Surprising as it may seem, Gaspar Noé may not be the most well-known member of his family. That honour belongs to his father, Luis Felipe Noé, a semi-abstract painter. Noé père was born in 1933 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studied art and law, and worked as a journalist. Noé fils was born in 1963, two years before his family relocated to New York where his father was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Having returned to Buenos Aires in 1970, the family moved again, this time to Paris in 1976. In his teens, Gaspar Noé entered school at the École Nationale Supérieur Louis Lumière where he studied a rigorous program of cinema and photography.
Noé made two black-and-white short films upon finishing his studies, Tintarella di luna in 1985, and Pulpe amère in 1987. Tintarella di luna tells the simple story of a woman who leaves her husband for her lover. Pulpe amère shows a man attempting to rape his wife as they listen to a radio program of a man expressing his thoughts of profound love.
Noé’s first major film was the 40-minute Carne (1991), produced through his partnership with filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic (La Bouche de Jean-Pierre , L’Ecole ), Les Cinémas de la zone, in 1991. The film, a tale of a horse butcher who takes revenge on a man he mistakenly believes to have raped his autistic daughter, marks not only the first time Noé incorporated on-screen textual warnings, epigrams, and notes into the filmic narrative, but also the first collaboration with actor Philippe Nahon who has appeared in all of Noé’s subsequent features. Carne also includes a number of ‘shock’ elements such as gunshot sound effects, loud martial chords on the soundtrack, and rapid editing that would become major characteristics of his style in the later Seul contre tous (1998). Between the shocks and warnings in the film, however, there are veins of delicious dark humour to be found: a montage showing the butcher chopping meat as intertitles mark the passage of year after year, and the mute daughter blankly watching Herschel Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) on television.
Despite the success of Carne – the film won the Best Short Award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival – Noé was unable to acquire funding for his first feature. Noé recalls the response: “Everybody said, no, do a normal movie. Carne was too violent, now you have to calm down, you have to grow up. Why don’t you do a genre film?”
In 1994, still unable to find funding, Noé created a half-hour experiment in mass hypnosis for Canal+ Television (Une experience d’hypnose télévisuelle, 1995). Later works for television include a public service announcement against hunting (with voice-over by Alain Delon) called Le Lâcheur d’animaux d’élevage, 1995), and a sexually explicit short called Sodomites (1998) for a series promoting condoms called A coups sûrs that also included shorts by Jacques Audiard, Marc Caro, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, and Cédric Klapisch.
Determined to make a feature and to make it his way, Noé eventually procured production money from the clothier Agnès B. and from Canal+ Television, who thought they were funding a short film (1). Over the course of four years, Noé completed his film, Seul contre tous, in which he attempted to depict France as he saw it. A France more akin to the France of Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, and Henri Charriere than the bourgeois, urbane France of the films of “more civilized filmmakers” (2).
Before I begin discussion of Noé’s features, I would first like to introduce a theoretical framework for considering them based on the writings of Sergei Eisenstein and of several contemporary early film historians. The term ”cinema of attractions”, which originates with the writings of Eisenstein, has been in the parlance of film studies for at least a decade to describe a type of early cinema. It has proven useful, but the term, I think, can be redefined in the context of Eisenstein’s ideas and applied to films other than those old flickers from a hundred years ago. In fact, there are filmmakers throughout film history (William Castle and Luis Buñuel to name just a couple) who have made consistent use of a system of attractions in their films. Gaspar Noé is one of these filmmakers. His major films – the short Carne, and the features Seul contre tous and Irréversible (2002) – exemplify modern takes on the cinema of attractions. What follows is an attempt to redefine the cinema of attractions to express more clearly the original intent of Eisenstein and how it might apply to the films of Gaspar Noé.
Noé has described Seul contre tous as “the tragedy of a jobless butcher (Philippe Nahon) struggling to survive in the bowels of the country”, but it is quite a bit more than that (3). Noé’s goal in making the film was to create a film so confrontational and so in opposition with contemporary French cinema that it would be universally despised – a film to “dishonor France” (4). Noé has been asked if his film, in which the butcher expounds on the evils of women, homosexuals, blacks, Arabs, and the French with equal venom, is racist. His reply was in the affirmative: “Yes, it’s an anti-French movie” (5). Noé’s film is not just in opposition to mainstream French cinema, but to all French cinema, even the festival-oriented cinema of which he is a part. It is Noé’s opinion that the “French film industry is very conservative, like the 19th century salons, a private club where six people decide which movies should and shouldn’t be made” (6).
The film has been compared in tone to equally relentlessly downbeat films such as Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1975), Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975), Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950, Noé’s favourite film), Saló (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), and to the scathingly misanthropic novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Like Taxi Driver, the film features an unremitting first person narration that takes us inside the head of the protagonist, yet explains little about his motivations. Like Saló, there is a frankness regarding sex and violence that would border on the pornographic if it were not for the fact that both films treat the subjects as inescapable and base a human function as defecation. To this extremely negative tone, the film adds a series of often randomly placed ‘shocks’ provided by the combination of the amplified sound of a gunshot on the soundtrack with abrupt camera movements (accelerated by skipframes) that move the framing into close-up. Noé has described the desired effect of these shocks as “like being electrified, like an epileptic seizure” (7).
The film also features a spare, militaristic score (which prompted one critic to remark that “just hearing the music made him want to call Amnesty International”) and recurrent Godardian intertitles that, when analysed in the context of the film, seem to make no sense and appear to be a spoof of those selfsame Godardian intertitles. Both formal elements seem to mock, albeit subtly, a certain style of didactic political filmmaking while taking advantage of the distancing effect of that style’s tropes. As one might expect of a film with of such extremity (in tone, form, and content), the critical reception was equally extreme.
While Noé’s goal may have been to make a universally despised film, he was not successful. What did result, however, was a near complete polarisation of the audience. A few critics responded with bewilderment, but most either loved it or hated it. At the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, the major shock regarding the film came not from the film itself but from the fact that it won the Critic’s Week prize despite having gone relatively unseen at the festival (8). The film was also awarded the Prix de Jeunesse by young audiences but was withheld the honour due to the likelihood that the film would be rated X in France.
Of the positive reviews, most came primarily from critics based in America. J Hoberman of The Village Voice, who aptly characterised the film as “part circus stunt, part social tract”, also called the film “lacerating in its precision” (9). Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment, wrote pieces for his own magazine and for The Village Voice praising the film’s uncompromising vision, and Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader classified the film as a “masterpiece.” Of the number of critics who hated the film, Cahiers du cinéma (who can usually be counted on to champion difficult films) called it “an exercise in hatred against women, homosexuals, and old people, among others,” and stated simply, “This is not a good film” (10). A reviewer for The Financial Times deemed the film “very nasty, very ugly, but possibly very educational” (11).
Several viewers responding to the film have been considerably less kind than even the critic from Cahiers has. One critic, Jeremy Heilman, of the website MovieMartyr.com and Time Out New York, felt the film was morally repugnant and stated that the film has certain visual pleasures, “but they don’t redeem the depraved heart that beats at the center of the film.” Another web writer, Nathan Shumate of Cold Fusion Video so reviled the film that he “hated it to a degree that [he] didn’t think possible” and stated that his time watching the film “could more profitably have been used carving random ZIP codes into [his] abdomen with a straight pin.”
I cite these reviews neither out of amusement nor solely out of a desire to provide context for the reception of the film. What is interesting about these reviews is not necessarily their take on the film but instead the extremity of their reaction to the film. What is it about the film that provokes such vitriol? For Noé, perhaps, the reaction the film received did not go quite far enough. In an interview with The Independent, he expressed regret that the film was not banned in France since that would have been an official stamp that he “had made something shocking” (12). This statement from Noé is important because it shows a desire to offend, to provoke, to affect the audience in a primal way. It shows in Noé a desire to traffic in a cinema of attractions.
The concept of a ‘cinema of attractions’ comes from recent scholarship on early film, most notably that of Tom Gunning. The term is generally used as a replacement for what was considered the derogatory term, ‘primitive cinema’. Both of these terms are meant to provide a category opposite narrative cinema, but current scholarship, particularly that of Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster, has tended to see early cinema in terms of an evolutionary continuum as opposed to a system of narrative and opposition to narrative. Regardless of the use of the term ‘cinema of attractions’, it has given film scholars a way to discuss a category of film that, to quote Gunning, “directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle” (13). The term ‘pleasure’ in Gunning’s definition, however, is somewhat problematic in that the desired response of the cinema of attractions is not always pleasure. He goes on to explain that some of the attractions contained in early cinema include “recreations of shocking or curious incidents”, including executions (14). Now, it may be argued whether or not witnessing an execution actually elicits pleasure, but perhaps a better way of defining a cinema of attractions is filmmaking that is intended to elicit a primal response from the spectator in some way apart from the narrative. In point of fact, this definition is actually much closer to the original intent of the originator of the term ‘attractions’ in relation to the performing arts, Sergei Eisenstein.
In his 1923 essay on theatre, “The Montage of Attractions”, Eisenstein proposed a system of ‘attractions’ – aggressive actions in the presentation of a theatrical work – that subjected the audience “to emotional or psychological influence… calculated to produce specific emotional shocks in the spectator” (15). These shocks were intended to undermine the absorption of the spectator into the narrative and to keep the spectator thinking objectively about what they were watching being performed on the stage. The idea came from the presentational performances of the Grand Guignol and the traditional circus – low forms of entertainment in opposition to the high art of realist representational theatre (16). The concept of attractions in theatre was not motivated merely by a desire to, as Gunning puts it, épater le bourgeois (17). It was motivated out of a desire to make the political message of the theatrical piece clearer, more direct, and without the trappings of narrative including melodrama, allegory, and audience identification with the characters or their situation. But how do the attractions of the stage translate into the attractions of the screen?
It is important to note that mere camera tricks and special effects in the cinema do not make for adequate attractions. The definition I have proposed requires a primal response such as fear, shock or laughter. Special effects such as contemporary computer generated effects are designed to expand the illusory capabilities of film, not to break the illusion. To return to Eisenstein, one of the methods he proposed of eliciting response from the spectator was to set off firecrackers underneath the seats (18). For a cinema of attractions to work, the attractions must use the devices and technologies available to the cinema.
Noé is often lumped in together with a group of contemporary directors based in France who make thematically and formally aggressive cinema: Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke and Jan Kounen, among others. Only Noé, however, consistently uses a systematic deployment of attractions outside of the narrative to elicit primal responses from the spectator. In Seul contre tous, the primary shocks come from the intermittent blasts of soundtrack noise that accompany quick reframings. There is absolutely no narrative reason for the noises; they exist to momentarily alarm the spectator, to jar them out of any desire for identification with the film’s contemptible protagonist and narrator and to reinsert them in the narrative flow anew. Noé has called his film a comedy of extremism and has stated that his use at the end of the film of the ‘fright break’, a device lifted straight from William Castle’s film Homicidal (1961), is a joke (19). Indeed, one would hardly expect anyone who has sat through the movie to get up and leave the room at that point before finding out how the film ends. The real joke on the audience is the false ending that follows the ‘fright break’. The butcher does not really murder his daughter, he just molests her. Ha ha. The intended comedic effect is evident from the music. Once the false ending has finished and the butcher snaps out of his violent reverie, the plaintive strains of Pachelbel’s “Canon”, that old wedding ceremony chestnut, rise on the soundtrack. Everything seems to be all right, but anyone with an ear for irony knows that Noé is playing a joke. As the butcher begins to molest his daughter, the camera tastefully averts its gaze and the film ends.
It is no wonder the film evoked such strong reactions from the audience. After a systematic series of shocks to the system, a Klaxon-accompanied ‘fright break’, a horrifying and gruesome false ending followed by an even more horrifying and morally gruesome ending one would either feel exhilarated or, as was critic Hal Hinson, “wrung out and wasted” (20). Hinson also compared the sensation of viewing the film with being hit in the stomach with a bowling ball.
Irréversible continues Noé’s use of attractions to underscore the message of the film while standing apart from and even working against the narrative. Irréversible features a number of scenes that employ aural or visual amplifications or modifications in order to provoke an effect. Perhaps the most infamous of these is a scene where a man gets his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher, the sound of which is exorbitantly amplified and the sight of which is made more nauseating by the unflinching yet wildly gyrating camera. The pulsing score that accompanies the film contains, for the first sixty minutes of the film, a constant 27-hertz tone specifically designed by Noé to cause nausea in the audience (21). Finally, the film ends with a series of strobing alternating black and white frames that have a hypnotic, yet greatly disorienting and dizzying effect. The cinema of attractions employed by Noé in his latest film go so far beyond what he used in his debut feature that spectators were fainting at the beginning of the film at the Cannes premiere, perhaps from the vertiginously tilting opening titles that run backwards and the grinding, undulating bass tones that accompany them (22).
Because of the busy schedules of its internationally in-demand stars, Irréversible had to be shot very quickly. There was no script, only a basic outline, and nearly all of the dialogue was improvised. Noé shot the film, largely by himself, in Super 16 mm with a compact camera. While his camerawork is the source of some of the film’s visceral effects, particularly during its opening and closing scenes, much of the effects with the most impact were added during the film’s extensive post-production.
Noé had the film transferred from film to high definition digital video where the obvious special effects (the initial murder sequence) as well as dozens of subtle or invisible effects were added by Noé in association with the digital artists at Mac Guff Ligne. Some examples of the latter type are the scenes of Marcus’ rampage through the sex club which was composed of thirty separate shots strung together digitally, delirious zooms and reframings in the scene that follows where Marcus tries to track down information on Le Tenia, digitally-added shakiness to the camera during the police interrogation scene, an added visual analogue to the restless heartbeat on the soundtrack during the scene of Alex’s recovery from the underground tunnel, and added blood, wounds, and body parts to the now notorious rape scene.
While Irréversible in essence recapitulates the rape revenge scenario of Carne and is similar in tone to Seul contre tous, the film is largely quite different from both. Whereas Seul contre tous depends primarily on the torrent of rage delivered through the butcher’s internal monologue, Irréversible is an almost wholly visual experience. In accordance with its improvised nature, there are only a few lines in the film of any importance to understanding the events of the film. The visual experience, with all of its dazzling technical proficiency, ability to shock, and storytelling qualities, is the film. Although one can hardly imagine Irréversible as a silent film, it could very well be one with almost no loss of narrative information or, indeed, propensity to stun, so strong is Noé’s command of visual communication. Despite the faintings and hyperbolic critical reactions (positive or negative), there is more to Noé’s project than just shock.
The goal of attractions, as stated by Eisenstein and as employed by Noé, is not merely to shock. Noé himself has stated that shocking an audience is too easy and that he is interested in inducing a kind of trance state in the audience so that they can receive the ideas of the film more clearly, acting as a catalyst to release reactions good or bad (23).
It is too early to tell whether Noé will continue to expand upon his mastery of the cinema of attractions or whether he will abandon it for experimentation in other areas or perhaps even abandon it in favour of relatively conventional filmmaking. What is evident, however, is that even at this early stage of his career, Noé has taken the tools cinema makes available and used them to elicit very strong, primal reactions from his audiences. The question he seems to leave to his critics, and to history is, is it enough?
Tintarella di luna (1985) short
Pulpe amère (1987) short
Carne (1991) short film
Le Lâcheur d’animaux d’élevage (1995) short (public service announcement)
Une experience d’hypnose télévisuelle (1995) television
Je n’ai pas (1996) short (music video for Mano Solo)
Sodomites (1998) short (public service announcement)
Intoxication (1998) short
Seul contre tous (I Stand Alone) (1998)
Je suis si mince (1999) short (music video for Arielle)
Thomas Bangalter: Outrage (2002) short (music video)
Placebo: Protége-Moi (2003) short (music video)
Eva (2005) short
SIDA (2006) short
Enter the Void (2009)
42 One Dream Rush (2010) short (segment)
Animal Collective: Applesauce (2012) short (music video)
SebastiAn: Love in Motion (2012) short (music video)
7 días en La Habana (7 Days in Havana) (2012)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: We No Who U R (2013) short (music video)
Stephane Bouquet, “Seul contre tous”, Cahiers du cinéma, March 1999, p. 75.
Emmanuèle Frois, “Il presente Irréversible, le scandale prevu de la competition officielle qui sort en salles aujourd’hui”, Le Figaro, May 24, 2002, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe Document, p. 2.
Hal Hinson, “Heart of Darkness”, New Times Los Angeles, May 6, 1999, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe Document, pp. 1–2.
J. Hoberman, “Meat and Greet”, Village Voice, March 23, 1999, p. 125.
Gaspar Noé, “The Friendly Ghost: Gaspar Noé defends Irréversible”, Cinemascope, vol. 4, no. 2, 2002, p. 50.
Gavin Smith, “Meat is Murder”, Village Voice, June 9, 1998, p. 154.
Gavin Smith, “Live Flesh”, Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 4, July/August 1998, p. 6.
Liese Spencer, “Cinema to dishonour France”, Independent [London], January 14, 1999, Features p. 12.
“Turn-of-the-century nightmare”, Financial Times [London], March 18, 1999, Arts section p. 18.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Like Tears in… Brain by Marko Bauer
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
A piece on Noé’s “cinematic rape” in Irréversible.
BBC Films Interview
Several interviews in on Irréversible.
Tunnel Visionary: Gaspar Noé’s Brutal Irréversible
- Gavin Smith, “Meat is Murder”, Village Voice, June 9, 1998, p. 154.
- Liese Spencer, “Cinema to dishonour France”, Independent [London], January 14, 1999, Features p. 12.
- Gavin Smith, “Live Flesh”, Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 4, July/August 1998, p. 6.
- Spencer, p. 12.
- Spencer, p.12.
- Smith, “Meat is Murder”, p. 154.
- Smith, “Live Flesh”, p. 6.
- J. Hoberman, “Meat and Greet”, Village Voice, March 23, 1999, p. 125.
- Stephane Bouquet, “Seul contre tous”, Cahiers du cinéma, March 1999, p. 75.
- “Turn-of-the-century nightmare”, Financial Times [London], March 18, 1999, Arts section p. 18.
- Spencer, p.12.
- Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” in Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (eds), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London, BFI, 1990. p. 58.
- Gunning, p. 59.
- Sergei Eisenstein, “The Montage of Attractions” in Richard Taylor (ed.), The Eisenstein Reader, London, BFI, 1998, p. 30.
- Eisenstein, p. 30.
- Gunning, p. 59.
- Gunning, p. 61.
- Smith, “Meat is Murder,” p. 154.
- Hal Hinson, “Heart of Darkness”, New Times Los Angeles, May 6, 1999, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe Document, pp. 1–2.
- Gaspar Noé, “The Friendly Ghost: Gaspar Noé defends Irréversible”, Cinemascope, vol. 4, no. 2, 2002, p. 50.
- Noé, p. 50.
- Emmanuèle Frois, “Il presente Irréversible, le scandale prevu de la competition officielle qui sort en salles aujourd’hui”, Le Figaro, May 24, 2002, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe Document, p. 2.