“All feature reactive heroes hurtling toward death as a means of reconciling the ruptures between them and their objects of desire.”
Recently, I received an e-mail from a high school friend with whom I had only lately resumed contact. Surprised to see her name in my Inbox, I opened the message, which concerned a local film series. The message was short and strong: “Last week was Eraserhead, which I HATED WITH A PASSION. I’ve decided that I’m staunchly anti-David Lynch.” In defense of David Lynch — and in defense of my tastes — I wrote a quick, feeble response, something to the effect of, “Well, Eraserhead isn’t necessarily supposed to be enjoyed.” Her response? “I don’t think it requires a lot of talent to make a film that makes every viewer uncomfortable.”
As much as I fundamentally disagree with my friend on the relationship between talent and ability to agitate, I acknowledge that her assessment is widespread. Many viewers see only the excessive elements in films such as Eraserhead, and — unwilling or unable to play the perceptual game — they reject the entire work. My ineffective counter-argument, “It’s not supposed to be enjoyed,” isn’t sufficient because it fails to address the specific textual and extra-textual interactions that take place to create the discomforting tensions in viewing such films.
This article is an attempt to address the apparent excesses of three films that have gained a reputation for shocking the sensibilities of their audiences through indeterminate formal constructions and the presentation of exaggerated violent and sexual content. These sometimes difficult films don’t form a concrete generic group, but they do share a thematic through-line: David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q are all variations on the Orphic myth, with reactive heroes hurtling toward death as a means of reconciling the ruptures between them and their objects of desire.
I contend that subjective visual design, non-traditional narrative structures, and attention to maternal and domestic spaces are some of the common elements through which these films explore fractures in the relationship between the desiring and the desired. These formal elements, as exercised in these films, evoke a sort of foreboding that transcends historical time through repetition, reversal, and rebirth.
In Lost Highway, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz musician, suspects that his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is unfaithful. They begin to receive videotapes of their home on their outer steps, which show that someone has been watching them. As Fred’s suspicion grows, he meets a man who admits to intruding into his home, the videotapes begin to reveal shots from inside the home, and eventually Fred murders Renee.
In his prison cell, Fred transforms into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic who cannot remember the event or events that led to his imprisonment. Freed from prison, Pete goes back to his girlfriend, home, and job. One of Pete’s loyal customers, a criminal named Mr. Eddy aka Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), has a girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette), who looks exactly like the deceased Renee, except that instead of Renee’s dark brunette hair, Alice is a platinum blonde. Alice seduces Pete into a wild sexual relationship and eventually ensnares him into a plot to double-cross a pornographer friend and steal some money. He agrees, but in the aftermath Alice double-crosses him and he turns back into Fred Madison, killing Dick Laurent and speeding down the road with the police chasing him.
Lynch situates Fred Madison as an imprudent, paranoid hero, and this has evolving, related effects on the story at large. His suspicions outweigh his ambitions. The few actions he pursues in the early part of the film are inspired by his desire to wholly possess Renee. He physically tracks her and interrogates her as a means of resolving his fear that she is being unfaithful. The abstruse second half of the film is arguably motivated by this warped investigation in the film’s first half. He becomes a young, active hero, but this alteration is an unsustainable attempt to recover the desired. Fred Madison cannot remain free after what he has done to Renee. So his prison cell transformation into Pete Dayton is the literal birthplace of that fantasy, “a juncture of an irrecoverable real event that took place somewhere in the past and a totally imaginary event that never took place” (Williams 712).
The Pete Dayton portion of the film seems excessive in that it invites the audience to accept an apparently unmotivated character shift, with the potential hazard that the audience will “linger over [this device] longer than [its] structured function would seem to warrant” (Thompson 490). Within the text, however, Lynch gives us cues that we should not try to apply a traditional causal strategy, having characters in Pete’s life repeatedly reference “that night” without ever explaining what happened “that night.” Even Pete isn’t privy to this information.
Pete Dayton isn’t the only character born from Fred’s psychological condition. He encounters an androgynous Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who is established as a physical representation of Fred’s investigation into Renee. The Mystery Man is the intruder, conveniently transgressing into dark spaces that Fred doesn’t want to remember. Even after Fred’s transformation into Pete, only the Mystery Man remains wholly unchanged and serves the same force and function in the film’s second half. Significantly, the Mystery Man is revealed to be the source of the videotapes that haunt Fred and Renee and eventually implicate Fred in Renee’s murder and dismemberment. If we think about this in the context of the primal scene, Fred has shifted the role of the intruder onto another figure. This allows Fred, for a time, to control the fantasy sprung from reality, rather than just to observe it. In reality, he has completely lost control.
Fittingly, the visual design of the film is expressionistic, indicating a psychological rather than a physical space. Any line between the two kinds of space is never firmly recognized within the text. The design of the Madison home is full of unlikely angles and indefinite spaces. There are jagged shelves that jut from the wall and near-constant exaggerated shadows. Characters disappear into dark corners that are not only dark, but also deeper than the exterior architecture suggests. Fred, when tracking Renee, disappears into a void before our eyes. And despite a deficit of traditional windows in the home, there is a large window in the ceiling, which allows a detective Renee hires to look down (thus in) at Fred. His recognition of the inward-looking detective is an important key to the film’s organizing system, which involves the tension between exterior and interior realities. So in addition to setting up a repeated visual motif in which Fred looks upward for a response (perhaps a salvation) that never arrives, such exterior moments unpack the nature and impact of his interiority.
Fred’s interiority, and its separation from time and place, results in the temporal and spatial dislocation for which the film has become infamous. Fred Madison has an aversion to historical time and a desire to undo his irrevocable act. He tells the detectives, “I like to remember things my own way . . . How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” This doesn’t stop the detectives from looking on, or Lynch from occasionally slipping outside of, Fred’s interior world to show us exteriority, but it does indicate that Fred’s version is the primary organizing voice of the film. The entire narrative trajectory is motivated by his psychological predicament and the identity crisis it creates. Fred the metaphysician will undergo transfiguration as a means of creating his own reality. The final scene of the film, in which Fred’s face begins to transubstantiate, suggests that additional iterations of the story we just watched will play out again and perhaps forever. But unlike a more classically constructed film such as Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, which employs similar narrative devices, there is no indication that Fred will ever recover Renee.
Desire without satisfaction is the starting point for Irreversible. A prologue introduces the phrase “time destroys everything” to the proceedings, and the story sets forth in keeping with that phrase. But Gaspar Noé’s narrative trick is that the film’s 12 scenes unfold in reverse order, from effect to cause. This reverse-causality soon puts the audience in a power position, aware of the inevitable end that awaits the characters.
First, a brief review of the plot: Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) emerge from a gay club. Pierre is under arrest and Marcus is on a stretcher. As the subsequent scenes play out, we see the friends frantically search the club, a hellish, dungeon-like environment, for a character called Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). Pierre savagely murders the wrong man — someone he believes to be Le Tenia — after that man breaks Marcus’ arm. Later, we see a reluctant Pierre and an obsessed Marcus on a desperate search for the club — assaulting transvestite prostitutes at knifepoint and stealing a taxicab. We eventually discover the origin of Marcus’ rage, which is the rape of his girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci).
The sight of Alex, bloodied on a stretcher, is followed by a nine-minute scene in which Le Tenia rapes her in an underground tunnel. Later in the film (earlier in the story), we see Marcus and Pierre and Alex at a party, where Marcus behaves childishly and cheats on Alex. We learn that Pierre was an ex-lover to Alex and that he still carries the torch for her. The last scenes in the film concern Alex and Marcus preparing to go to the party and discussing their relationship. There is an epilogue, which I will discuss later.
As in Lost Highway, the post-classical narrative construction of Irreversible has the potential to distract the viewer who reads it as an excessive device. But since the reverse-order approach is consistently applied and clearly indicated from the pairing of the first two proper scenes, most viewers grasp the concept and continue to engage with the other elements, which happen to include two spectacularly violent scenes. Our hero in this case is Marcus, though for most viewers I imagine there is very little within Marcus’ behavior with which to identify. Few among us have gone on a revenge rampage. The visual elements, however, communicate Marcus’ experience by making us feel what he feels, moment to moment. Of the constantly roving camera, Noé says,
It links me to [Marcus] . . . And it’s true that I can relate to him, even the negative aspects — like cheating on his girlfriend at a party while she’s there; I could do that. Although the guy has no philosophical depth in the film, his feelings are close to mine. I understand these brainless impulses — I would go for revenge in similar circumstances. (Morrow 2)
To acknowledge his central character’s lack of philosophical depth is to obliquely raise the question of where any such depth resides in the film. I believe it rests in the film’s central provocation, which is the frustration of the audience’s desire through the inversion of the narrative. At the beginning of the film, our knowledge of the end of things is uninformed by their origins. But as in Lost Highway, the perceptual play is buttressed by visual and thematic motifs that form a certain post-classical unity. Though where Lost Highway begins and ends at some point within a purgatorial loop, all roads in Irreversible lead toward a totalizing damnation.
The club at the beginning of the film evokes many traditional representations of the underworld. Screaming, spiraling dark passages, fire and torture, are just some of the sensations Marcus confronts during his descent. The audience does not have any context for the location nor his condition, but since the camera so powerfully and convulsively links us to his rage, we cannot keep any distance from him and his actions. To watch to film is to accompany Marcus and Pierre on their journey. We want to know what brought these men to this point. But the fulfillment of our desire to know this information comes at a price: Marcus is nearly sexually assaulted and then his arm is broken at the elbow. In response, Pierre brutally pummels a man to death with a fire extinguisher.
To make the excess of this scene apparent, I’ll use Tim Merrill’s succinct description of the scene: “Blow by blow, under the force of the heavy canister, the man’s head actually breaks apart. His teeth cave in, his face cracks open, his skull shatters, his brains leak out. All this happens in one shot” (Merrill 1). Because this action takes place so early within the narrative, we don’t perceive it as the chronological climax of the film and we don’t recognize any legitimizing intra-textual function for the extreme violence. And in keeping with the film’s hyper-articulated inversion device, only at the moment of violence does the camera calm down and allow us to have an unimpeded view of the action.
But while our connection to Marcus and Pierre’s predicament is more visceral than experiential, Noé’s choice to place them in a compromising position at the beginning of the film has telling implications for the film’s ultimate concern, which is the polarization of male sexuality and female sexuality. Noé says, “I think having the male lead almost raped at the beginning, feminizes the male audience to a degree that they find challenging. And so, when they are then projected into the mind of a woman being raped, they can’t cope” (Morrow 2).
The camera is again conspicuously still during Alex’s rape, another moment in which the audience becomes potentially complicit. Although the scene isn’t intended to sexually arouse, the unbroken take arouses a desire for revenge. But since we’ve already experienced the empty futility of revenge and we’ve been told that time destroys everything, that arousal is a false start. Through these extreme violence numbers, Noé treats the audience to a paradoxically subtler and more complex recognition of their appetite for blood than Michael Haneke, that other limits-testing provocateur.
And so the movement from the threat of male rape (effect) to the actuality of female rape (cause) appears to be part of Noé’s overall organizing strategy to move from the masculine to the feminine. Marcus and Pierre’s effort to avenge Alex’s rape plays out within a space that is entirely male. The atmosphere of total destruction that Noé equates with the masculine space is never again present within the film. By design, most scenes that follow take place in transitional spaces: a car, a train, an elevator, and a tunnel. Warmth, stillness, and lushness only enter into the film during the final scenes at Alex’s apartment, which fulfills that Levinasian notion of “the utopia in which the ‘I’ recollects itself in dwelling at home with itself” (Levinas 156).
Visitor Q‘s protagonist is the patriarch of a family caught in a sort of physical and psychological apocalypse. Michael Atkinson, in “Extreme Noise Terror,” describes the film thusly: “A shabby home-video visit with a ridiculously monstrous family unit . . . . If Herschell Gordon Lewis had adapted O’Neill, it still wouldn’t out-thicken the muck of Miike’s anti-achievement” (1). Indeed, as down-to-the-bone players in a family drama, the Yamazaki clan may have finally unseated the Tyrones.
Kiyoshi Yamazaki (Kenichi Endo) visits his daughter Miki (Fujiko) at a comfort house as part of his planned television documentary on sex and violence among youth. Kiyoshi proceeds to have sex with his daughter. He meets a stranger, Q (Kazushi Watanabe), who hits him over the head with a rock and follows him to his chaotic home. Keiko (Shungiku Uchida), Kiyoshi’s wife, is a heroin addict who prostitutes herself to support her habit. Takuya (Jun Muto), the son, physically and emotionally abuses his mother. Throughout, bullies assault Takuya and the family home. Visitor Q eventually transforms the family by awakening lost passions in each of them: Thus, Kiyoshi murders his nagging coworker, Keiko discovers her lost maternity, and Takuya realizes that he should study more and stop abusing his mother. Kiyoshi and Keiko murder and dismember Takuya’s bullies and restore peace to the home. Eventually, Miki the daughter returns to her family.
As this summary indicates, excess is the central point and preoccupation of Visitor Q. In the early half of the film, its checklist of taboos forms the very structure of the film, as well as the method through which the excessive elements invite audience participation. An example of this is the line that introduces the comfort house scene: “Have you ever done it with your dad?” Subsequent lines that are directed to the audience include “Have you ever been hit on the head?” and “Have you ever hit your mother?”
Miike’s engagement with fantasy here extends to both the characters and the audience. In response to the questions, the characters act out these events onscreen, and the audience undergoes a “hallucinatory revival” of the same activities. Thus we attempt to link the real events from our past to the imaginary events taking place on screen. As Visitor Q goes considerably further than Lost Highway or Irreversible in its presentation of excessive activities, it also acknowledges the audience’s participatory role to a greater extent.
As it relates to the text, this formal strategy is in keeping with Kiyoshi’s goal to solve the problems of sex and violence in Japanese society. The character’s documentary project requires his participation in the behavior, ostensibly to expose the problems to an audience. This occasionally places the film’s audience at an uncomfortable nexus similar to that of the rape scene in Irreversible. Miike de-eroticizes Miki’s body through a near constant stream of reminders that this is her own father taking advantage of her. As Kiyoshi progresses with his sexual act, he repeats “This is no good” and “It’s our little secret.” Kiyoshi’s obsession with documenting social problems doesn’t seem to be accompanied by the awareness that his participation in the problems has destroyed his own sphere of society. By shooting all of the footage (both the interior reality of Kiyoshi’s television shows and the exterior reality of the family at home) in home video, Miike foregrounds the interconnectedness between the two, and makes a none-too-subtle societal commentary in the process.
Kiyoshi’s emasculation is in keeping with the Japanese mass media’s theory that “the paternal principle — law, discipline, independence, objectivity, the privileging of public virtues over personal desire and so on — has been greatly eclipsed in society at large” (Yoda 239). The purpose of Kiyoshi’s labor is, we assume, to restore order to his own life, but his actions are at odds with the paternal principle. His labor aims to understand and communicate the disintegration of Japanese culture, but he is instead absorbed by its most destructive tendencies. His attempt to ward off the threat of insignificance and absorption into maternal society has reached a sort of last resort: He turns the camera onto his wife and children, thus exploiting them as subjects and capitalizing on his disintegrating home.
Kiyoshi’s rhetoric is familiar to anyone who has watched reality programming that punctuates its artifice by loudly insisting on its own authenticity. In his pitch to his coworker, he says, “It can’t get any more true than this. I’m the father. I mean, this is the real thing.” Later, he performs for the camera, documenting the moment when school bullies shoot fireworks into his home, addressing the audience: “How am I supposed to feel? I don’t know how a father should feel. But I know my family is being destroyed.” This self-awareness might sound genuine, but it obviously isn’t profound enough to motivate Kiyoshi to put down the camera and defend his home and family. So while Kiyoshi participates in his own destruction, the Visitor, Q, who might be a surrogate for the audience, encourages wife Keiko to take the lead.
Keiko, whose track marks, scars, and other wounds make her torment clear, finds Q in Miki’s room, which is presented as a restorative space free from the chaos that assaults the rest of the home. With Miki’s picture situated in the foreground, Q fondles Keiko’s breasts until she starts lactating. His caress awakens something resembling sexual ecstasy within Keiko, and she produces breast milk that showers the room. Son Takuya watches from the doorway. In another fresh recontextualization of the primal scene, this moment makes Takuya realize his mother is available to him again. His apparent mistrust of her falls away. And the restoration of Keiko’s femininity is rearticulated later, when she produces a literal pool of breast milk in the kitchen and tells Q: “I realized something when you were holding me. I’m not a special woman or a pathetic woman. I’m just an ordinary woman.” This tender moment is crosscut with Kiyoshi defiling the corpse of his female co-worker whom he murdered earlier for insulting him. At this perversely, darkly comic turning point, Kiyoshi becomes physically attached to the corpse and requires Keiko’s help. For the remainder of the film, Keiko gleefully, exuberantly aids Kiyoshi’s project. They murder Takuya’s tormentors and dispose of the various bodies that have collected around them.
Despite all of these excesses — sadomasochism, incest, necrophilia, and dismemberment — Miike’s truly subversive stroke is to posit the maternal principle as the solution to Kiyoshi’s problem, and possibly the problems of society at large. As Steve Rose says, “Beneath the veneer of shock . . . Miike’s films challenge Japanese identity . . . Against traditional national values like honour, order and emotional restraint, Miike sets excess and exuberance” (Rose 1). The last shot of the film features Keiko cradling Kiyoshi and Miki at her breasts, nursing her husband and daughter.
In the final tableaux, Visitor Q explicitly promotes the Mother as the site of restoration, where “the woman is the condition for recollection, the interiority of the Home, and inhabitation” (Levinas 155). Before concluding, I will briefly counter-point the function of the Mother specter in Lost Highway and Irreversible.
In Lost Highway, when Fred Madison makes love to Renee, “she acts consolingly, stroking him maternally” (Lynch and Gifford 12). Her literal reciprocation of his metaphysical caress humiliates him. Later, his fantasy attempt to repossess Renee ends when Alice (Renee reborn) punctuates sex with Pete Dayton (Fred reborn) by saying, “You’ll never have me.” This triggers Pete’s return to Fred, and Fred’s second recognition of Alice/Renee’s betrayal. In the end, Fred kills Renee and Dick Laurent because he doesn’t want to share his mother with his father.
Finally, Irreversible‘s epilogue completes Noé’s movement from the destructive masculine to the restorative feminine by moving the narrative, for the first time, to a day exterior. In the final bedroom scene, Alex indicates to Marcus that she might be pregnant. When he leaves the space, she takes a pregnancy test and her reaction (a gesture toward her stomach) indicates that she is expecting a child. The final image of the film, a rotating overhead shot of mothers and children in a park, is fecundity writ large. This dual conclusion/origin finally fully motivates Marcus’ rage because we realize that it wasn’t only Alex he was attempting to avenge at the beginning of the film, but rather infinity itself. To illustrate this, I will turn to Levinas one last time:
“The encounter with the Other as feminine is required in order that the future of the child come to pass from beyond the possible, beyond projects. This relationship resembles that which was described for the idea on infinity . . . The relation with such a future, irreducible to the power over possibles, we shall call fecundity.” (267)
By destroying the mother, Le Tenia obliterated Marcus’ discontinuous future.
In conclusion, the discontinuous future of each character is the basis for the secular eschatology that links these works. The so-called excessive elements of the films are motivated by the discontinuous yet organizing formal systems that situate the central characters on a spectrum of mortality. Fred, damned to repetition, will continue to refract toward death. Marcus, under a time that destroys everything, cannot reverse that which has interrupted his reproduction. Only Kiyoshi truly begins anew, discovering infinity through the re-establishment of the maternal order.
Merrill, Tim. “Irreversible.” Film Threat. 08 March 2003. 23 March 2008.
Morrow, Fiona. “Gaspar Noé: I’m Not the Antichrist.” The Independent. 17 January 2003. 26 March 2008.
Rose, Steve. “Blood Isn’t That Scary.” The Guardian. 02 June 2003. 27 March 2008. 03 December 2007.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 5th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 701-715.
Yoda, Tomiko. “The Rise and Fall of Maternal Society: Gender, Labor, and Capital in Contemporary Japan.” Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Ed. Tomiko Yoda and Harry Harootunian. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 239-271.