Sunday, May 8, 2022

Gaspar Noé's "Vortex" and "Lux Æterna" at SIFF Cinema: May 6 - 12 & The Grand Illusion Cinema: May 20 - 26

Coined by critic James Quandt in the pages of Artforum as a term to reference a series of French transgressive films that developed around the cusp of the 21st century, the talk around New French Extremity has largely receded from wider discussion in the cinephile world. While the recent diminishing of its significance and the lessening of a volume of work contributed to the general corpus of the subgenre, the matter is far from solved as a closed movement. Many of the genre's earliest innovators have since gone on to become auteurs, producing a body of work diverging, yet still in relation to their films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These all shared a set of components in common, though they mixed and accentuated these in varied ways and perspectives; what can be found in common is a recurrence of an unflinching presentation of physical brutality and sexuality, often in violent eruptions intersecting with everyday life. These were predicated through psycholigical stuggles with inner urges that were bracketed by the implications, or lack thereof, behind sexual encounters. These would be depicted as the destruction and subsequent construction of new identities through violent catharsis, which would often reveal a relationship to, gender, political, or class roles or constraints being unbound. These commonalities can be seen in the dramatic developments and depictions of interpersonal relations across a relatively wide spectrum of themes that describe the best of this subgenre. The seven films below are widely considered to be representative of the whole. From the countercultural knife's-edge of Virginie Despentes' screenplay for Coralie Trinh Thi's "Baise-moi", the slasher horror of Alexandre Aja's "High Tension", the rare genre film entry from Claire Denis seen in "Trouble Every Day", Catherine Breillat's unflinching explorations of sexual power dynamics and gender in "Romance", Gaspar Noé's revenge drama, "I Stand Alone", to the sexualized violence and bodily horror of Pascal Laugier's "Martyrs", and the rural society in a downward spiral of degeneracy as depicted in Fabrice Du Welz's "Calvaire".

Gaspar Noé left an indelible impression on a large swathe of western audiences with 2002's "Irréversible". Yet even Roger Ebert would argue that "the film's structure makes it inherently moral; that by presenting vengeance before the acts that inspire it, we are forced to process the vengeance first, and therefore think more deeply about its implications." While also stating that "Irréversible" is a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable." Ebert expressly draws attention to the space between these contradictions, and in doing so he rightly defines this as the zone in which the cinema of Gaspar Noé lives. This is the space in which the director would take an even deeper dive with 2010's "Enter the Void". In response to which, Chris Norris' review for Film Comment, may be the only concise interpretation that made its way to print; "Noe calls the film's genre psychedelic melodrama, but it also falls into the much older tradition of void tales, whose tellers run from Dante, to Dickens, to Poe to Thornton Wilder. But the feeling I found in the wake of "Enter the Void" was an ineffable sense of devotion to craft, experience, perception, consciousness, whose only meaning is likely in the topography Thorton Wilder saw gazing into Bardo: a land of the living, and a land of the dead, bridged only, and tenuously, by love." Which brings us to Noé's most recent set of films, the love of cinema itself, and the talent of the intrepid explorers he's enlisted with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg as our guides. Recent interviews for The Guardian with the independent French cinema icon have Dalle proclaiming, "‘I love Christ Because He Invented Bondage’", and Gainsbourg establishing her stance in relation to challenging art, "‘Everything Now is So Politically Correct. So Boring’". It is through the grace and dedication of their performances that we enter into the shrine of cinema that is "Lux Æterna". Love of a much more universal, and inevitable, nature is on display in Noé's other film of this year. The once enfant-terrible of French cinema has teamed with horror great Dario Argento, and New Wave actress Françoise Lebrun, to craft a disarmingly compassionate, yet unflinching film about mortality in "Vortex", as "A Stunning Split-screen Descent into Dementia". Justin Chang states in his review for the Los Angeles Times, "Gaspar Noé is Up to His Old Tricks, and Some New Ones, with ‘Vortex’ and ‘Æterna’", "[Vortex] is a bone-deep sensory immersion that never feels merely sensationalist, anchored by two performances of astonishing commitment and emotional power." Yet the film's director and the elder Italian maestro have a much more candid assessment of their work and its reception in the pages of The Guardian, "‘As Soon as People See a Penis in the UK, They Think They’ve Seen the Devil'”.