Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is desperately trying to find someone, a man who has wronged him in some way. Pierre (Albert Dupontel) follows Marcus warily, clearly uncomfortable with the violent and aggressive manner in which Marcus is carrying out his mission. Who are they after? What did he do? And what will happen if they find him? All these questions are revealed as we weave our way backwards through the story.
This is the latest film I’m crossing off my Least Anticipated Movies from the 1001 list. It was primarily on that list because of one infamous scene in which a character is brutally raped and beaten, which I’d heard was filmed in one unbroken, gruelling shot. As it turns out, there were plenty of other reasons why I should have dreaded this film, all of which take place very early on. For starters, the score is intolerable. This is entirely on purpose – it’s been pointed out to me that many scenes feature an inaudibly low note that induces nausea, sickness and vertigo – but aside from that an early scene takes place in a hardcore nightclub, including a sound like a fire alarm or air raid siren going off repeatedly in the background. Just thinking about it is giving me a headache. Also, the camerawork for many scenes in somewhat unconventional. It’s all handheld, and if I remember correctly each scene takes place entirely in one take – or as close to that as possible – but very little care and attention has been taken to keep the subjects in frame. This would be borderline bearable, were the camera not constantly spinning and flying around like a balloon that’s been inflated and released before tying the knot. Finally, the culmination of the nightclub scene may well be the goriest thing I’ve ever seen. Bearing in mind I’ve watched all seven Saw movies and the first Hostel, I think that’s saying something. What occurs in this film is much worse, I believe, simply because it occurs in one long take, and therefore appears far more realistic.
So, that’s lots of reasons not to see this film, even before we get to the rape sequence, which also happens to be pretty much the first point in the film where the camera settles down and sits stationary for more than a few minutes, focussing intently on the victim’s face – and even repositioning to get a better view of the action – as they are horrifically and irreparably violated and mutilated. Potentially the worst part for me though, was that not only was there someone else in the underground walkway when the attack began who could have gone to fetch help, but midway through the ordeal an unknown figure appears in the background, attempting to use the underpass. They see in the distance – in the foreground for us – the rape going on, and slowly turn around and walk away. I’d assumed they were going to fetch help, but alas I was wrong, and we never see that person again. Somehow it makes the scene even worse, knowing that it could have so easily been cut short or prevented entirely. Gaspar Noe, the director of this movie and several other films I consequently have no intention to watch, appears to be something I’d call “a sick fucker.”
However, and here’s the interesting thing, I kind of liked this movie. Well, maybe “liked” is the wrong word. I appreciated it, particularly the narrative device of showing the story scene by scene in reverse order. Instead of the story’s end being the mystery of the movie, it’s where these characters have come from. Who are they in relation to one another, and why have they behaved in such a manner. I don’t doubt that, had the film played out in a more traditional chronological manner it would still have been effective, but this way is far more memorable, and makes it an entirely different experience. Whether this would still be as effective on a second viewing remains to be seen, because to be honest it’s not a film I particularly want to endure again. It’s just too brutal, too sickening, and in fact the scenes that don’t feature the violence are at times a little bland – the three leads spend an entire scene on a train journey, discussing sex. Yes, it reveals a lot about the relationship and history between these people, and was a well received rest from the gruelling previous scene, but it was almost a let-down by comparison.
Am I going to watch it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Yes, but with a fairly long list of warnings. It most certainly is not for everyone, and even without the violence and gore it’s probably too “arty” for a lot of people, but if you can stomach that sort of thing there’s a great deal here to appreciate, if not exactly like. If you want to hear more of my thoughts on the film, I discussed it on the most recent episode of the Lambcast, which can be found here.
Choose film 7/10
I think we ended up very similar on this. I *hated* the first 15 minutes or so of this movie. I couldn’t make out anything that was going on and was just annoyed by the visuals and the sound. Then the rape scene happens, which I think (despite what is going on) is a pretty smart scene–like the person seeing it and ignoring it. Makes it a more powerful moment. But then, from that point on, the movie actually gets really good. I got really invested in the characters and the story. I also really loved all the single takes, particularly the one through the house party (fun fact: one of the characters over halfway through the take calls Vincent by his real name rather than his character name, but Vincent improvs and plays it off so well that they ended up using that take in the film).
I was very relieved when those first fifteen minutes were over. It’s probably intentionally confusing and disorientating, so well done to the director for achieving his goal, but it doesn’t make me want to go through it again.
I remember the “Vincent” bit now, and thought Cassel did a great job of getting around it. He’s a really underrated actor, and I think I should check Mesrine down now to see him in it.
Good review Jay. It’s a very disturbing movie. Probably the most unsettling movie I’ve ever seen. However, there is some art to what Noe does here and it’s what really kept me watching, even if I didn’t particularly like what it was that he was showing me.
Thanks Dan. I think the artistic nature of the film is what makes it critically acceptable. Were it shot more traditionally, but retaining the violence and gore I don’t think it would be nearly as discussed as it is.