Your favorite things say something about you, whether you know it or not. I like A Serious Man because (aside from, you know, everything else) it perfectly captures the feeling of small-town homeliness, that which my town exudes. I like Philadelphia roll sushi because it’s my favorite fish, fruit (yes, avocados are fruit!), and condiment all in one little bite.
So what does the fact that the drug-doing, real-sex-scene-filming, controversy-creating French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noé is my favorite director about me? Best not to dwell on that.
Great directors like Haneke and McQueen play on the mind, but Noé plays on the senses. Loud, fast music, bright, flashing lights (EXTREME EPILEPSY WARNING FOR EVERY MOVIE ON THIS LIST!!!), unhearable tones that make you sick — he’s a clever bastard, and he knows it. The Coens are a fun “haha, he pulled a gun in a bowling alley!” pair of directors, and Kelly Reichardt is a lovely “it’s just her and her dog, that’s sweet” filmmaker, but Noé is more of the “dear God, either make it stop or shoot me” kind of guy. So enough of these “wholesome” filmmakers — it’s time to get our hands dirty, and dig into the really disturbing stuff. This is every film by my favorite director, ranked.
5. Love (2015)
I don’t like sex scenes. Not because I’m an idiot who vomits in my mouth when I see two boys kissing in a film and then deafens my theater cheering when Ryan Gosling crushes some poor dude’s head, but because most of the time, they don’t serve a point. Yes, Shame is pure brilliance, and The Handmaiden is one of the films I have seen that handles the (often fetishized) scenes featuring two women well, but most of the time, exploitative garbage like Blue is the Warmest Color is what I think of when I think “bad sex scene.” Even Lars “okay, I’m a nazi” Von Trier is guilty of this. So when I realized what I was in for when I sat down to watch Love, having done no research prior, I sighed and laid back on my couch, ready to be bored.
And bored I was!
Noé films are often bonkers. Absolute nutjob movies that pull you right in until you want to leave. They ride off of the chaos they create and run you over in the process. I did want to turn off Love, but not because I was sick, but because I was more annoyed than anything.
Love follows Murphy, an American man who lives in Paris, married and a father. When he gets a call from his ex-girlfriend’s mother saying she’w missing, Murphy can’t help her, but this call sparks a series of memories involving him and his ex’s relationship, how it started, and how it ended. Almost the entire movie is one long flashback.
This is not a good idea for how to set up your movie.
Noé likes to mess around with structure. It’s kind of his thing, after all. But it’s mayyybe a problem when a movie that’s literally about a dead guy floating around in the sky flows better than such a basic story. It’s predictable as hell, and it’s not clever about it either. Gaspar has never relied on crazy twists and turns in his stories, but at least they include interesting scenarios? No one watches the good Gaspar Noé movies for the sex scenes (unless they’re the grossest type of person imaginable who probably watched Saló for the same reason), but that’s unfortunately the meat (ha) of this movie. God knows why he thought it would be cool to bring back the Void “watching sex from inside the woman” shot, and what a surprise, it doesn’t work! At least thirty minutes of this movie is people having actual sex on camera, and it’s just…nah. This is basically a porno with good camerawork, (mostly) good acting, and great colors. The only thing that makes this an “alright, that wasn’t bad” movie is the last ten to fifteen minutes, which are honestly pretty brilliant — Noé tends to nail the endings, so that’s not a surprise. Everything else? Take it or leave it. You can do better than this one.
4. I Stand Alone (1998)
Taxi Driver’s cool, huh? Robert De Niro! Guns! Society! BLAM BLAM BLAM! Awesome!
Gaspar Noé saw Taxi Driver and thought “Hmm, not realistic enough.”
I Stand Alone is just that — Taxi Driver if De Niro was a fat, balding, racist, homophobic asshole whose goal was not to assassinate a politician — just to kill a few guys who were mean to him. The Butcher is a dick, and that’s pretty much all there is to him. Perhaps this is just me, but I like watching awful people be awful without doing something actually illegal. It’s like watching the world’s dumbest racist — they’re too stupid to do anything, but the hateful things they spout make them look so ignorant that it’s funny. That’s what it’s like watching this guy. He wanders the streets, muttering about racial slur this and bitch that, but it’s so off-kilter and lame that’s it’s…kind of hilarious? Easily the only Noé movie with parts that I would dare to chuckle at.
It’s probably the most story-less of his filmography, with practically no pacing — that’s not a problem, in my opinion. It contributes to the breakneck editing of the film, the shots jumping everywhere and giving the viewer no time to adjust. It’s got a great soundtrack, and it’s pretty intense overall, even if some of the more serious scenes are lacking in execution. The camera zooms and flips zanily, adding to the whole element of discord pretty flawlessly. And of course, just when you start to feel just a little bad for The Butcher, the ending comes along and doesn’t sweep the rug — it burns it.
It’s short, it’s (not) sweet, and it’s pretty good — even if it’s nowhere near what’s to come.
3. Irreversible (2002)
Man, where do I even start with this one?
It’s a movie that lives in infamy. I’m not going to be dancing around the subject matter or making any jokes — this movie features the most brutal rape scene I’ve ever witnessed, and the second most brutal scene of all time. (After the scissors scene in Antichrist.) It’s a twelve minute uncut scene. The character goes into an overpass (two minutes), it happens (8 minutes), the character gets the shit beaten out of her (2 minutes).
If you read the plot synopsis and never see the movie (which is completely understandable), you might think this is some trashy, baseless torture-porn movie, à la I Spit on Your Grave, but it is absolutely not of that caliber. Instead, Irreversible marks itself as one of the most intense yet thoughtful (if not the only — can YOU think of any movies that actually portray something like this without seeming horrible?) executions of this concept ever made.
I’m not going out of my way to spoil the structure of this film (and I would avoid as many synopses as possible if you want to go in blind, as most of them give it away), but I do think I should call attention to the way this movie is filmed. Every scene is one long, uncut take, and at the end of every scene, the camera turns towards the night sky or a dark corner to mask the cut and the next scene starts, giving the impression that the film is all one take, back when it was a novel idea and not something to use for Oscar bait. (Thanks, 1917!)
As an extra “you can take my third finger and you know where to shove it” gesture by our man Gaspar, he made a funny little decision to put inaudible 28 Hz tones in the background for the first 30 minutes of the film — 28 Hz tones causing nausea, of course. Three people passed out when this debuted at Cannes, and now you know why. You can look anywhere in the shots of crowds of people, and everyone is doing something convincing.
I could go on — I could talk about how I had to take a break after the scene where I just sat on the closed lid of my toilet for ten minutes before my legs unfroze and I got some water, I could cite the dozens of people who’ve told me that they could never, ever watch this film — but that’d just stroke Gaspar’s ego. The hundreds of people who find this film horrific (and those are the ones who haven’t even seen it) are enough for him, don’t you think?
2. Climax (2018)
Back when I was but a wee YMS (popular YouTube film reviewer) clone who started and ended all my terrible, monotone Instagram “reviews” the same way he did, I saw a video of his. He went to Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and saw at least 20 movies, and the last one was Climax. His video made it sound wildly enticing. By then, my father was at least willing to try movies I begged him to go see — I had convinced him to take me to The Favourite and was pleased to find that he enjoyed it — so when I managed to get him to take me to see this one too, neither of us really knew what we were getting into. Noé wasn’t “director of Enter the Void, master of chaos, my absolute favorite filmmaker” yet, he was just…some French guy.
If you haven’t seen this film and want context on how crazy it is, the reaction to telling some of my film friends that I saw Climax in theaters WITH my father was something along the lines of “What the fuck?”
Climax is about a group of dancers in the mid 90s who hang out in an abandoned school during a snowstorm to rehearse one of their numbers. After the day is done, they unwind with some sangria and ED music — but someone’s spiked their drink with powerful LSD. You’ve read three reviews of this guy’s movies already, you can guess the general direction of where this is going.
One thing my dad pointed out when we were in the car (the first few minutes of leaving the theater was spent in complete silence) was that there was a constant energy to the film. After an 8 minute long introduction through a series of VHS tapes (you can see tons of movie cases surrounding the television — I only managed to catch Daria Argento’s dance-themed horror film Suspiria), a sped up remix of Cerrone’s “Supernature” blares through the speakers, and everyone’s having a great time. Tons of awesome synchronized dances moves, lots of excited yelling, whooping and hollering — it makes you want to dance with them. And while that energy cools a little while the dancers talk about sex, drugs, and various other things, the LSD is just kicking in, and it’s time for that energy to come back soon. Around fifty minutes into the film, the dancers have formed a circle and are performing (completely improvised) dances one at a time, and just because he can, that’s where Noé decides to put the opening credits.
It’s a wild, disorienting experience that thrives on the color red (red dance floors, red emergency lights, lots of red clothing), and it works very well. Thomas Bangalter’s soundtrack only gets crazier and crazier as the film goes along, and oh yeah, did I mention the forty-two minute long take? The level of detail is even crazier — take Irreversible’s direction of extras and apply it to twenty-six characters, all of them having to dance — and no matter where you look, no one is repeating moves, no one is standing still. I made a little game out of the opening dance number — keep your eyes on one character throughout and watch them go. I have yet to see one that isn’t active at all times.
Noé claims most of his films are based on nightmares, and yeah, this one checks out.
1. Enter the Void (2009)
It’s gonna be hard to talk about this one. Not because it’s a sensitive subject matter like Irreversible, but because it’s in my top 5 of all time (number four, to be exact), and writing about movies that I hold in that high regard is hard. I mean, what else is there to say about them except “it’s good”?
There’s probably more.
Oscar is an American who lives in Tokyo with his sister. He goes to a bar to sell some acid, and his buyer rats him out to the cops. He locks himself in the bathroom and tries to flush his products, bluffing that he has a gun and will shoot — and then he gets shot in the chest through the door. As he collapses on the floor and dies, the camera rises above his body — then turns upwards into the bathroom light and floats inside of it, freeing his spirit to wander the neon-drenched nightlife of Tokyo. Throughout the next 2 hours and thirty minutes, we see Oscar’s past and present, loosely strung together and barely cohesive.
Enter the Void is shot in subjective POV, which means the camera is a character’s eyes, a technique first utilized in 1947’s Lady in the Lake. (Coincidentally the film Noé watched on acid that inspired this one.) It’s used pretty brilliantly — when Oscar is alive, there are post production “blink” effects in random intervals, and when we see a flashback, we stay in Oscar’s perspective, but also focus on the back of his head. (An example of which can be seen in the provided shot.) It’s become famous for its opening credits — first ambient noise playing while the production company credits quite literally flash by, at least two screens per second — before the midpoint of LFO’s “Freak” kicks in and the cast and crew go by with at least three screens per second, before ending on the word “ENTER”. It perfectly sets the tone for the film — it’s both chaotic but almost passive, not like a nightmare, more like the weirdest dream you’re ever going to have, and probably never forget.
Just like the previous two films, I had an interesting experience with this one. I had seen Climax and most certainly loved it, I hadn’t yet worked up the courage to see Irreversible, I didn’t like the look of Love (and oh, how right I was), and I didn’t know what to make of I Stand Alone. But someone had uploaded a copy of Enter the Void to YouTube, so I seized the moment. The only problem was, I seized it at 11 PM on a Friday in my bed. I was thirsty, so I got a can of Sprite and had downed two more by the time the movie was over (I just remembered at least one of my parents read all my reviews — I didn’t spill any, I swear), leaving me to stay up at least an hour longer thinking oh shit, is that what happens?
Noé probably would’ve approved.
I’ve been waiting for a good time to say this, but this has, bar maybe one, the best cinematography I’ve ever seen. Perfect cinematography balances three things — colors, camerawork, and, um, some synonym for movement that starts with c. Cmovement? The sound mixing is phenomenal, some of the best I’ve ever heard, and the ending, my God. It’s this perfect balancing act of the two different senses that movies can affect — sight and sound.
Enter the Void is challenging to watch, with plenty of scenes focused on sex and nudity, and, you know, the constant flashing lights. It’s what Noé does best — chaos with excellent quality.
Where to find these films as of publication (US REGION ONLY):
Love: Purchase on Amazon or Microsoft
Irreversible: Stream on Hoopla, Vudu Free, Tubi, or Pluto TV, purchase on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, or Vudu
Climax: Stream on Prime, purchase on Amazon, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, DirectTV, or Microsoft
Enter the Void: Purchase on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, or Microsoft