May 19, 2008

Director of the Apocalypse: Gaspar Noé


There is no doubt that French filmmaker Gaspar Noé is one of the most controversial contemporary directors of French and international cinema. Film critics have done everything from praising him as an innovative filmmaker to condemning him as a fascist offender. One thing is true about Gaspar Noé, he is a filmmaker with his own set of themes and characteristics that define him as a cinematic auteur. He is a filmmaker that has set out to make films with his own individual vision. Very few contemporary film directors can say that they have the same type of freedom and artistic integrity as Gaspar Noé. In a world where dollars signs are more appealing to a director than ones desire to express their most potent of obsessions, Noé has shown no reluctance in continuing his individualistic approach.

The auteur signatures found in Gaspar Noé’s films are both viciously graphic and tragically human. Noé likes to look at both ends of the emotional spectrum that humans are capable of. Whether it be the violent racist hatred displayed by an incestuous father in a jealous rage or the beautiful intimacy of two lovers in each others arms, Gaspar Noé’s films are no doubt of the human nature. He grew up in an artistic family as his father Luis Felipe Noé is a renowned neo-figurative painter (Gabbey 37). Gaspar Noé has also stated that his father, Luis, wanted him to be what is typically referred to as an “artist.” Of course, he ended up being one of the most subversive and controversial filmmakers of recent time.

Gaspar Noé, unlike a lot of underground filmmakers, had formal training in film production and cinematography. He trained at one of the most famous schools in France for cinematography (Gabbey 37). He entered school at the ripe young age of seventeen and by the time he was nineteen had a graduated with a highly beneficial understanding of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Not only is Noé subversive with the content and story format of his films, but also the construction and techniques of the films. Gaspar Noé’s formal film production helps to explain his unconventional and revolutionary techniques. It is good to know the rules so that you know how to break them.


Various film critics have called Gaspar Noé’s films both existential and anti-French (Gabbey 38). Quite ironic considering many of the greatest existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir were French. Gaspar Noé has denied claims that his films are anti-French, stating of his first feature length film I Stand Alone(1998), “Actually, the film isn’t anti-French at all…There’s a subculture in France that is rarely portrayed on the screen…At the time, fifteen percent of the people voted for the National Front (French fascist party), and many of the other people were as racist as the National Front.” Gaspar Noé is speaking of the racist remarks of the lead character simply named “The Butcher.”

I would have to agree with Gaspar Noé’s remark as “The Butcher” is far from a positively portrayed character. This character is also featured in Noé’s films Carne(1991) and Irreversible(2002). Carne is a medium length film Noé made about “the Butcher” before I Stand Alone. In Carne, the butcher stabs an Arab construction worker in the mouth with a knife, mistaking the man for someone that harassed his daughter. In I Stand Alone, the butcher continues his attacks on Arabs and other minorities. The irony is that the butcher’s father was a French resistance fighter who was killed by the Nazis during the second world war.

Although Gaspar Noé’s films aren’t necessarily anti-French, they feature subcultures of France that might not be considered the most flattering representation of the once powerful empire. In fact, I would argue that Noé is one of the most French (although originally from Argentina) of filmmakers as he presents the country in a more realistic way. A country in racial and political turmoil. A place where crime, prostitution, unemployment, and hate run rampant. Gaspar Noé is a director that displays controversial issues facing a nation in an objective way which bothers many people. Offering no type of real moral messages, audiences are both intimidated and offended by his films. It is up to the audience to make up their opinion about Gaspar Noé’s films content.

Gaspar Noé stated in an interview, “The French movies that are promoted abroad are the ones that give like a trendy, cultural, petit-bourgeois, upper class image of France, but it’s true that people who are poor in France are the same as in New York or in India. People who are poor, they are poor and they suffer a lot (Thrower 44).” Gaspar Noé’s honest statement about the suffering of the poor in France reflects the brutal and often offensive truth surrounding contemporary France.


Bizarre and graphic sexuality are themes found in the works of Gaspar Noé. Two of his shorts, Sodomites(1998) and We F**K Alone(2006) are just subversive porn films. Carne and I Stand Alone feature scenes of father and daughter incest. Irreversible features scenes that range from sensual lovemaking between two lovers and a brutal sodomy rape committed by a homosexual pimp on a woman. Gaspar Noé once again doesn’t relent in his subversive content when looking at human sexual relationships.

Gaspar Noé’s short Sodomites was commissioned by the French Administration Health strangely enough (Gabbey 37). The short is part of five shorts that were concocted by the French government to promote the use of condoms amongst heterosexuals. The French government was uninterested in having porn directors producing the shorts and asked exclusively artistic directors (including Jean-Luc Godard who declined) to be involved in the project. Sodomites features the actual act of sodomy between a female and a wolf masked male. During the sex acts, a group of bikers cheer them on. I couldn’t imagine an artistic American director like Wes Anderson directing a porn short for and funded by the American government.

Gaspar Noé’s short We F**ck Alone was featured on a compilation of porn shorts by artistic directors around the world. The short features two very different individuals (a cutesy girl and a dirty punk) masturbating to the same pornographic film. The short is quite an interesting concept in the way of form. Furthermore, the cinematic technique used is quite unique. A camera that seems to be floating weaves in and out of scenes of the individuals in the middle of sexual acts (having a similar feeling to Noe‘s Irreversible). Despite their content, both of Gaspar Noé’s porn short films feature odd techniques and auteur signatures so often associated with the young director.


Irreversible (Noé’s most recent feature length film) features many of the subversive ingredients so prevalent in Gaspar Noé’s earlier films. The film unfolds in backwards order revealing how time can change everything. As the film progresses, you find that a woman who has been brutally raped is also pregnant. Unfortunately you can assume that the woman experiences a miscarriage. During the May 2002 Cannes screening of Irreversible, apparently around 250 out of 2,400 audience members either fainted or walked out on the film (Brottman 160).

Like Gaspar Noé’s earlier films, Irreversible takes a look at France on the verge of apocalyptic chaos. The film features a variety of scenes involving racial conflicts, brutality and killing of homosexuals, beating of a transgendered prostitute, and the killing rape of a beautiful woman by a drug fueled pimp. Gaspar Noé opens the viewer up to a world of subversive and widely unknown subcultures. French director Mathieu Kassovitz also examines different subcultures of France in the Cannes winning (drama) La Haine(1995) (focusing on immigrant ghettos). The difference between Kassovitz’s La Haine and Gaspar Noé Irreversible is that the later film takes a more nihilist approach. Irreversible is a film that makes it look like its only a matter of time before France explodes into a world of chaos whereas La Haine merely displays the problem.


Irreversible has a seamless flow from scene to scene that owes a little to Alfred Hitchcock’s experimental cinematic masterpiece Rope(1948). The camera floats from scene to scene in a way that parallels the detached nature of the overall film. Fatalism, nihilism, and powerlessness are the trinity of secular apocalyptic thought according to scholar Daniel Wojcik (Brottman 167). These characteristics are also quite prevalent in both the content of Irreversible and the emotional output of the technique in the film. All of these things add up to the auteur characteristics on an individual looking at the world (especially France) with a view of unfortunate apocalyptic inevitability and realism.

Gaspar Noé is an individual that is unafraid of looking at the world through lenses that see human darkness. He displays images and truths that others have tried so hard to ignore and cover-up. Many film critics have written him off as someone that merely offends to offend. I find Gaspar Noé to be a realist of the nihilist sort. Someone that will offend and disturb the typical filmgoer (whether intentional or not). Of course, the greatest filmmakers have always caused major controversy and public outcry.

-Ty E

1 comment:

Joe said...

Since it's been a while since Irreversible came out, I forgot how much people hate him.

God bless Gaspar Noe.