Author: Gaspar Noe
Director: Gaspar Noe
This is the controversial French film some critics are calling “unwatchable” because of the extreme violence and sex. It’s definitely an experimental film, but it worked for me. The story is a simple one: a girl is raped and her boyfriend kills the rapist. But Noe tells the story in reverse, which makes the entire movie far more complicated. We watch as this guy tracks down another in a gay sex nightclub. When he finds him, he smashes his head with a fire extinguisher again and again until it’s flattened into a bloody mess. The camera does not break away from this violent scene and it’s quite brutal, though not that long. Then we jump back in time to see how the guy found out about the nightclub, then how he found out about the rape (he sees his girlfriend being dragged away on a stretcher, her face covered in blood, and he’s told she’s in a coma). Then we see the rape itself — an amazingly frank piece of cinema. It’s long, ten or fifteen minutes, and the camera doesn’t move. It just goes on and on, and when it’s finally over, the guy totally beats the girl’s face into a bloody pulpy mess. This is definitely not an enjoyable film up to this point. As the “narrative” continues, we move to the party where the girlfriend and boyfriend are before she leaves early, and then before that on the way to the party. The final scene is the two alone at home, in bed, showing the playful and loving sides of their relationships, and making sex seem delightfully innocent.
As I said, a simple tale, but told in reverse. Here’s the effect of that reversal, however. First, when we see the guy seeking revenge against the rapist, we have no idea what he is doing or why. He seems like an insane person. Later, of course, we understand, but by showing his revenge first, we’re far more shocked and horrified by his violence than we would be otherwise. Second, when we experience the rape (and I do mean experience), we haven’t yet met the girl. She’s faceless at that point (emphasized by Noe by not showing us her face until later). This has the effect of both dehumanizing her (she’s faceless) and making her an everywoman (she could be anyone). Those are important because we don’t form judgements about her. Later, when we “meet” her for the first time, our perceptions of her change. We get to know her after the rape instead of before, and while you might think that knowing her first would make the rape more powerful, it works even better in reverse, since we have no opinion of her at all before the rape. That enhances the trauma of the rape, making it seem even more barbaric and unfair. For example, once we meet the girl we might see how provocatively she dresses and judge her, saying she asked for the rape. But Noe avoids us thinking that way by having the movie in reverse.
The other thing about the reverse gimmick that makes it so powerful is that we go from brutal, cruel, and ugly images to beautiful and innocent images (the reverse of real life which tends toward destruction not creation). The final shots of laughing children running through a lawn sprinkler is all the more heart-breaking because we know that that innocence is already (or will be) lost. The tragedy of lost innocence is expressed far more powerfully in this technique. The whole film is an exercise to show us this, as Noe emphasizes with two techniques: color and camera movement. The first fifteen minutes of the film is positively headache inducing as the camera is never still and never at any normal angle. It’s as though they mounted the camera on the back of a dog chasing his tail: the image spins and whirls and rarely do we see anything recognizable (which, while they’re in the gay nightclub, is a good thing ;-). But gradually, as the film continues, the camera becomes more and more passive, leading to total stillness during the rape. The colors at the beginning of the film (the end of the story) are all dark, bleak, and there’s a lot of red. By the time we get to the end (the beginning) there’s brightness, sunlight, happiness, and wonderfully green grass. While this makes the beginning of the film tougher to endure (wild camera and dark, ugly images), it makes sense storywise. As the boyfriend seeks revenge, he gets more and more angry and agitated, and so does the camera. Logically, the landscape gets bleaker as well.
Noe’s script uses what we might call reverse foreshadowing: in the normal direction there are hints of the dire future so that when it comes it subconsciously feels expected. But foreshadowing is such a subtle thing that few notice it. In reverse, however, foreshadowing is far more powerful. For instance, after we’ve seen the rape, we hear (before that) someone say, “Be safe” to the girl, and that takes on a terrible irony since we know she won’t be. In another scene, the girl talks about a book she’s reading where people dream of their future, and later (at the end of the film) we see that happen to her. Since we already know her future, her premonition is even more dramatic and there’s no suspense of “Is she crazy or do we believe her?” We know she’s right and that’s scary. The reverse technique is fascinating when used properly.
As many have said, this film is tough to watch. The violence is brutal and shown in an unflinching fashion. While difficult, that’s real life. I personally prefer this kind of realistic violence than Hollywoodized versions that glorify it. This absolutely does not glorify violence or rape at all: it presents it in horrible reality. Other films have tried to show realistic violence, especially rape (think Jodie Foster in The Accused), but this film, by getting rid of camera tricks and just showing us the brutal reality straight on without blinking, does a more credible job of expressing the horror and obscenity of such acts. Some critics have said that this film is obscene itself, but that’s not true: the rape and violence it shows is obscene, but not the film itself. The film is the messenger, not the message; the vehicle, not the passenger. The film makes an incredibly powerful statement about destiny, reality, violence, and sex, and provokes us to think about our attitudes toward those things. If you can bear it, it’s worth seeing.