since I really went overboard with my review for Irreversible I’ll try to keep this short and snappy.

The film is The Set-Up, a 1949 feature by film-noir master Robert Wise. Adapted from the poem by John Moncure March, the film takes place in a melancholic turned grim New York.

Shot in real time, The Set-Up spans 72 minutes in a boxer’s life. This boxer is not unlike many we’ve seen in the boxing films from the hayday – old, primarily worn-out, but still willing to give it all he has for one last shot at glory. In this case, our boxer is Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) – a thirty-five year old amateur boxer who, at one point, was one punch away from a title shot. Now a long shot to win a fight against up and comer Tiger Nelson, he sticks to a delusional notion that he will one day become champion – much to his girlfriend Julie’s (Audrey Totter) worry. He reassures her that it’s just for the money so they can run a cigar stand and live comfortably one day, but she doesn’t care – she just wants him to be safe. She tells him that she won’t be at the fight this evening, devastating Thompson deeply as she is one true love.

Behind the scenes, Thompson’s sleazy manager and manager’s assistant cut a deal with Nelson’s manager that Thompson will take a dive after the second round. Thompson does not know this, but the manager is so filled with doubt in his fighter that he isn’t willing to give up a piece of the fifty dollars to him to make it a 100% bet – obviously, Nelson’s manager is ignorant of this.

So there are many unconnected lines in this scenario – it can all go without a hitch or it can all go incredibly wrong. Everyone is filled with confidence – from the managers to the fighters; Thompson, of course, is the only one with confidence that isn’t held together by the almighty dollar.

Like your typical film-noir, there isn’t a score – just customary sounds that you would hear in and outside of a boxing arena. It accompanies the stark cinematography quite well. This vision of the alienation that is amateur boxing allows for the time to seep more slowly and is effective in creating a more gritty atmosphere for this trenchant tale. One of Wise’s best directed features.

A true noir that works on all levels. The morale isn’t deep or even a cut above most solid boxing features, but it is indulged well by Robert Wise and quite affecting. It’s a shame that fellow 1949 boxing film Champion overshadowed The Set-Up and took in all the Academy glory recieving six nominations. Although I wouldn’t hesitate to call Champion a better film, this certainly deserved more than it got. An underrated gem – any fan of Wise will be pleased. To be formal: “A knockout!” [8/10]

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