When I tell people about Gaspar Noé’s films (likely often enough to constitute a social faux pas), I like to include a recent anecdote that, I think, sums up the Franco-Argentine director’s appeal: In an interview with the Guardian for Climax, the director asked the interviewer how many Cannes Festival attendees walked out during the screening. When the interviewer responds, ‘Around six or seven’, Noé is distraught: ‘Aw man, no, no, no! … I usually have 25% of the audience walking out.’ Telling people this, for me, usually results in them walking out of the conversation.
Noé wants to provoke strong reactions from his audience. He doesn’t want complacency. If everybody applauds politely and publishes glowing reviews, the film is a failure. Climax, as opposed to the surrealistically indulgent Enter the Void and the infamously shocking Irreversible, is probably his most enjoyable movie yet, I’m sorry to say. Though, I reckon he’d be tickled to hear that I spotted a woman doubled over, dry heaving and clutching her stomach as she ran out of Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, after one of the first acts of violence in the movie.
I hope it’s clear that, by talking around the movie instead of reviewing it, I’m communicating that the appeal of this movie, or any of Noé’s, is in knowing as little as possible before watching it. It’s about a dance troupe celebrating their admittance into a prestigious dance school by drinking sangria and dancing all night. Soon, Selva (Sofia Boutella) and her friends begin to remark they feel a little strange. The movie features mesmerising dance numbers early on, as Noé receives his tremendous performers (including burgeoning superstar Boutella) in long, dreamy takes with a handheld camera. This is followed by increasingly addled conversation and a nightmarish descent into violence, accusations and people left in the snow to freeze. Best enjoyed with a couple of unspiked drinks by your side and a gnawing sense of dread.
Let the Corpses Tan
French directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have been lauded for their previous efforts to modernise Giallo films, an Italian movement in the 60s and 70s that made artistic and surreal endeavours out of slashers, mysteries and thrillers, bringing arthouse flair to once-maligned film genres. The directing duo’s (partners in work and life) previous efforts Amer (2010) and The Strange Color of Your Bodies Tears (2014) are some of the most exciting movies made in the past ten years. Through style-conscious shooting techniques and utterly fragmented narratives, they’ve established new ways of telling stories in film that other filmmakers and the critics who write about them simply haven’t caught up with yet.
Their latest, Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez Bronzer les Cadavres) makes something totally bizarre out of a well-worn genre and a familiar trope. Essentially a Western shootout, Corpses sees a group of assassins hole up at a house in the desert to wait for their targets to arrive. When one member’s family shows up unexpectedly and the police swarm the place, the film becomes one long shootout, from day to night.
In a way, Corpses is both exhilarating and disappointing. Certain scenes employ tactics that both speed up the laborious process of plot exposition, while slowing things down enough for you to marvel at the visual ingenuity. A fire-side chat before the gunfight uses the spit over the fire to switch characters with each spin, while a swinging hammock employs a similar tactic to present a character’s desire, or simply depict nap-time for the assassins (things often aren’t clear). Gunshots are loud and clear, abruptly so, diverting this from the typically American action scenes in which gunfire and explosions meld together in a big, loud soup.
It isn’t that these tactics grow tiresome, rather that they don’t seem to amount to much in the end, more than showing you a movie plot you know, in a way you haven’t seen before. And, really, this is enough to make Corpses a bafflingly absorbing viewing experience. It will leave you wondering, however, if Cattet and Forzani have anything more than visual trickery up their sleeves.
You Were Never Really Here
The first time we see Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) kill someone, he’s hooded and slouching, walking through one of those big city alleyways devoid of personality. A man we don’t know attacks him from a doorway and Joe belts him, several times, with a weapon he finds on the ground. Everything about the scene is anonymous: the attacker, the protagonist, the setting—the provocation for the attack is unexplained.
Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here is about the mundanity of violence and heroism, a less cynical Taxi Driver (1976) with a more openly sympathetic protagonist. That said, the violence, often cut away from or stylishly disguised, is more brutal and upsetting than Scorsese’s movie. Joe, a war veteran haunted by flashbacks of a senseless murder between two children over a chocolate bar, is hired by a wealthy man whose daughter has been kidnapped and held as a sex slave. The man knows where his daughter is, but he doesn’t want the police involved. He wants Joe presumably because, as he says, he wants Joe to ‘hurt them’.
The setup and its moody protagonist are the stuff of violent exploitation and perfunctory details for violent payoffs, handled by an artistic and intelligent director and a compelling lead performer. Ramsey’s work in Morvern Callar (2003) showed she can turn something trivial into something philosophical and confounding, while Phoenix seems to have receded so far into himself audiences have to squint just to get a glimpse of his character.
The result is more punkish and entertaining than you’d expect, which, ultimately, was the feeling I had as I left the theatre. Duped by the familiar set up (based on the novel by Jonathan Ames) and fetishization of violence, I figured the film had left my mind and wouldn’t return, but in flashes of sound and image—a severed pair of hands, Jonny Greenwood’s aggressive score—it keeps returning, hauntingly, like the scene that plays out in Joe’s mangled mind.