Round Two / Noe – Monica, please don’t take that underpass!
A cinema auteur’s individual films, because they are so often built upon a distinct world view, can look uncannily similar when lined up one against the other. Just as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s earlier films pave the way for those with which he rounded off his career, South American-born Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (1998) sets the stage for his highly contentious Irreversible (2002).
Broadly speaking, his work has been lumped among what goes by the name of cinéma du corps – ‘cinema of the body’. This is not to be mistaken with the avant-garde though there are affinities. Tim Palmer, in his essay Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body, has listed among its characteristics an attenuated use of narrative, assaulting and often illegible cinematography, confrontational subject material and a pervasive sense of social nihilism or despair. Elsewhere this has been referred to as the New French Extremity movement.
The main character in I Stand Alone, the Butcher, is a bug on a slide without even the faintest control over his life. In his helplessness he resorts to anger, hatred and violence. But despite the sickness of his outbursts he is relatively small fry compared to some of the lowlifes who cruise the clubs and alleys of the later Irreversible. The Butcher is rather like their cousin, or little brother, itching to join them in the major league.
Noe talked some heavy-duty European stars into appearing in his feature, among them Italy’s Monica Bellucci and the Frenchmen Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel. Bellucci is a classic sultry starlet, a model and actress, in the mould of some Italian leading ladies who have preceded her. You may want to think more Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida than her namesake Monica (the lovely Vitti, one-time muse of Michelangelo Antonioni). She clearly possesses a degree of acting ability even if some of her male directors have been content to play largely upon that voluptuous full figure.
Bertrand Blier’s use of her in How Much Do You Love Me? (2005), where she stars as a high-class hooker hired on an indefinite basis as the live-in mate of a man who nets a small fortune in a lottery, is a case in point. Monica is variously depicted naked, or thereabouts, and in assorted states of sexual congress. More than once, in character, she also beautifully feigns orgasm; in one scene her character is justly taken to task for shamming the delicious cries.
Given this more, shall we say, traditional use of the actress, Noe’s presentation of her is interesting. He too plays on the luscious femme proud of her sexuality and not afraid to revel in it. But it is what becomes of that femininity during Irreversible that upsets the applecart in spectacular fashion.
Among God’s more perverse creatures are those who cannot see beauty without wishing to tarnish or destroy it outright. And one of the most repulsive but not uncommon cinematic ‘tropes’ is that of the brutalisation of the beautiful (or widely held to be beautiful) female.
Based on the theorem that an autuer’s work accurately reflects their creator, in certain quarters even a director of the calibre of Ingmar Bergman was labelled a misogynist. While he certainly depicted women who were uncomfortable with their sexuality to the point of self-loathing, his males were frequently cut from the same cloth and inhabited their own skins with as much unease. In any case his ‘misogyny’ appears benign compared to that running through the films of Noe.
Monica’s rapist in Irreversible is one of those abovementioned depraved creatures. Not content with simply raping her, he then does his utmost to disfigure her beyond hope of redemption. One can visualise cinema patrons upping and leaving the auditoriums in droves when it becomes clear they are to witness everything la bella donna goes through in this single-take orgy of pure hatred. One can hear the general lament: if only I could have reversed my actions as simply as Noe reverses the action of his film, specifically the steps that brought me to the ticket box a while ago.
To digress a moment, referring again to Bergman, his 1958 film The Virgin Spring also depicts a rape. Like Noe’s, it is a savage scene, but whereas Noe captures the action from a short distance, the Swedish director largely films his depiction in close, relying on quick edits and furious action within the contours of the frame. Overall, Bergman’s rape is as subtle as Noe’s is in-your-face yet it loses none of its ferocity for that.
In essence the characters in Noe’s film are as incapacitated as the Butcher in I Stand Alone. Reversing the chronology means that touching scenes follow the hideous. We see Monica and her lover in playful interludes, are with her in a park while she reads in peace. But after what we have witnessed these episodes are the cinematic equivalent of twisting the blade of an embedded knife.
If only Monica had not decided to bail out ahead of time of the party that she attends with her lover and their friend. If only she had not gone down that dreaded underpass. Alas, the ‘ifs’ keep recurring. One might argue that we would then not have had a movie. That being so what would we have missed? Perhaps it would be better to consider what ugly sights our overloaded, weary eyes would have been spared. Leaving aside the fact that all of it is illusion or stitched together special effects.
Reversing the irreversible:
It bears repeating: everyday decisions do not ordinarily have cataclysmic ramifications. As in Kieslowski, as in Noe, the room to move and breathe is minimal. Knee-jerk reactions are common, self-reflection at a premium. What can be going through the minds of directors like these? Do they have so little to say? But before we throw up our hands in despair, let’s imagine in a way that may allow us to find some sorely needed oxygen.
First, it is worth keeping something in mind. If one were to think in literary terms, a feature film is the rough equivalent of a novella, a short film more or less equal to a short story. Both usually present ‘slices’ of life, unlike novels, which can and often do encompass the gamut of a character’s existence. The characters’ lives in feature films and novellas may not end at the final scene / page. We can, as we are entitled to, imagine them going on.
How might we think of Monica in Irreversible? What sort of state beyond the frame might we imagine for her? Okay. I am unable to think of time in linear terms. I am a creature of the present moment. To the extent that the concepts of ‘past’ and ‘future’ resonate with me at all, everything that happened in the past happened ‘yesterday’. Everything to come I consign to the category ‘tomorrow’.
Watching someone get their head crushed to a pulp with a fire extinguisher in Irreversible I feel nauseated. Seeing Monica raped and bashed my reaction is the same; more intense even because by this stage of the show I have invested something in her character on an emotional level. And make no mistake about it, I have shared her experience. I have been pulverised too.
But this creature of the eternal present that I am then sees her as both loved and loving, a woman in repose, at one with the world. What I witnessed before has gone; it belongs to ‘yesterday’. I leave the cinema in high spirits. Monica is well and happy. Glowing. Her life is fine. Understanding this, I can envisage for her a blissful ‘tomorrow’.
So, sorry to say, Gaspar, the irreversible has been reversed. Better luck next time, Seňor Director!
This round to liberty! One round apiece.
Round Three / Inarritu – always crashing in the same car, more or less!
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s legacy is far-reaching. Film-makers from many corners of the globe, both around the time the Polish director was active and in the years since, have produced works with a narrative construction founded upon coincidence and the encounters of disparate individuals. In a fashion Kieslowski might have approved of, these chance interminglings often have devastating consequences.
It is hard not to think of KK, for instance, when viewing some of the films of, say, the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. 21 Grams (2003) deals with a college professor, an ex-con trying to stay on the straight and narrow and a young mother with a far from spotless past. A hit and run killing sets the ball rolling. This entire film, with its heavy reliance on fast, MTV-like editing, resembles a car wreck. Or the experience of viewing it is a bit like being present at a wreck. Really one would prefer to look aside but it is difficult to do so.
Yes, life may turn on a dime. In a blinding flash one’s existence might downward spiral not unlike those of the characters in the film. But do we not already know that such is the nature of this speckled creation, that a person’s individual karma could set the scene for unimagined shocks?
Alejandro was at it similarly with the production funds in Amores Perros (2000). This film too spins on a wreck. And so to the interwoven characters and destinies: a young man in love with his pregnant sister-in-law, a perfume spokeswoman and her married lover, and a vagrant who makes some cash on the side as a paid killer. Till the bingle unites them, the only link is the dogs they care for.
To his credit, the director refines his vision somewhat in Babel (2006), even if there is still a ‘starring vehicle’. A deft shot from a rifle halts a tourist bus in its tracks in the Moroccan desert, a shot moreover that seriously injures an American woman on board. The resultant intertwining is more assured and better handled. The international pandemonium that ensues from this terrorist incident that is not a terrorist incident is highly tenable in a psychotic post 11 / 9 age.
The members of the heterogeneous group this time include a troubled American husband and wife, a Japanese father (the original owner of the gun) and his daughter, and the Mexican housekeeper and guardian of the married couple’s children. All, but especially Chieko, the daughter, and Amelia, the unfortunate housekeeper, are well drawn. When the characters are this empathetic we can go an extra yard in allowing for coincidence. In an era of globalisation, Babel is a good example of a global film.
Blind chance takes the round! Leads two to one.
Round Four / Perelman – couldn’t they have settled for joint ownership?!
Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog (2003), from the novel of the same name (a one-time Oprah Winfrey pick, interestingly enough), is a hard film to ingest and not only because Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is way down on her luck in the lead female role. In a revealing sequence on the periphery of the main narrative, she kids about with a young child in a diner – as perfect strangers will often do with the children of couples unknown to them.
All is proceeding innocently enough until the girl’s parents begin sizing up their fellow patron as if they fear she could well be Oregon’s next serial killer waiting to happen, or if not that then the occupant of a high berth on America’s Most Wanted list. Poor Kathy! Such incidents do nothing to prop up her fragile self-confidence and self-esteem.
But her determination to forge a better life receives its greatest challenge from another breed of ‘stranger’ altogether, Sir Ben Kingsley’s Massoud, an Iranian resident of the United States. He, plainly, is not about to go away as easily as the mistrustful couple in the diner.
The sticking point between them being the titular house, her homeless woman and his immigrant on the rise and desperate to ascend higher collide head-on. Both are so uncompromisingly ‘themselves’ in their thoughts and actions that a denouement different to the tragic one that comes to pass is inconceivable. This inability to stand back and dispassionately ponder the upshot of one’s actions is a deficiency that afflicts many of the characters.
The most stupid of these abettors to the leading duo is Lester, the policeman who takes a shine to Kathy and subsequently throws his weight behind her cause. His patent unfitness to see beyond his self-assigned role is extraordinary, even among such a crowd. Here and there, actions become so predictable they nearly provoke laughter, which is hardly the sentiment the film-makers were seeking to imbue given the film’s overall tenor.
Sir Ben Kingsley’s comment likening this story to classical tragedy is fanciful. Was he being tongue in cheek? Classical tragedy often features Creon-, Macbeth- or Lear-like figures who, far from punching in the dark, know exactly what they are doing when they tempt fate and upset the natural order of the universe.
Their tragedy lies in the fact that they proceed full steam ahead anyway, thereby inviting the wholesale wrath of the gods – something they have erroneously believed they could escape. What makes Perelman’s film such a tall order is the fact that his characters are singularly bereft of self-knowledge. They can only view themselves as they view themselves, not as others might.
The most striking ‘coincidence’ in this film is the preponderance of characters suffering from the same myopia. (A notable exception, a character with a bit of humility and brain matter, is Massoud’s understanding spouse.) That so many in one narrative possess in roughly equal measure the identical inadequacy makes for quite a brew. The outcome is deadening all round.
Blind chance again! Three to one.