Enter the Void (2009) – A Void of Creativity

The French Nouvelle Vague stands as a blazing historical vindication of the critical vocation.  Every time an over-rated artist seeks to rebuff a negative review by calling into question the motives and talents of a critic, critics can respond simply by mentioning the names of great critics who became great film directors.  Directors like Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette.  However, as brilliant as the Cahiers du Cinema directors undeniably were, there is an element of Year Zero about their fame.  Was French cinema really in crisis in the late 1950s?  Was Bazin correct to point to a tendency to the overly theatrical?  Quite possibly but the Nouvelle Vague’s desire to relaunch French film was not without its casualties.

One of the most note-worthy casualties of the French Nouvelle Vague was Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Clouzot was arguably the most talented of the French film directors who continued working throughout the German occupation.  To this day, no film so perfectly captures the France’s deep and loathesome ambivalence towards the Nazis as his story of poison pen letters Le Corbeau (1943).  Because of his association with the Nazi run film studio Continental Films, Clouzot was banned from directing by the French government and while he did return to direct such classics as Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), his reputation among French critics never completely recovered.

It is in this context that Clouzot secured an unlimited budget with which to make his film Inferno.  Ostensibly a psychological thriller starring Romy Schneider, Inferno was a profoundly experimental film whose disastrously abandoned production process was littered with all kinds of new and experimental techniques designed to revitalise Clouzot’s reputation and place him at the very forefront of the newly revitalised French Cinema.   As Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea revealed in their documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009), Clouzot used strange lenses, dyed entire lakes and daubed actresses with strange make-up in order to create a myriad of weird and wonderful visual effects.  He also shot hour upon hour of bizarre objects and visual illusions dreamt up by a team of artists.  However, what is most fascinating about Medrea and Bromberg’s documentary itself is that, while we know that Clouzot had a script and that this script was later made into one of Claude Chabrol’s more successful later films (1994’s Hell), we really get very little information as to what it was that Inferno was supposed to be about.  Indeed, by focusing primarily upon the production process, Bromberg and Medrea manage to separate the technical aspects of Inferno from its more human and semantic aspects giving us images without context and effects without plot.

This filleted version of Clouzot’s unfinished film is eerily similar to the latest film by Irreversible director Gaspar Noe.  Enter the Void is just as much a work of vulgar spectacle as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) or Avatar (2009).  At times technically stunning, the film shows the hallmarks of a profoundly experimental production process hindered by an equally profound disregard for the human and semantic elements of the artistic process.  Elements such as a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative themes and thought provoking sub-text.  Elements almost entirely absent from Enter the Void.

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My Big Gay Heart of Darkness – Irreversible (2002) and Cruising (1980)

In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community.  In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist.  While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done.  Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work.  In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.

However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration.  Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story.  By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story.  It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler.  However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people.  In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population.  This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).

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Blood Of The Beasts (1949) – Humanity’s Capacity to Dream

Georges Franju’s background was in theatrical set design.  As a set designer, he would have learned to create atmosphere through the use of subtle visual queues but he would also have learned that every scene and every shot are a world of their own.  Properly conceived, a single shot can convey as much information as an entire page of dialogue.  Where the camera focuses, when people enter, where objects stand and how they are lit are not merely aesthetic variables, they are to cinema what words are to poetry and literature.  As such, it is perhaps fitting that Ruthless Culture’s first look at a work of Franju should be a short film that is practically silent; His 1949 short film about Parisian slaughterhouses Blood of the Beasts.

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