Monday, October 26, 2009
Uncharacteristically for an "arthouse" film, Antichrist has inspired an intense and widespread public brouhaha. Even for Lars Von Trier, the long-protested cinematic deviant of such extreme films as Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and Europa, the work is somewhat of an anomaly. Who would have ever thought that a film with content reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman and a dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky would have ever received such an exaggerated response from the public at large? The entire lot of filmmakers Von Trier appears to be influenced by are too subdued and modest to have provoked it. Regardless, the director has presented a symbolically loaded tale of psychotherapeutic chaos and tickled the mass conscience in a way that reaffirms the overwhelming social power of cinema.
From its initial impulsive critical feedback at Cannes, Antichrist certainly succeeded in getting me excited. As is rarely the case, I was responding fervently to the (mostly) silly hype. Rumors of Von Trier "losing his mind" were especially enthralling; my question is, didn't Von Trier lose his mind the moment he picked up a film camera? Never have his films persuaded me for their great maturity or sophistication, but rather for their genuine uniqueness and insanity. Often times they are a mess, but Von Trier is one of those interesting enigmas whose next project can never be predicted, having moved around aesthetically and thematically almost on a film-to-film basis since his career began in the mid-1980's. So, with only a handful of press images and a slew of bombastic adjectives to work with, I could only wonder: following an unusually out of place comedy (The Boss of it All (2006)), where would Von Trier take us this time?
The mysterious but true answer is into his own head. Indeed, Antichrist may well be one of Von Trier's most personal, sincere films to date, which compels us to label him an absolute nut. In order to combat his own depression, he focuses in on an immensely depressing subject with parallels to his own life. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play with utter conviction and bravura a grieving couple whose son dies in the film's elegant opening sequence, a hyper-slow motion monochromatic account of the married couple engaged in passionate sex while their son guilelessly slips out his bedroom window. The film's "plot" really begins after this episode, when Dafoe - portentously dubbed "He" to Gainsbourg's "She" - insists on curing his wife's irregular grief pattern by himself, being the domineering therapist he is. The course of action he takes is irregular itself though: he forces his wife to confront her fears in the couple's reclusive retreat in the woods, once again suggestively called "Eden". Gainsbourg's psychological trauma intensifies as she is aroused by memories of her son's life and the malignant presence of nature that surrounds her. At one point, she insists that the ground is burning, to which Dafoe counters with characteristic detachment, "the ground is not burning".
Gradually however, the threatening force in the woods makes itself known to Dafoe's character as well. Not only do the woods embody a dangerous place to settle, but they are also rife with foreboding animals, and even nonliving objects (acorns and trees) enact an angry violence towards the two. Gainsbourg's sanity becomes an element directly related to nature's outrage; as more problems occur, she becomes increasingly out of touch with reality. At one point she hears the wail of her son reverberate around the cabin, eventually discovering nothing. Her psychological and spiritual transformation turns for the worst, culminating in the bizarrely unsettling and shockingly graphic final thirty minutes, where the bulk of the film's most talked-about scenes ensue. Dafoe and Gainsbourg undergo a significant transfer of power, signaled by the literal desexualization of the two of them. I won't divulge what actually happens because it has been endlessly ranted about on every other blog, but on a metaphorical level, She destroys His masculinity and removes the indicator of His power over Her.
The film equates femininity with nature, and nature's depiction here is relentlessly evil. Such a concept appears undeniably misogynistic, but in an interview, Von Trier stated that he has been consciously tackling issues in his recent films that he is opposed to. Whether he's sincere or not, he puts Gainsbourg through such startling effronteries that the end result could only be one of two things: career devastation or herculean praise, the latter of which came true when she won Best Actress at Cannes. At the same time, there's something perversely empowering about her character, as if Von Trier sees something admirable in her scowling persistence and unpredictability, traits that lift her to a more mythological level. She also has a haunting clairvoyance about her, constantly predicting non-verbally what will happen next, eventually explaining to her husband that once the "Three Beggars" arrive, one of them will have to die.
This idea of the "Three Beggars" - which turns out to be the deer, fox, and crow that show up individually throughout the film - points toward the more spastic allegorical levels of the film. Whenever these animals appear, they supply otherworldly tension. Each is a reminder of the supposed terror of reproduction; the deer turns around to reveal a grotesquely limp infant hanging near its hind legs, the fox bites open its own lower stomach, and a hideous baby bird inexplicably falls from a tree with flies nibbling from its corpse. Are these unavoidable reminders to Dafoe of the inherent sin of reproduction, suggesting that He is subconsciously punishing his wife for bringing their son into the world? Maybe, but Von Trier bubbles up any possible answers in obscurity by layering on other symbolic cues over it. The likeness of the central characters and setting to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the further religious presence of the three distinct animals, the notion of witchcraft informing Gainsbourg's actions (the subject of her thesis whose remnants lie across the cabin), the extreme sadomasochistic and animalistic sexual content - all work to heighten the ambiguity. Sometimes Von Trier goes in over his head and becomes overly self-conscious (I'm pointing at you, talking fox), making us question the aim of his symbolism in the first place.
No matter how frustratingly confused Antichrist's themes become, there's no denying that the film has an astounding vision. Special mention is due to Anthony Dod Mantle, Von Trier's longtime cinematographer, who took the reigns on the set in several instances when the director's depression left him considerably weak. Visually, credit should be split down the middle, with Von Trier being the mad genius to have devised such luminous imagery and Mantle the brilliant technician to execute it, using a fusion of current digital technology with the Red and the Phantom cameras. In doing so, Antichrist joins a short list of the finest cinematic statements made using digital. The scene on the train to Eden when Dafoe elicits visions from Gainsbourg is a particular standout; as She trudges in hyper-slow motion around the foggy, ominous woods, the camera observes from detached perspectives, mirroring the dreaminess of Her husband's coaxing words. The immense detail in these images, as well as in the two black and white sequences that bookend the film (scenes that take place out of the "reality" of the story), is startlingly palpable and the palette tremendously rich.
In such instances, Antichrist reaches a level of transcendence. One is not simply watching the film but experiencing it in all its vivid, sometimes hideous glory. As expected, it's a remarkably uneven and unsubtle film, from the jarring contrast between grandiose stylization and documentary-like jump cutting to the similarly opposite emotions triggered by the unpredictable clamor of the story, first marked by grim Bergmanesque chamber drama and punctuated by bursts of genre horror and exploitation. After seeing the film, I couldn't be certain as to whether I was reacting to what it did viscerally or to what it ultimately achieved on a cerebral level. I still can't be sure, but when I think about how deeply the film's denouement shook me, I am once again lost for words. That's about as close to a verdict as I can get.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Predictions of what a filmmaker's next project will be like are hardly ever more accurate than when dealing with the work of writer Guillermo Arriaga. His last three screenwriting endeavors, each a collaboration with fellow Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, have been downbeat emotional collages that link three seemingly disparate stories into one powerful, if contrived, comment on the interconnectedness of the modern world. With The Burning Plain, Arriaga has for the first time taken his shot at the director's chair, and little has changed. He is still working in the same territory, and for that alone he should not be criticized; it's not so much a "safe zone" as it is a unique way of seeing the world, just as Bela Tarr should not be hammered for making a seven hour epic in slow-take black and white and then moving on to three more similar films, or Ingmar Bergman for making different variations of the same themes throughout his prolific career. At the same time, something tells me Arriaga's conjunctive narrative style is getting particularly old, that the mode he has chosen gives him considerably less flexibility, perhaps even that he is consciously forcing stories together to fit this mold.
While this may be true in general, I do not suspect this to be the case with The Burning Plain. Something about it speaks of greater personality; Arriaga seems closer to the work, and understandably so, considering he wouldn't have taken the initiative to direct had he not felt he could bring something more inspired to the film than what another individual (Iñárritu?) could. The film takes us back to Arriaga's favorite landscape dichotomy: that of the untamed, expansive desert and the bleak modern suburban life, in this case the difference between New Mexico and Oregon. Also, he has predictably fallen back on his same tick of triangular storytelling, spontaneously shuffling between the three points of interest. There is the story of Sylvia (Charlize Theron), an exhausted, guilt-ridden waitress in Oregon who engages in meaningless sex with various men as a way of coping with her troubles. Similarly ashamed is Gina (Kim Basinger), a married woman who maintains a secretive affair with a Mexican man whom she meets in a dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere behind the back of her unknowing family, although her coming-of-age daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) is suspicious and proactive. We also meet Maria (Tessa La), a young girl whose father becomes severely impaired in a plane accident, causing her to search with her father's friend for the mother she never knew, who happens to be Sylvia.
Because Arriaga's mechanics are so refined at this point, his editing so invisible when shifting stories, one perceives the story as all taking place during the same time. However, temporal dissonance is one new element that Arriaga embraces with The Burning Plain. Revealing how it occurs would spoil the film, as it is meant to provide a startling revelation towards the end, but credit is due to Arriaga for refraining from providing too many clues to make the unveiling predictable. Still, this is not to say that it is some surprise twist that gives the film integrity. Arriaga significantly downplays this moment, and the film continues for approximately thirty minutes after, steering it away from an impermanent entertainment and more towards an emotional character study that feels fully vested in. And when I say fully vested in, an important distinction must be noted; that does not mean the drama is overemotional and bloated, as is often the case in Iñárritu's Babel, but rather that it is carefully observed. Only once does Arriaga resort to the "crying montage", and it is considerably less painful and prolonged than in the past.
The drama only gets tiresome for its continuous gloominess, not for any lack of realism. Arriaga clearly lost his funny bone a long time before he had the opportunity to write his first script, and it often times results in an awfully one-sided view of the world. Sylvia's life is deliberately depressing in every nook and cranny, from her relentless job - where most of her ostensible "friends" work - and even to her own bedroom, both settings stripped entirely of warm colors resulting in a dingy palette loaded with cold blues and grays. You would also be hard-pressed to find an instance of Theron smiling during her gripping and unrelenting portrayal, one that requires her to lay bare the conventions of the movie star in the same way she did for Monster (2003). Basinger plays her mirror image, a woman who has more structure to her life but who suffers from the same inner anxiety, physically manifested in the constant glaze of sweat that covers her skin. The New Mexico desert she frequently inhabits becomes a barren nothing, grim for its muted colors, detached compositions (courtesy of There Will be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit) and the double-crossing, eventually horrific events that take place there.
Instead of providing comic relief, Arriaga takes pauses between dramatic longeurs with streams of nondescript imagery. Ultimately, this is what separates Arriaga and Iñárritu directorially, and what gives The Burning Plain more of a calmer, contemplative tone. Arriaga's camera will settle on a pack of black birds lifting off from the ground, or an empty plain situated between two mountains. Yet its atmosphere is stifling, tinged with the feeling of inevitable tragedy caused by a lava flow of troubling choices that the character's make. The film has so far received horrid critical reviews, but they seem to be missing this calculated mood. While Arriaga may be having a fun time jostling the audience around narratively, the effect is actually quite appropriate for a film dealing with regrets and claustrophobic lifestyles, of actions being the result of selfishness rather than compassion for others.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
If you are anywhere between the ages of 16 and 24, you have most likely heard of the sketch comedy group "Derrick Comedy". They're a trio of NYU students - Dominic Dierkes, Donald Glover, DC Pierson - that have earned an avid following on YouTube with their sometimes amusing, sometimes lackluster breed of vulgar short comedy, the most celebrated being a tidbit called Bro Rape, a playful stab at "bro" culture. Recently the group completed their first feature with the help of director Dan Eckman, a highly tongue-in-cheek detective comedy called Mystery Team. Suspicions immediately arose on my part, namely how the team would not only translate their crude visuals to cinema but break free from their narrative comfort zone too, substituting a feature-length format for the brief sketch. Surprisingly, it turns out Mystery Team flows from beginning to end without much hesitance, telling a coherent and complete story; not so surprising though is that the parts are greater than the whole.
One of the big reasons why is because although there is larger plot at work, Mystery Team, like many of today's comedies, is consciously structured like a series of self-contained shorts. The film opens in the middle of one of The Mystery Team's detective tasks, with Jason (Glover) performing a typically clumsy personality swap (complete with a blatantly fake mustache) to distract a homeowner while his two comrades, Duncan (Pierson) and Charlie (Dierkes) slip in through the upstairs window. This scene provides little narrative information, but instead propels us headlong into hammy gags that stand on their own. We soon learn that the opening mission is just one in a laundry list of banal, unimportant missions that constitute the agenda of "The Mystery Team", an overly childish pursuit for the high-school seniors that requires they maintain a wooden cart on their front lawn boasting their unique credo: no case too hard, no case too tough. (Surely this is stupid stuff, but it tends to be at its best when it's at its most stupid.) Granted, the friends are dealing over-emphatically with measly tasks that are the equivalent of who stole the cookie from the cookie jar. When they are approached one day by a young girl who requests that her parent's murderer be found, their genuine shock eventually gives way to excitement: this is indeed a real case.
Of course, The Mystery Team is not suited to real cases, but they foolhardily pursue it anyway, nearly losing their lives several times in the process. The pains they go through in solving the mystery - purchasing from a junkie, fleeing a gentleman's club bouncer, participating in a gun-chase in the woods - all have the feel of autonomous shorts, and could very well be included on their YouTube channel as individual pieces were it not for the context they are carried with as result of being within a story. These hurdles also ultimately drive the threesome apart towards the end, a fussy split that resolves itself in Superbad-like bromance. In fact, the whole film shares similarities with Greg Mottola's 2007 comedy, especially in the three central characters, two of which reveal their unsettling college plans to the third unknowing counterpart. Ultimately, Mystery Team departs from Superbad in its fundamental comic delivery; whereas the latter attempts to mirror high-school reality, the former is decidedly set in a bubble-gum universe where everything is in soft-focus and all of the jokes are delivered with blunt histrionics. At first this comes across as highly amateur, as if the troupe could not fully harness the spontaneity that should be the end result of screenwriting. As time passes though, the deliberate artificiality appears to reinforce the general silliness of the conceit, one that doesn't sound too far off from Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon with boners and cocaine, that is.
Monday, October 19, 2009
I attended the New Hampshire Film Festival this weekend and discovered that the film scene in the state does indeed have a pulse. It's very easy to think of New Hampshire as a secluded block of land in the northeast delegated only to agrarian pursuits and devoid of culture altogether. That may partly be the case in Northern New Hampshire, but in the Southernmost region of the state, reaching towards Boston, there is somewhat of a lively cultural landscape. On the seacoast is Portsmouth, where the festival takes place, a quaint little town containing a total of five screening venues. Over a span of four days, feature films, documentaries, short films, and student films were shown (one of which was mine), and several panels featuring industry professionals were held. Discussions dealt with working on crew on location, breaking into the film business, the new media, distribution on the internet, and more, several of which couldn't help but mention the possibility of a Hollywood-like studio system being built nearby in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Of the great deal of short films I saw at the festival, not one was completely absent of either nudity or bloody violence. In fact, the overarching mood of the selections was just about uniformly grim; even the one comedy I saw, The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers, winner of Best Short Comedy, hinged itself around a group of friends joyously ending each other's lives in the woods, waxing nostalgic in the process. The film rode a precariously thin line between blatant discomfort and pitch-perfect dark comedy, in my opinion falling into the former most often. Other dramatic shorts were in the vein of hyper-stylized realism; most however relied too heavily on their premises (better suited to features) at the expense of characterization and substance. For instance, Theodore Melfi's The Beneficiary told a story of a stereotypically brutal truck-driver who is fired for reckless driving and therefore seeks to murder the man who phoned him in. With its brooding lighting and focus on ringing telephones, the film could have acquired some of the heft of a David Lynch film had it been told in a more labored fashion. Despite these flaws though, all of the shorts I saw were visually impressive.
Over the next few days, I'll be reviewing the few features I saw at the festival. Unfortunately, I missed several of the most hyped films due to the chaotic overlapping of the schedule, including, most significantly, the Best Feature winner, Tim Disney's American Violet. On the whole though, the festival was well run and thoroughly exciting, so stay tuned for my upcoming posts.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
The mountain of hype that has met Oren Peli's directorial debut Paranormal Activity, while illustrious in a marketing and financial sense, is by all means not a positive factor for the work itself. With outrageously bombastic sloganeering riding on its coattails ("the scariest film of all time"), suspicion inevitably arises: "could this really be that scary?" and then, the negative end of that, "i'll bet it's not". Thus the film is being seen under highly unique and artificial circumstances. People are going either to prove the hype wrong or they are going with their belongings strapped tight to their side, preparing for a roller-coaster ride rather than a movie. Interestingly, this is a film that was not even produced this year or last year but two years ago and has only tightroped its way through our prudishly selective mass media environment via some oddball marketing techniques: screening only in an absurdly limited number of theaters around the world, its website urged the film's few spectators to begin a word-of-mouth assault that would ultimately lead to individual areas voting online for the film to be shown in their region. Paranormal Activity has, through the magic of mass curiosity, arrived in Boston, and I have attempted to view it in as neutral a mindset as possible.
Whether expectations bubbled up from my subconscious during the screening or not I cannot tell. One thing is clear though: this is not the scariest movie of all time. In fact, it's hardly a movie worth anything more than an ephemeral thrill, which one could argue is the inherent point of horror films anyway. At the same time, I wonder if Paranormal Activity should be judged against this yardstick at all. There is nothing internal in the film that purports itself to be the "scariest movie of all time"; such a notion is purely a product of external forces such as media moguls and populist critics. In truth, the movie is surprisingly modest in its execution. Peli doubtless had any steep ambition while making it besides his own innocent desire to unsettle audiences deeply. On this more equal playing field - which is how all films, horror or comedy, noir or documentary, family-friendly animation or avant-garde piece, should be assessed - Paranormal Activity is a success.
Well, just about. Yes, Peli's film is strongly affecting, but it is also a mash-up of nearly all of the horror conventions in the book, a violation of the rule of ambiguity, and a big unbelievable gimmick. Somehow this bizarre fusion has escaped many who have awkwardly used the word "original" to describe the film's technique. The most gaping proof to the contrary is the blatant congruency to The Blair Witch Project, another home-video nightmare that generated nearly as much excitement, but also to several other similarly rough-hewn projects that have popped up in recent years (Cloverfield, Quarantine, [REC]). Instead of focusing on a group of amateur filmmakers making a documentary in the woods, Paranormal Activity turns its (or, to be exact, its central character Micah's) gaze towards a young engaged couple living in a new home in San Diego. Thanks to Micah Sloan and Katie Featherston's (their real names parallel to the names of their characters to heighten the perception of verisimilitude) careful understanding of realistic dynamics, their relationship is believably tender. Mystery enters the story through Katie, who has, for as long as she can remember, been haunted by terrible sights and sounds in the night.
Once the presence begins intruding on Katie's life again, Micah, a giddy enthusiast of technology, obtains a night-vision camera to document any strange happenings in the middle of the night. He also closely analyzes the audio track produced by the camera. Peli gradually builds up a tremendously effective repetition by placing the camera in the same corner of the room for each night we see the two fast asleep. First a thud awakens them. Then a much louder, almost bestial crash. Then the two discover a burnt photograph of Katie as a child which she claims to have not seen for years. Much before this point, Katie urges Micah to just accept the fact that she needs the help of a professional demonologist. This is where we must suspend our disbelief most jarringly. Micah takes masculine bravado to a whole new level of naivete and indeed idiocy, by foolishly insisting he can "take on" the demon, presumably physically. We are supposed to believe Micah when he tells his girlfriend that he loves her so much that he can solve the situation.
The source of these sights and sounds is unknown to us, but it also seems to be unknown to the filmmakers. Most obviously, the title itself speaks to the phenomenon. There is paranormal activity going on between Katie and the twilight zone, whatever the multiple potential meanings of that are. Other evidence points us towards a more personal realm, as if there truly is a demon of her past, metaphorically and literally, that yearns for payback for something Katie did at a young age. Then, spontaneously, exorcism is tossed into the mix. This is Peli's biggest head-scratcher; all of a sudden he has gone from referencing the unexplained to referencing something that is explicitly ecclesiastical, rooted directly in religion, and never once do we get any inkling as to what Katie's religious background is, if there is one at all. Part of it speaks to Peli's overt desire to be enigmatic, which is admirable, but it is also so open-ended that it fails to encourage interpretation. The attempts made at discombobulating the root of Katie's problem overstep their mark, winding up annoying the audience rather than mystifying them.
For all its missteps though, I do disagree with the macho punk behind me who, during the uneasy stream of black leader that concludes the film, rudely shouted "that movie sucked!" For what it's worth, Paranormal Activity could rather obliquely be called a "minimalist" horror film. In an age where most horror offerings come with a large helping of shock-for-shock's-sake gore, most of Peli's horror occurs offscreen. What is scariest to him is what is not seen, and often times only what is anticipated. Moreover, some of Paranormal Activity's most genuinely spooky moments have only tangential involvement with the force in the house at all; for instance, during one night, we watch Katie stand up from bed in a somnambulistic manner and proceed to stare at her fiancé for what seems like 30 seconds, until we notice the timer in the corner of the screen fast forwarding by the hour. The aggravating finale of the film is in sharp contrast to scenes like this, scenes that potently reveal Peli as a director who understands how to create terror, even if it is all just for that, a gimmick wrapped up in vacuous potential explanations.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Those of you who follow this blog may very well have noticed how unproductive I've been as of late. I regret to have to come to a point where I have significantly less time to actually see films and writing feels more like an obligation than a matter of enjoyment. Unfortunately though, I have been extremely busy with college life and have had trouble getting to my blog writing. I wanted to make an announcement of this fact not as an excuse for my lack of output but as a way of acknowledging publicly that I will not be maintaining the same schedule of film reviewing. I want to make it clear though that I do intend to keep this blog alive and running for as long as possible, and I will also be posting from time to time without a doubt. I'm predicting that my turnout for each month will be cut by approximately half. I greatly appreciate all the readers I have had and want to make sure I can keep them, but for now, Are the Hills Going to March Off? will be slowly chugging along. Thank you to everyone who has followed for its year-and-a-half lifespan thus far!
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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.