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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema, French Cinema

The Road that Gets You There: Gaspar Noé’s ‘Irréversible’ (2002) & ‘Enter the Void’ (2009)

Directed by: Gaspar Noé || Produced by: Vincent Cassel [1], Vincent Maraval, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier, Shin Yamaguchi [2], Brahim Chioua [1, 2]

Screenplay by: Gaspar Noé || Starring: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel [1], Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Ed Spear [2]

Music by: Thomas Bangalter || Cinematography: Gaspar Noé [1], Benoît Debie [1, 2] || Edited by: Gaspar Noé [1, 2], Marc Boucrot, Jerome Pesnel [2] || Country: France [1, 2], Germany, Italy [2] || Language: French [1], English [2]

Running Time: 97 minutes [1], 143 minutes [2] || 1 = Irréversible, 2 = Enter the Void

One of the earliest advertisements I remember from my undergraduate university theatre was for Gaspar Noé’s 2009 avant-garde film, Enter the Void, which I never saw while I was in my Bachelor’s. Perhaps I was too immature in my development as a cinephile to appreciate a project like that, as I spent the next several years exploring various international cinema (I was introduced to Bollywood filmmaking during this time) and disliked most of the experimental, dramatic “art films” I was forced to watch in various film courses. When Jay Bauman of Red Letter Media mentioned Noé’s then latest film, Climax (2018) a couple years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt tempted to try the director’s work again, but never pulled the trigger on Enter the Void nor his most (in)famous feature, Irréversible (2002) until a couple weeks ago for reasons unknown.

A good example of Enter the Void’s omniscient, bird’s-eye view that dominants the story.

Noé, an Argentine citizen who’s spent most of his life and entire filmmaking career in France, is often described as an independent and experimental filmmaker who specializes in confrontational cinematographic techniques designed to prod his viewers, to remind them they’re watching a film (i.e. self-reflexive filmmaking); his films are often structured around evocative, bizarre moods with loosely defined, non-traditional narrative formats, if they have a narrative at all. The man has nothing if not a distinct auteur style, which I always appreciate, but I find that like most ambitious, imperfect filmmakers, his best efforts are a result of his creative vision operating within necessary outside limitations, whether budgetary or logistical.

Case in point is the aforementioned Irréversible, perhaps his most well known feature, which Noé later described as a “bank robbery” to finance his lifelong dream project, Enter the Void. Told in reverse chronological order, Irréversible is on paper an otherwise straightforward revenge narrative about two friends (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) who attempt to find and punish a man who raped Cassel’s girlfriend, Monica Bellucci (Cassel’s actual wife at the time). Fans of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) will feel right at home here, both with respect to the reverse-order storytelling as well as the rape-revenge premise, although Irréversible lacks any sort of major twist besides its commentary on rash, shortsighted vigilantism.

The cinematography of the film matches its narrative rhythm like few films I’ve seen before, where a series of long takes capture each set-piece and the energy of each tracking shot resembles the emotional status of our principle characters. Irréversible’s inverted chronology subverts the traditional narrative flow of its emotional, violent subject-matter, whereby a brief yet impressive crane shot depicts the exhausted aftermath of Cassel and Dupontel’s rampage, after which the first act (the true third act) begins with a burst of energy that calms, scene by scene, until the centerpiece of the movie depicts Belluci’s violent assault at the hands of Jo Prestia, which is described for the most part in a single, horrific static shot. The remainder of the film (the true first act) is shot in a more traditional manner, where the long takes are either commanded by a SteadiCam or dolly and the film concludes on a peaceful, if ominous note. Truth be told, my only major critique of Noé and Benoît Debie’s direction of photography is the series of counterclockwise camera rotations between each sequence, which symbolize the storyline’s reversal of time (the connecting tissue between each scene), but left me nauseous.

The end that Noé saw Irréversible as the means to, Enter the Void, feels like the wet dream of arthouse aficionados and film festival regulars. I’m surprised one of my college film professors didn’t show us this, with its eclectic variety of camera angles, techniques, and perspectives. After its lengthy (~17-minute) opening scene, an unbroken 1st-person point-of-view (POV) take from the eyes of protagonist Nathaniel Brown, an American expatriate drug-dealer living in Tokyo, I enjoyed the first act where Brown’s disembodied spirit leaves his recently deceased flesh (that’s the movie’s premise, not a spoiler); he then observes the aftermath of his death through his sister (Paz de la Huerta) and local friend (Cyril Roy), and the major events of his life are explained in surrealist flashbacks.

Irréversible, told in chronological order from top to bottom.

After about the 90-minute mark, however, my patience ran thin as the number of disconnected events grew and it became clear Enter the Void was not building toward any sort of satisfying conclusion. None of the characters are terribly likable, either, as all feel like varying degrees of scumbags, and the incestual undertones between de la Huerta and Brown are neither relatable nor add much to the mood of the plot. The only saving graces to the last act of the movie are its memorable neon visuals and how it makes the most of its Tokyo backdrop, though the sheer amount of questionable digital FX are distracting.

Much like how Gareth Evans and Damien Chazelle’s quests to make what became Berandal (2014) and La La Land (2016), respectively, were far less interesting than the down-and-dirty projects (i.e. The Raid [2011] and Whiplash [2014]) they made to earn street credibility when they couldn’t finance their greater ambitions, Gasper Noé’s long-term career goal, Enter the Void, pails in comparison to the horrific yet powerful project that preceded it. Noé is not a commercial filmmaker for general audiences regardless of whichever picture you draw from his filmography, yet his sophomore thriller that made Enter the Void possible, Irréversible, is the far superior film. If you can stomach the explicit blend of sexual violence on which the film is based, Irréversible is one of the most intense, edge-of-your-seat experiences I’ve watched in a while. I am disappointed my initial hesitancy toward exploring Noé’s filmography in college was somewhat justified, yet remain thankful it introduced me to one of the better terrifying movies I’ve ever seen.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: While both films are as far from accessible mainstream cinema as you could get, neither Irréversible nor Enter the Void are close to being the most disorganized, surrealist, or incoherent moodpieces I’ve seen, and the former isn’t any sort of tone poem at all. Irréversible is a white-knuckle thrill-ride that will keep you engaged from its end to its beginning despite its nauseating scene transitions. Enter the Void, meanwhile, is artsy experimental filmmaking run amok, a potentially powerful contemplation of life after death undone by a slow, longwinded running time and unworthy characters.

—> Irréversible is RECOMMENDED if you can stomach its first half, while Enter the Void, for all its beautiful neon lighting and Tokyo character, overstays its welcome and is NOT RECOMMENDED.

? It’s not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated; it’s the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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