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To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this column is currently dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.
A year without the Cannes Film Festival means a year without Cannes controversy, and that just won’t do. As Gaspar Noé told IndieWire at the 2015 festival, Cannes “needs a scandalous movie or two or three every year to make it lively.” If IndieWire is to properly celebrate Cannes this year with this column, then it’s only right we cover a bit of Cannes outrage.
Cue Gaspar Noé, the Argentine provocateur who has premiered all five of his features at Cannes. Noé has been bringing films to the festival for over two decades, and his reception on the Croisette is akin to an out-of-control, whiplash-inducing rollercoaster. Noé’s movies at Cannes have been greeted with boos and standing ovations, prompted walkouts and outrage, and in some cases even reportedly caused moviegoers to throw up and pass out. Only Lars von Trier rivals Noé for the title of Cannes’ most shocking enfant terrible. With all five of Noé’s features available to stream on various platforms — not counting last year’s “Lux Aeterna,” which is still seeking distribution — it’s time to take a look back at the controversy-courting relationship between Noé and Cannes.
“I Stand Alone” (Stream on Kanopy)
Noé’s career got its start at Cannes after his feature directorial debut “I Stand Alone” premiered in 1998 as part of the International Critics’ Week parallel section. A sequel to the director’s short film “Carne,” “I Stand Alone” stars Philippe Nahon as an unnamed murderous butcher who, as IndieWire put it in 1998, is “certain his miseries would dematerialize if Arabs, blacks, and gays would be massacred and if women once again became malleable as the Lord meant them to be.” Not exactly your lovable film protagonist. A plot thread in which the butcher sexually abuses his daughter generated controversy, although many found great promise in Noé’s filmmaking. As IndieWire wrote, “Think Celine with a splattering of Bukowski. Godard as re-configured by David Lynch. On the other hand, don’t think. Just experience.”
“Irréversible” (Rent on Amazon Prime)
Noé competed for his first Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival with “Irréversible,” a film that prompted such outrage among Cannes viewers it led Newsweek to proclaim, “This will be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003.” Even those who admired Noé’s storytelling gamble reacted with displeasure. As Roger Ebert put it, “This is a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.”
“Irréversible” stars Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel as two men who seek to avenge the rape of a woman (Monica Bellucci) and is told in reverse chronological order. The grueling centerpiece of “Irréversible” is a 10-minute one take detailing the rape of Alex, who is also beaten into a coma. The unrelenting stillness of Noé’s camera in this moment increases the pain of the brutality onscreen tenfold. The rape is presented in such frank and graphic detail that it makes other shocking moments in the film seem light by comparison, including one scene where a man is bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The film’s violence has long divided moviegoers, but Noé’s reverse chronological storytelling acts as a powerful saving grace in how it works to restore the life of a victim. Tell “Irréversible” chronologically and you get a story about a woman who is brutalized and must be avenged. Backwards, the film becomes mournful and tragic in its resurrection of the character.
Reports emerged out of Cannes that several audience members fainted, threw up, and/or walked out during the “Irréversible” screening. In a 2003 interview with IndieWire, Noé said he observed more male viewers walk out than female viewers. “I think people walk out not because they are bored but because they can’t take it,” the director said. “I also think it makes a difference whether you see it in the afternoon or at night. Usually [walking out] happens more at night because you feel weaker at night.”
MPI Media/Gaspar Noé
“Enter the Void” (Stream on IFC Films Unlimited)
Noé returned to Cannes in 2009 with “Enter the Void,” but it was an unfinished rough cut of the film that debuted in competition and ran nearly three hours long. The experimental drama tells the story of a young drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) who is shot dead and continues to experience his life from an out-of-body perspective. IndieWire reported from Cannes 2009: “This is first and foremost an endurance test. Stirring boos and bravos this afternoon in Cannes, it ranks up there in terms of ambition and provocation with Lars Von Trier’s ‘Antichrist.'”
What makes “Enter the Void” one of Noé’s best and most challenging films is the commitment to subjectivity he creates between the camera and his protagonist. Every directorial choice is based on seeing the world through the drug dealer’s eyes, no matter his state of consciousness. The first act feels like the camera is inside the character’s head; viewers hear his breathing and see what he sees, the camera going dark momentarily when he blinks. After the character dies, the camera becomes as weightless as a floating conscious and hovers over events of the film in dreamlike long takes. Noé’s choices can feel as exhilarating as they do punishing, so it’s no wonder “Enter the Void” was met with boos and cheers alike.
“I thought people would be booing, because people [do that to my movies],” Noé said at the film’s Cannes press conference. “I kind of like that, but I didn’t get it this time…What was it that Douglas Sirk said to Fassbender? To make a good melodrama you need, sperm, blood and tears. These are in this film.”
“Love” (Stream on Netflix)
It was a sprint to the finish line for Noé to make his return to Cannes in 2015 with his erotic 3D romance “Love.” The movie was not originally announced as part of the Cannes official selection and only made the cut in the midnight section after Noé showed Cannes director Thierry Fremaux his first edit of the film a week after the lineup was revealed. Fremaux approved, forcing Noé to work 20-hour days in the month leading up to Cannes so that he could present a finished cut. The director told IndieWire at the festival, “I have never worked so hard to finish something in time.”
“Love” follows the doomed romance between an American film student living in Paris (Karl Glusman) and his French girlfriend (Aomi Muyock) in all its intimate and sexually explicit glory. IndieWire’s chief critic Eric Kohn found the romance “half-baked and underwritten,” but the movie nonetheless became the buzziest title at Cannes because of its controversial sex scenes. Many of the sex scenes in “Love” are unsimulated and made all the more hardcore by Noé’s use of 3D. Yes, at one point the male protagonist ejaculates directly at the camera.
Noé said to IndieWire at Cannes 2015 he expected to court controversy with “Love,” but he maintained that was one of the reasons the festival wanted “Love” to world premiere in the first place. “I think this year, there was nothing else around that could be considered as a potential scandal [except my film],” he said. Noé went on to defend the film’s graphic sex scenes, adding, “I just wanted to portray sexual passion as much as possible, because in real-life it’s very common, but you don’t see it properly portrayed onscreen.”
“Climax” (Stream on Amazon Prime)
The fifth time was the charm for Noé and Cannes. The director’s psychological horror movie “Climax” world premiered at Directors’ Fortnight during the 2018 festival, and the most shocking thing about it was that it received near universal acclaim from festival moviegoers and critics. At long last, Noé was not hearing boos at the Cannes Film Festival.
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn called “Climax” the best film of Noé’s career in his A- review and it was honored with the Art Cinema Award at the festival. “Climax” takes place at a rehearsal for a French dance troupe and follows its member as they descend into madness while trying to figure out who spiked their sangria bowl with a hallucinatory drug. Noé’s ferocious camera movements and gravity-defying long takes make for some of his most exhilarating filmmaking.
The reaction to “Climax” at Cannes was so strong and devoid of the usual controversy that greets Noé’s films that even the director couldn’t help but grin and appear giddy during screenings. As Noé said to IndieWire at the festival, “‘Climax’ is partly very energetic and joyful, and partly like a vision of hell. The way it’s portrayed is so extreme that one time out of two when I went into a theater where they’re playing the movie, during the second half, people were laughing. Bergman made movies like that; Haneke, too. I’m a happy person. When a happy person makes a cruel movie, it becomes funny.”