The Big Ship
Gaspar Noé: Into the Light
"Birth is a unique opportunity. Death is an extraordinary experience."
Recently Gaspar Noé almost died. The modern enfant terrible of French cinema was brought right to the brink of his own mortality. Suffering from a brain haemorrhage he miraculously survived, unscathed, as if God had rejected him from the pearly gates, and so Noé has returned to this earthly plane, revived with a newfound sobriety and outlook on life. With this news, and the release of his newest (and seemingly calmest?) film, Vortex, a story about "people who lose their minds before they lose their hearts" and swapping the psychedelic for psychosis, we went back and watched over his filmography: a degenerative vortex in itself, where death has always been eerily- and ever-present. As Noé put it recently, one day, "the dream within a dream is going to be over." But he cheated the reaper once and we cannot wait to see what he does with a second chance.
"DEATH IS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE."
Is it simply enough to go where no one else would go?
If it can be thought then it is reality.
The journey from head to heart is a twelve-minute cyclone.
How to write about Irreversible? It might be Noé’s true provocation: forcing the complacent cinema viewer, flabby on a century of perspective, to finally draw a sinewy ethical line. Do I believe that art is moral? If I believe that it can be used to illuminate the many worlds hidden to us – hell, if I build a website around that belief – then it follows that I must also believe that there is art that drags the soul through the dirt, that is self-obsessed and pathologically cruel, that can be outdated and exiled by a wiser society who believes that the things it produces must offer more value beyond a momentary thrill of transgression. Noé says shut up and choose a side. There is no hiding from Irreversible, that much he makes sure of. Its infrasonic soundscape is the work of a nauseous draughtsman keeling Paris over hardstyle and the word "whore" whilst the camera is mounted upon a freshly decapitated tocsin cobbling nosebleed collateral for its whipping towards ruin... when all is stilled for the central rape scene that lasts an unblinking twelve minutes. They're unforgiving. So how to write about Irreversible? Because I have to write that and then I have to admit that I like this movie.
It’s a guilty plea on the rim of hatred's event horizon, dragging everyone and everything into its whirl, and it is men who are the gravitational force. Regressive monkey men perhaps, but still agents of will ripping upstream against Irreversible's entropic tefillin. Vincent Cassel hurls homophobic abuse at his friend to leash him onto his bloodlust rather than visit his comatose girlfriend in hospital, and he finds the assaulter – a man – in a gay club where he hates the men almost as much as the rapist and where the writer-director - a man - cameos beating his literal (and the film's proverbial) dick in the corner before skull blood lumps from another man forced to wrap his septum around a fire extinguisher: the opening scene. Thirty minutes from then, Noé will place the camera on the floor of a tunnel for twelve minutes. At many times throughout Irreversible Cassel is called an animal, and there are plot devices staged like mephistophelean nocturnes peddling testosterone for destiny, but the nature of provocation means that self-awareness is buried in contradiction. But the nature of provocation is also a wooden stake, not a lobotomy, and all of the films on this list are manifestos of feeling. Irreversible is Noé at his bluntest, which also means it is Noé at his purest.
That gay club it opens in is called "Rectum" and the camera's pirouette fixes you on a cystoscope borne into the guts of Paris, then thrust through its erectile tissue full of bile and ultimately from its clean green mouth to conversations so heady they might render you an amnesiac to the visceral bludgeoning you were digested through or to the horror that was told to you in the tarot tunnels of its heart. A prologue vignette stages one of these heady debates just after the credits roll. One man tells the other that "Le temps detroit tous"; "time destroys everything," including this, to which the other replies that "there are no bad deeds, just deeds."
Written by Caleb Carter
Enter the Void (2009):
It’s hard to watch Enter the Void, a movie so high on its own supply that it is the literal equivalent of staring in the mirror while you masturbate, without rethinking your choice to do so several times throughout its runtime. Noé’s attempt to gorge on manifold themes – sex, connection, the human form, death, drugs, family, birth – is a strong liquor chased by his own insistent fascination with the creation-visions of DMT, a rambling hallucination of a film that becomes more experiential than serious philosophical enquiry. Noé, throughout his career, has often taken a core idea and seen if he can melt it, burn it, crush it, spill something on it, bury it, crack it, spit on it, tear it and torture it into something new: Enter the Void is no different, where the drapery of sex and death are entwined through the prismatic lens of hallucinogens, morphing into its true form while screams and orgasmic whimpers echo across infinite spaces of desolation and abandonment. The miserable ejaculation that erupts at the climax (sorry) of the film brings a sobering moment of clarity that, I’m sure, you've all experienced before.
Enter the Void is Noé’s dance between a visual manifestation of ego death and a drug comedown, where everything at all moments is shimmering with all meaning; at once The Magic Theatre pursuing the mythic, heroic, archetypal, and symbolic and an overloaded retinal circus of a synaesthetic interplay with fantasies, wishes and dreams, opposites merging, images fusing, condensing, shifting, collapsing, expanding, merging, connecting; the raw "is-ness" of tuning into the cosmic television show that was once an illusory solidity becoming ecstatic electric and the fire-flow of internal unity, where the glow of life itself is felt flooding through veins, orgastic fluid electricity, opening and red fire bleeding out to merge with all living beings, all organisms throbbing together, the memory of a former self now just a mere delusion, glancing back down the flow of time, you drift off, soft, rounded, moist, warm, undulating with everything, where to cum inside your sister is to cum inside yourself.
This is cinema as a window into the soul, the eyes of cinema showing us humanity laid bare, humanity through our own eyes. A dance of the dead, a hypnotic levitation through the life of a dying man. We enter him, see the world through his eyes, see what he sees, hear what he hears, this dying man. We've entered his mind. This poor dying boy. Through the looking glass. We exit the womb as the spectral semen and cycle life, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, endlessly. Deeper and deeper we go, down and down. We've entered the void.
Written by Bryson Edward Howe
Cinema is a form of sadism.
It’s difficult to understand a couple without knowing the nature of their physical desire, and how their bodies coalesce, especially one like the central relationship of Love, the dynamics of which are fuelled by nothing more than misplaced intimacy and sex as a ravenous craving, the fervour of which both experiences are left gyrating, still alive on the screen: two naked bodies lie entwined on a bed, filling the frame, the man, Murphy, and the woman, Electra, stroke at each other's bare skin, he rubbing at her neck and vagina, while she rubs his hard cock. Quickly, it intensifies, building to an unobstructed and unsimulated climax as faces tense and muscles tighten, pleasure rippling across the landscape of flesh and Electra drinks up the last, pathetic drops of Murphy's sperm. After nearly three uncut minutes, the shot cuts to black. This opening scene – two characters locked in a moment of raw passion, where the actors themselves brought each other to actual orgasm – prefaces Noé’s regressive experiment as immediately the narrative spills over the borders of artifice. Noé laces the fibres of the film itself with the psychology of lust, bringing to the surface an understanding of the level of obsession (or possession) that drives their relationship, and what eventually divides it. Have you ever tried to rationalize with someone who is in love, people trying to get lost in each other, and to remain lost in sensations that will always remain mysterious to anyone who isn't experiencing them first-hand; lost in their own thoughts and desires, covetous depths and toxic surfaces, it is mad alchemy.
It’s in this scene that there is a detail that I think is key to pulling apart why Love works so well even despite itself. Murphy, contorting in pleasure, reaches around to claw at Electra’s face, his fingers finding her mouth agape mid-moan, entering, white-knuckled, as if trying to force his way under her skin – literally in this moment but, as the film plays out, also as he tries to understand Electra deeper than through the superficiality of sex (ironically this a pretty hateful movie for a film called Love, but was originally titled Danger when it was supposed to star Cassel and Bellucci). Love and hate are, in this way, closer together than they might seem. Sex appears closer to an act of rage than a romantic dinner. Testosterone funnels itself into sex, and if not sex, then violence. The double-helix of passion is this, the Janus-faced dichotomy of sexuality and human weakness. Love is as venomous as hate, and it’s scary how toxicity arises unseen when you’re in it; for what is actually corrosive to seem just unvarnished. If eroticism, as Bataille defines it, "is a form of desire that seeks to take what lies outside, to possess the unpossessed and to devour what is desirable" then the vampiric act that lies between the sheets reveals itself in the secretion of Noé's manifesto for a cinema of the senses, and as a vibrant hymn to self-annihilation, vacant and perpetual. It's impossible not to see it as a pathway to oblivion:
"I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears. This is like the essence of life. I think movies should contain that, perhaps should be made of that."
The invisible power dynamic between the filmmaker and actors, and how one chooses to capture the other, is an often perverse and manipulative act. As is the relationship between the film and us as an audience, as we watch on, voyeurs, complicit. Love is a film that drifts along at its own tempo that simultaneously stretches out and back on itself as we witness two characters let themselves slip into a carnal trance, shown through the opium-addled lens of Murphy’s own self-loathing and guilt: in present-day, Murphy wakes up on New Years Day regretting whatever he took the night before, that shame after an embarrassing night of intoxication, where you weren’t acting like yourself, mirrored in Murphy’s own comedown, his cocktail of chemicals being testosterone, oestrogen, oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline forming a horrible concoction of lovesickness, pushing against his chasmal limits and pulsions. Electra becomes a phantom haunting his mind, and the bridge between past and present is sex, where the moment of orgasm destroys all sense of time. If the ending of Enter the Void is the apotheosis of Noe's attempt to recreate Kubrick's Star Child, then Love is that baby abandoned and left on the universe's doorstep. To carry someone inside of you – whether your partner or a baby – you have to be able to look outside yourself.
Written by Bryson Edward Howe
A filmmaker as maximalist as Gaspar Noé must work in broad divisions: block colours and spiritual fractures. Reflecting on his filmography I realise he's always worked in dualities. The films on this list have bounced between sex and drugs – perhaps body and mind – and within each stroke is the wrestling of pairs.
Inexorably dual also, LSD is a strange drug. I mean obviously, yes, it boils on the coals of strangeness, but it is strange in that people don’t quite know what to do with it. Put simply, the long half-life of its compound cushioned in your cortex means the concept of an "event" is strung across many (especially when seconds feel like hours and vice-versa), and it is an inherently solipsistic experience. As your living room slips into a jewelled fen where your own fingers become its mountain range, your friend next to you is meanwhile being swallowed by pillows and internally battling the pot-noodle maggots in their mouth. New Age mystics once used LSD as a tool for transcendence. Now, Roganites have appropriated it into a wall-street performance enhancer and reintroduced it into popular consciousness to the point where it is not uncommon to bump into a friend currently on the stuff. He's doing his shopping and has forgotten what he was laughing about. Acid becomes a crucible for multiplicity where all dialects between the mind and what was once assumed as not-mind are shot through a particle accelerator to the senses. Because of that, you might find that the one tangible revelation you are able to take from a trip is that working out what you should be doing is what you are doing, ad infinitum, and the realisation that we are in perpetual free-fall can be as vertiginous as it is totally liberating.
In the opening credits to Climax, the director claims to present "a proudly French film." It's a queer statement to make during perhaps Noé's goofiest gimmick, staged entirely around a punch-bowl party spiked with an unholy amount of acid, but coupled with its orgiastic unspooling of the soul, the francophilia begins to make a little more sense. Although on one hand, Climax does play like a cruel rave in a land whose ntz-ntz stigmata is hammered home by tech patriots Daft Punk, on another it is also like the storming of the bastille that sees chaos – the price of liberty – triumph over order. Floodgates feel like friends to authority because the torrent they blockade is so unconcerned with ego, that the word "human" is not in its dictionary. So be careful what you wish for when you ask for freedom because it might just be the worst party you've ever been to.
There are no trippy visuals in Climax. Instead, Noé utilises the physicality of sweat, sex and dislocation to dance a cabalistic melee of personhood, but this collage of moods that sprints from the tender to the vile is in itself psychoactive. Everything comes in two-by-twos on the 'Windowlicker' ark (are they moaning or groaning?) and, resultingly, the viewer begins distanced in a cinema seat but eventually marches deep into the hold of the film, flooded upside down and spinning. A gust of chemicals blows your eyes to the back of your head and they keep going. What you find on the flipside of your skull glows and flickers and breathes. In one sour blink it is horror, in the next it is paradise. Noé raucously castrates "fraternité" for a blue-white bipartisan covenant with the sweaty melting of reality, right down to its final scrapings of impulse and gut. When the horror becomes white noise you feel that strange sense of catharsis: there was nothing to any of this, after all. Free-fall. Dance, descend, derealise. Everything is spiralling with everything in agonized rapture.
Written by Caleb Carter