Some filmmakers want to tell a visual story. Some simply want to elicit an emotional response through the medium. French auteur Gaspar Noé, however, wants to confront his audience through unrelenting graphic violence, controversy, and nihilism. It’s not just the subject matter of his films, though that alone would be enough to set him apart, but in the way he toys with cinematic convention to put the viewer in an intimate, voyeuristic position that challenges us to face the ugliest aspects of society. From the flashy, atypical title credits that immediately set the precedent that this isn’t your average film to the jarring, swirling camera movements and long takes as it follows unsavory lead characters, Noé is seeking a visceral response meant to test the audience. It all culminates in his best work yet, the profoundly disturbing horror film Climax.
His earlier films made him a pioneer in the world extreme cinema that emerged in France dubbed New French Extremity and put him on the radar of die-hard horror fans, but the irony is that most of his filmography isn’t technically horror at all. Yet, the extreme and shocking acts depicted within them pushes them straight in genre adjacent territory that’s generally shunned by mainstream audiences.
Take his first film, the short Carne in 1991, and its full feature length sequel I Stand Alone, in 1998. Both center around The Butcher (Philippe Nahon), an antihero that begins his journey by mistaking his autistic daughter’s first menstruation as signs of surviving a sexual assault, which then prompts him to take revenge on an innocent man. Carne opens with a graphic scene of a horse’s slaughter for meat processing, a brutal introduction to The Butcher’s desensitization to violence. With I Stand Alone, it picks up after The Butcher has left prison and moved to rural France, his daughter institutionalized. Discontent, the film sees The Butcher heading back home to attempt to reclaim his old life and finding it a struggle. Eventually, Noé flashes a warning card across the screen, giving the viewer 30 seconds to leave (or turn the film off) before a heinous, shocking act commences (spoilers ahead)– The Butcher, who takes his daughter out of the institution to see her one last time, decides to give in to his incestuous feelings for her before killing her. The major taboo-breaking act rendered all the more shocking in the way Noé made light of it with dark humor.
I Stand Alone plays a major part in Irreversible, the first film to launch Noé into the international spotlight. It opens with The Butcher confessing to his crimes of incest before setting up the film’s themes of time. From there, events of one traumatic night unfolds in reverse order, through a series of 12 long takes for its central characters Alex (Monica Belluci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and Pierre (Albert Dupontel). It means that the most vicious scenes come near the beginning, first with Pierre smashing in an innocent man’s skull with a fire extinguisher, and then with the most excruciating, traumatic long-take of Alex’s harrowing sexual assault and beating at the hands of a pimp. Noé forces the audience to be uncomfortable, unwilling participants in the way he films the scene; when the rest of the film contains his trademark dizzying camera work, this scene remains stagnant and fixated upon Alex, her assaulter, and the filthy underpass in which the monstrous act takes place. By playing the night’s events in reverse order, these scenes of nihilistic, graphic violence become tragic, when the film ends by depicting these characters happy, normal, and in love. As The Butcher lamented in the opening, “Time destroys everything.”
Enter the Void took a hallucinogenic journey into the afterlife with more dizzying overhead camerawork and permeating neon colors. It followed drug dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) as he’s shot to death in a drug deal, his soul then hovers overhead as he follows the repercussions of his death while in search of resurrection. It’s a long journey, with a 142-minute runtime, and also Noé’s most ambitious in terms of visual storytelling. Much more explicit in its depictions of sex, with some violence, Enter the Void is less horrific than previous films and exists more overtly in the realm of fantasy. For many, it’s considered the auteur’s best work.
But arguably, his best is Climax, set to release stateside on March 1. It’s also firmly planted in horror. What begins as a night of dancing and celebration for a dance troupe gathered at a remote school building mid-winter turns into a hallucinatory nightmare of hellish proportions when they discover their sangria has been spiked with LSD. Noé’s trademarks are all on display, the vivid colors, atypical film credits, and the swirling camera work as it follows the beleaguered dancers in their journeys of torment, by way of continuous long takes.
At the beginning of the film, we see a television framed by books and VHS tapes, all which shaped and inspired Noé throughout his life. Two noticeable VHS tapes are Possession and Suspiria, both which play a major influence in Climax. But the horror in Noe’s film is psychological rather than supernatural. It doesn’t make the events that unfold any less harrowing or horrifying. Climax earned a spot on 2018’s most disturbing moments in horror, but truthfully the entire film could’ve dominated the list. Noé has never been afraid to break major taboos, but he throws caution to the wind and tackles just about every single taboo in his latest. Surprisingly, Climax also is the director’s most accessible film to date.
Noé’s films aren’t for everyone, and the unflinching way in which he challenges the viewer often means that even if you do appreciate his films, it’s not often an experience you’re willing to sit through twice. His cinematic style and shorthand are distinctly his, and his use of graphic violence and sex make bold statements on society and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity. They also ushered in a wave of extreme cinema in France. The definition of dance is the movement of the body in a rhythmic way, usually to music, for the purpose of expressing emotion or an idea, or releasing energy. It’s also a perfect summation of Noe’s style, in that he uses movement and score to force his audience to face the ugly head on. Climax is the culmination of everything the came before, in one heady, hellscape of dance.