IRRÉVERSIBLE (2002, Gaspar Noé)
If I would have to name just one film, I would protest a lot, insist that it is not possible, and then I would name Irréversible. So much has already been said about this film, that it seems useless to add anything. But I will just to get it out of my system. I don’t know any other film loved or hated to this extremes. And indeed, it could have been just another revenge story, if it wasn’t for its director’s unique talent.
Many have accused Noé of glorifying violence. But how do you make a film about violence without actually showing violence? How do you make it “decent” and comforting? How far can and should one go to convey a brutal message? You have to actually show violence, and there will surely be people who complain about it being too much, too disturbing, useless, and so on. But then again, so is violence. And we tend to deny it, not let it affect us too much when we read about it in the papers, see it on the news. The most common defense mechanism is to think that those horrible things only happen to others. And that we would never do anything like that. Well, Noé is insolent and aggressive enough to deny such illusions from his viewers. He forces us to be so close to violence that it almost chokes us, making all detachment impossible.
The story told backwards is the main formal feature of the film. It starts with a scene linking this film to Noé’s previous feature film, Seul contre tous, then it unleashes on the viewer the catastrophic end to a story we know nothing about yet. Camerawork, image and sound is innovative and a very integral part of the story. The chaotic camera movement and the nauseating sound (intentionally beyond our hearing level) are meant not only to illustrate the state of the characters, but also to scare away those faint at heart. As I said, the director will force those who stay to get involved, but just as in Seul contre tous, he also offers a way out. Many will simply walk out. Those who stay find themselves shocked and confused, by the gradually unfolding but progressively lighter images. The backwards narrative has clear and precise functions in conveying the story. It emphases the irreversibility of the events portrayed precisely by reversing them, showing how our every choice, even the most banal ones, have irreversible consequences. Do you wait for a cab, or decide to walk? Do you intervene when someone is being attacked, or you just walk away? The backwards storyline also results in a transformed, less presumptuous relationship to the characters.
The film gradually gets lighter, and finishes in a cliché-like “perfect state”. While the real events are and remain irreversible, Noé suggests both that art (film) has the possibility of reversing them, and that this reversal remain illusory but necessary to make the horror a bit more bearable. And here I come to my favorite feature of the film, the self-reflexive aspects. I tend to like films about films or the purpose of film making, and this one is a clear case of reflection about the art and/or disease of making movies. Film, being reversible, has the advantage to be a warning without actually having to experience the horror that its characters experience. It can manipulate, make things more bearable (final scenes) and unbearable (murder scene). It is both a reflection on violence and an act of violence in itself, on its viewers. Film, just as violence, is control.
Unfortunately, for some strange reason the film seems to insist on the irreversibility of time, then it seems to suggest that because of this irreversibility “time destroys everything”. I will choose to disregard that as a slip of an otherwise great film. Sure, it is true (but not interesting in itself) that time is irreversible, but it is surely not time that destroys everything.
As always in the case of violence, we have victims, attackers and spectators. Who are the victims? A beautiful woman, living in a comfortable, protected bubble (or so it would seem) who makes a few random, seemingly unimportant choices: to leave a party alone, to walk instead of taking a cab, and not to run away when witnessing a possible aggression in the tunnel. What happens to her after is so brutal that I honestly cannot believe people trying to make up stories about how she had it coming. In fact, anyone can make and constantly makes the choices she has, so she is he random victim by definition, suggesting it could be any of us. The other victim is a customer in the Rectum, who in a confusing delirium is beaten to pulp. No, he is not the rapist, and that’s one of the points, although probably the least interesting. The point here, as I see it, is the person of the perpetrator. The point is how one can become a random attacker. The most peaceful guy of the story too. It is only a question of which situation you find yourself, or allow yourself to be in.
There has always been too much focus on “the two big scenes”, the murder and the rape. Which one is more disturbing? How are people who don’t agree with us on which one is more disturbing? Not that I don’t understand the controversy, as these are without doubt two of the most extreme scenes in cinema ever. It’s just that by insisting on them and taking them out of context, some reduce the film to a gory exercise in pushing the limits. And while this is clearly not far fetched to assume about Noé, it is unfair to the film. As soon as those two scenes are left in their original context, more interesting questions emerge. For example, there was much energy and name-calling wasted on arguing about whether you should feel sick and insensitive if being aroused by the rape scene… But how about asking this: what if that scene was made stylish and ambiguous precisely to induce those confusing feelings? Doesn’t it actually pose questions about the viewer, us, who watch violence all the time? Then they say the scene is too long. Well, have you ever wondered how long does an actual rape take? Certainly much longer than it takes to read about it in a newspaper article or watch a piece of news on TV.
All in all, either you love it or hate it, you must respect a film that basically leaves no neutral viewer.
KUKUSHKA (2002, Aleksandr Rogozhkin)
If you manage to be patient through a very slow start, you will get the most charming, strangely beautiful and funny movie experience. This is a love triangle of a woman and two men who don’t even speak a common language, not to mention their other differences. At the end of the Second World War, a Lapp woman, whose husband left for war and never came back, finds herself with one too many men in her hut. The grumpy, injured Soviet soldier will be her first lover, closely followed by the good looking Finnish student turned soldier. The Russian guy believes the other one is German, while the Finnish guy is exuberant about the end of the war, good news that he tries to share in vain with the others. In one of my favorite scenes he attempts to get his message through with the help of literature, miming Farewell to Arms and then proudly remembering Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
EPIDEMIC (1987, Lars von Trier)
This is Trier’s most personal and self ironic reflection on film making. It also displays the most horrible acting both by him and Jensen, his producer. They play themselves as filmmakers struggling to deliver a “sellable” script to a production company. The story they come up with is of an epidemic of plague, which for a while runs parallel to their own suffering to write a script, but at the end merges in a memorable dinner scene in which fiction bursts itself violently into reality. The doctor of the film within the film believes that it is his true calling and duty to go out of the sealed city to help people suffering from plague. It turns out that far from being a healer, he is actually the one who spreads the plague (so far confined to the city) to the outside world. His good and noble intentions backfire; rather than a savior, he becomes an executioner.
As for Trier and Jensen, they believe, more or less seriously, that they are on a mission to make a film, to express their artistic vision, to reach the world with their art. They oscillate between playful self-irony and ironic self-righteousness. And it turns out that with their art, their film, they unleash a plague to the world that was previously plague-free. Fiction becomes a causal force not to be messed with, having terrible effects on “reality”.
Now, I join others in having no real clue about what Udo Kier and his scenes add to the film as a whole, but I sure love that trip to Germany and the revealing empirical tests about three-colored toothpaste. I could say that scene reveals how art draws slim and superficial colors to the “body” of the real, making it seem colorful when it is actually monochrome. But I’m not going to say that, because it is just ridiculous to say that. The most plausible thing is that they just wanted Kier to be in the film, just as filmmakers often make up characters and stories just to include in the movie-making process their friends and/or favorite actors. Also, one must applaud the distribution of ministries among doctors, it’s hilarious!
RENGETEG (2003, Fliegauf Benedek)
Ever since I can remember I was fascinated by dense city crowds. Not to be in a crowd, I have a strong phobia about that, but to try to imagine how many different lives and worlds exist closely around us. I would just watch the vast Communist blocks of flats and allow myself to be struck by the though of infinite diversity, complexity and difference of people and their experiences. The thought had the same effect on me as watching the stars and trying to grasp the sky. I felt the same sentiment captured perfectly in Fliegauf’s film. Of course, I know, it’s probably not even about this, but I don’t care. So the film employs a simple but ingenuous tool to give faces to a crowd. At the beginning, we see a footage filmed in a metro station of people walking by. You see a crowd, not people. Then we see a series of more or less intriguing short stories about different people. And in the end, the same footage from the beginning is shown, but now you don’t see a crowd anymore, because now you know too much, you cannot help but recognize the people as people. This format is also the best possible choice for a director who before this only made short films, as it allows him to show off his talent in short story telling, but also to link and merge the episodes into one single point (assuming he has one, even if it’s different from mine).
If anyone has a good idea about what was in the trunk of the car, please leave a reply at the bottom of this page!
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008, Charlie KAufman)
This is a twisted story, Charlie Kaufman style, roughly about intellectual doubts, fear of death, obsession and inevitable failure. Of course. Just like other Kaufmann scripts, this one also has innumerable small details that will amaze, annoy and amuse us. Like the numerous parallels between one’s body and one’s house, which I simply adored. But to me, it excels by capturing that nauseating sense of feeling compelled to give our life some sense or final purpose or the like, and the doubt (first), then the certainty that this is not possible. The main character (Philip Seymour Hoffman was made for the role) is a theater director who between his estranged family and accumulating hypochondria becomes obsessed with delivering that one perfect piece of art that would reflect, express and interpret reality as a whole. In the meantime, of course, he lets his life slip by him, although he is too smart not to notice that. But the compulsion and the delusion that he can capture the whole of reality in a fictitious part is way too powerful to allow any turning back. We know he is failing, he knows he is failing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. And then he dies. I was deeply disappointed at the hint that he actually finally realizes everything right before he dies. This felt forced, unnecessary, preaching.
Charlie Kaufman should stick to writing though, and should have given this script to either Michel Gondry or Spike Jones, like he did with his previous ones. The film is very uneven in rhythm and drags on forever after already clearly making its point, adding more and more layers to it that do not actually add any more depth or insight. I have defended this feature of the film when others pointed it out by “arguing” that it’s just like the rhythm of life, fast and pacing when we are young, and gradually slowing down into bitter, obsessive, and desperate repetitions that become more and more ridiculous in their attempt to “still do something about our life”. But I only said that because I love the film.
DAS WEISSE BAND – EINE DEUTSCHE KINDERGESHICHTE (2009, Michael Haneke)
Haneke, at his best, delivers a unique insight into past and current educational principles, by telling a story about a German village, more precisely its children, on the verge of World War One. The most obvious point is that these children will grow up to be the Nazi generation. But this aspect of the film is really just one on the surface. Haneke’s aim is obviously to ask more universal questions about how children perceive the world around them, how much or how little they understand of it, how they interpret it. A loud warning, if there ever was one, against underestimating children, and/or trying to “protect” or “educate” them through interdictions rather than explanations. Especially religious gibberish is shown to resonate in weird ways in the young ones, who walk on edges to give God a chance to kill them for masturbating, or decide to punish the sins of the fathers on their children. Possibly the most uncanny character is the preacher’s daughter, who at a young age is shown to have already mastered to perfection the art of guessing what grown-ups want to hear. Incredible, breath-taking acting by everyone in the film, especially the children, makes one ask some questions about how much they did or didn’t understand of the film they played in. How much and how did they explain this film to the child actors?
SEUL CONTRE TOUS (1998, Gaspar Noé)
Noé’s first feature film, and what a first feature it is! It should definitely be viewed together with the short film Carne, which contains the premises of the events. The story of a butcher with a mentally ill daughter is especially powerful because of the uneasy, never ceasing, obsessive internal monologue that has an almost choking effect on the viewer. The perfect acting of Philippe Nahon and the building certainty that something awful is bound to happen makes this film without a lot of action into a suspenseful trip down into the depths of madness, anger and incestuous desire. Noé is also kind enough to warn the viewers to get out of the cinema 30 seconds before their awful premonitions become true on screen. Then he counts down, and hits us with a disturbing finish pure Noé-style.
STRINGS (2004, Anders Rønnow Klarlund)
A rare Danish gem even among the rare Danish gems, this is a puppet-movie, literary. Perfectly crafted wooden puppets play a kind of fairy tale (suicidal and spooky), asking questions about who is pulling their strings, who is manufacturing them and what happens when you try to cut your strings. The most beautiful idea though is that love is when your strings get entangled somewhere with someone else’s strings and you can no longer do anything without moving and affecting each other.
GEGEN DIE WAND (2004, Fatih Akin)
Maybe it’s just the incredible charisma and chemistry between the two main actors that makes this such a powerful love story. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s the sadness, the sensation of lack of control. Certainly Akin’s most ripe film, the one that truly shows his talent. If you, like me, find the two actors incredible and set out to look for other films with them, a quick warning. Sibel Kikkel has made tons of porn, while Birol Ünel tons of really bad movie decisions.
BATALLA EN EL CIELO (2005, Carlos Reygadas)
The surprisingly underrated Mexican director Carlos Reygadas sets out to disturb by masterfully linking sexuality and religious fanaticism. You must also appreciate his challenge on the Hollywood-induced presupposition that only young and beautiful people have sex, while older or more overweight bodies should be confined under covers and in dark rooms. Most people were disturbed about the “young, beautiful, rich girl giving a blow-job to her ugly, old driver” issue, but for me nothing can be more disturbing than a couple crawling on their knees in an excess of religious zeal, with their children on their shoulders.
PERSONA (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
There isn’t much left to say about this one. It is certainly just as painfully honest and moving as everyone has already noted everywhere. Yes, it will go under your skin, haunt your thoughts and puzzle you forever. Plus it contains the most powerful erotic scene ever told (and not shown) in a film.
NARAYAMA BUSHIKO (1959, Keishuke Kinoshita)
In a remote village somewhere in legendary space and time, the hardships of life and the lack of food has nurtured a cruel tradition: people that turn 70 are taken to a mountain top by their children, and left to die. The rough naturalism combined with dreamlike symbolism makes this story a unique combination of laughter and pain, while intentionally refraining from passing judgments either way on the sensitive issue it portrays.
WERCKMEISTER HARMÓNIÁK (2000, Tarr Béla)
The most beautiful silences on film, the most emotionally charged and dramatic camera (un)movement, the most anxious waiting, and so on. Call it pretentious, call it intellectual masturbation, but… you are just wrong. It amazes me when people complaining that this film doesn’t take the viewer into consideration or that it fails to explain itself and or that it fails to entertain. It’s like complaining that one cannot dance to architecture (yes, this is a movie line, greetings to those who know which one).