Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Irreversible and Salo (2002/1975) Films by Gaspar Noé and Pier Paolo Pasolini
French Director Gaspar Noé specializes in dishing out horrible experiences. Even if you consider yourself to be an especially audacious spectator of extreme cinema, Noé will manage to shock you out of your wits. Uniquely, this is not to say he is a poor director. In what is widely considered to be the apotheosis of Noé's expectation-bending oeuvre, Irreversible (2002) boasts considerable technical skill, comprised of only 12 excruciatingly tense, semi-improvised shots that tell a revenge tale in reverse. Within ten minutes of the film, there is no question that Noé is a filmmaker who is giddily willing to push boundaries, even if that means inducing severe headstrain in the face of topsy-turvy cinematography that careens around a seedy alleyway as if from the point of view of someone who had way too many drinks. Without a doubt this type of singularity should always be a breath of fresh air. However, once Noé's camera plunges into the depths of a homosexual nightclub called "The Rectum" to capture one of, if not the most unrelentingly savage sequence in cinema history, one wonders what the purpose of originality is if it's used for something so cruel. Significantly, that's not even the end of it; since we are given subliminal clues as to what happened before the events onscreen, we can only brace ourselves for what's to come.
My experience of watching Irreversible reminded me obliquely of the only other film I've seen that has disturbed me so profoundly: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Although the two films were made in such distinct contexts - Italy in the 1970's and France in the 21st century - their unique ability to boost cinema to a level of uncontested vileness is something they share. Pasolini's film took on a more political urgency when it was made, focusing in on a group of perverted Fascist officials who subject a large group of kidnapped teenagers to brutal physical and sexual torture in a remote mansion in Nazi-occupied Italy. Constructed of a series of painfully detached tableaux, Pasolini works up to a rhythm of aloof symmetrical compositions that are all the more horrifying for their absence of directorial intervention. When the head dignitary forces a young blond to eat her own fecal matter, Pasolini's static camera sits like a dead duck, disallowing our eyes to wander.
This type of voyeuristic gaze is another element that Irreversible and Salò share. Whereas Pasolini at least settles into a groove of detachment so that we know what's coming, Noé prefers only to cease the camera's perpetual whirl when there is something terrible to look at. The culmination of the "Rectum" club scene is a still, sideways view of brutal manslaughter: the film's "protagonist", Marcus (Vincent Cassel), pummels a man's skull with a fire extinguisher. Marcus' reason for doing so is observed a few scenes down the road in an even more notorious effrontery as the narrative rewinds in a manner similar to that of Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000). His girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) regrettably passes through a deserted subway underpass before being stopped by a tough womanizer known to the mob community as "Le Tenia", who violently beats and rapes her in a terrifyingly realistic shot that lasts just short of ten minutes. In moments of evil, Noé and Pasolini are challenging our complicity as viewers. Our inability to help the characters onscreen mirrors our blindness to such events in reality, as grim naturalism seems to be rooted in both of the films, albeit more pointedly in Irreversible.
The presentation of objectivity, Noé and Pasolini wisely realize, is therefore capable of the greatest debilitation. More so than manipulative "horror" films that make an audience jump by venturing into the unknown, Irreversible and Salò prove to us that in order to get under a viewer's skin the deepest, the best method is to insist on a front seat to such matter-of-fact depravity. After all, one question that both filmmakers seem to prioritize is "what is considered acceptable to show?" and furthermore, "what does it mean for an image to be acceptable?" Noé and Pasolini function by the credo "if it could happen or has happened, the audience needs to be aware". It is no mistake that the miserable dehumanization of the teenagers in Salò occurs in a Nazi-occupied territory, linking their degradation explicitly to that of the Jews during the Holocaust. More abstract but no less substantial is Pasolini's integration of Marquis De Sade's controversial 18th century text The 120 Days of Sodom, from which the film version takes its shape. Pasolini loosely visualizes Sade's words - which were written while imprisoned - in his own contemporary context to prevent them from being tied down to one specific generation. Evil, he implies, can exist anywhere, anytime.
Noé undoubtedly agrees, but his film contains a bit more specificity, which obviously provokes a different reaction. An essential distinction between the two films is the two types of affliction they elicit in the viewer. Given Salò's highly deliberate pacing and calculated visuals, it is no surprise that its effect is more cerebral. By the end of it, and it is no quick endeavor at 145 minutes, one is left with a gaping lack of humanity, thus its aftermath is more fundamental and dehumanizing. I've neglected to mention thus far that Irreversible's provocations do not come without their warm, tender counterparts at the end, or rather, the beginning, and therefore we are not simply conned by quasi-pornographic nonsense. Regardless, its first 45 minutes are more viscerally intense than any single scene in Salò. For instance, during the "Rectum" sequence, Noé layers an unsettling percussive industrial drone over his already manic camerawork that bounces furiously from Marcus's angry expression, the dim red lights of the club, fragmented gay sex, and the genuinely unnerving scowls of the onlookers. The result is a sequence that defies the viewer to sit through its entirety, no matter how much of a disturbing sensory overload it becomes.
Salò is more of a homogeneous experience in the sense that there is rarely an individual scene that is particularly harsher than any other. Instead, it is the creepy persistence of anti-emotionality in the visages of the four head Fascists that ratchets up the terror. Never do their expressions change, whether they are anal raping a teenager, leading a competition among the victims for the finest behind, or observing through peepholes as their cohorts put on the finishing touches in the excruciating denouement. The closest they come to genuine emotion is the Duke's robotic sneer that is seen several times in close-up, but we still never get the sense that it is anything more than a mechanized response to his own sadistic acts. Irreversible at least treats us to some good old fashioned human feeling: vengeance, anger, debauchery, even love and compassion in the end. Pasolini, being an oppressed individual himself - as a filmmaker, he was put into exile consistently for his racy films - was too strict with his execution and intent to provide the audience with anything familiar to latch onto. He wanted to display without any restraint the capacity for evil within the human soul.
Cumulatively, the two films show more naked human flesh than a doctor is likely to see in his entire career. Irreversible flaunts it so routinely that it becomes unsurprising whereas Salò materializes the physical body, reducing the strategically placed figures to pawns on a chess board, forever inferior to the dominant Kings. On that note, Salò is almost, dare I say, recommendable for its formal rigor; nearly every composition is of intense mathematical symmetry. Similarly, if one can handle the arduousness of Irreversible, what emerges is a thought-provoking study of the nature of time, littered with unbelievably difficult set pieces. "Enter at your own risk" though is really the motto here - which is certainly something I should have given more credence to when I brushed off the warning sticker emblazoned on both film's DVD covers - because the effects that the two films have on the viewer is potentially irreversible as well. They are "scarier" than any film in the horror genre, if only for the fact that they convincingly reveal the abysmal depths to which humans can descend.