The first frames are credit roll. Last names only and backwards E’s, N’s, and R’s. The words are at first cryptic and stream by in blood red capitals before slowly titling sideways and finally spinning out of control. This flows naturally into the first shots of the film; tilted, off-angle exteriors with flashing lights and brick walls. The camera twists and turns out of control, unencumbered by the formal expectations of feature film viewership. Through the S&M nightclub, The Rectum, Marcus searches for le Tenia (the tapeworm), the man who raped and abused his girlfriend. He falls victim instead, his arm broken backwards before his friend Pierre smashes the man’s face with a fire extinguisher. The blows are relentless, the camera-eye unflinching, the metal body unyielding. The man is left with only his lower jaw and a pile of mush where his face and skull used to be.
Noe’s film is relentless; a series of long takes playing in reverse chronology that follow a man seeking revenge and the irreversible consequences that take place during a night of extreme violence. Yet these first few minutes, complete with infrasound at 28Hz, while indeed disturbing and horrific are nothing compared to the inciting incident that takes place in an underpass below the Parisian streets. Noe is clearly asking if the violence we are introduced to initially is justified by the ungodly time spent in hell; a red lined tunnel converging in the distance, void of any earthly familiarity.
I’d be inclined to say yes, if the man Pierre obliterated had in fact been le Tenia. Instead, le Tenia looked on amusedly knowing the pair will soon be arrested and his crime will go unpunished. The complete lack of consequence with which Tenia observes the murder foreshadows the complete lack of humanity with which he commits his own crime. If anything, the man’s unrecognizable face is a reminder of earlier in the night.
It cannot go unquestioned how images like Noe’s can be put on film. The weight of what they represent and the vérité in which they are presented leave a considerable impression on the viewer’s mind. It is one that is immediately shocking and unendingly disturbing. They serve as warning, as cautions, as artistic testaments to the evils of mankind. Yet we can still wonder why Noe chooses to show what he does; why he wants his audiences to be uncomfortable both physiologically and emotionally. Is this exploitation cinema or are they raw warnings? For me, the jury is still out but both remain plausible explanations.