Is there an event in the movie calendar as grand and as pompous as the Cannes Film Festival? We’re not sure there is. Although it is certainly a celebration of some of the most forward-thinking movies in the contemporary industry, it is also a truly strange few weeks in Southern France, home to several bizarre customs including the widespread act of booing at unfavourable films, as well as hilariously long standing ovations.
A further tradition is the practice of ‘mass walkouts’ for movies that simply don’t cut the mustard, with some filmmakers who push the boundaries of good taste and ‘arthouse’ cinema seeing this as something of a competition in and of itself. Forget winning the Palme d’Or, we’re sure that the Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé would prefer to see the entire theatre evacuate the building as a result of his film.
No film took this to such an extreme as the 2002 release of Noé’s Irréversible, with the film’s unprecedented controversy being unmatched, even 20 years after its release.
Interweaving chaos and tragedy whilst toying with the construct of time, Noés’s film is a disorientating ride that follows the events of a traumatic night in Paris when a young woman is brutally raped in an underpass, with the film itself unfolding in reverse-chronological order. Truly pushing the boundaries of taste, whilst the film displays several scenes of graphic violence, it is the notorious nine-minute single shot of the female character being raped that stirred the most controversy.
Confused and uncomfortable, the Cannes audience of the early millennium, and indeed modern critics too, find it difficult to discern whether the film is an artistic masterpiece or simply malicious nonsense.
One thing critics can certainly agree on is that Irréversible is provocative filmmaking at its most explicit, exploring the nature of violence and sexual assault in such graphic detail that it purposefully demands a reaction. Whether that reaction is to simply dig your head in your hands or get up and walk out of the cinema is, in part, the most interesting part of the film itself, with Noé so curiously probing the nature of humanity’s relationship with violence.
So polarising was Noé’s film that the Cannes Film Festival responded with one of the most venomous protests of its 76-year history when a staggering 250 walked out of the screening of the film in 2002. Livid with rage, the smartly-dressed French viewers spat, “He’s mentally sick… It’s pathetic to do such things…it’s disgusting,” in a fascinating candid video that captured the reactions of those fleeing the cinema. Calling the cinema “a battlefield,” with viewers shouting from one side of the theatre to the other, one man hoped that “security guards” would be present at the end of the film to stop the rage of the crowd from boiling over.
Thankfully, these security guards were never needed, but urgent medical teams were with 20 people from the screening needing oxygen after fainting shortly after the film. An ancient BBC report from the time even includes a quote from a baffled fire brigade spokesman, Lieutenant Gerard Courtel, who was on scene at the time, reporting: “In 25 years in my job I’ve never seen this at the Cannes festival…The scenes in this film are unbearable, even for us professionals”.
Once the paramedics had left and tensions had calmed, Gaspar Noé did voice his disappointment that so many fled the screening of his film. “I think people walk out not because they are bored but because they can’t take it,” he complained to IndieWire in 2009, before explaining, “I suppose in my movie a lot of people suspect that the end of my movie is going to be worse than the beginning because that’s how the climax of the movie works. The fact is if they stay they will get something that will erase these first images”.
For Noé, if boos and mass walkouts come as a result of him pushing the boundaries of art and good taste, then long may they come. Staying in the safety of cinematic convention never has been, and never will be, his preferred artistic style, for it is his prerogative to make the viewer uncomfortable because it is only then when one can question their morality.