Review: Donkey Punch (2008)

donkeypunch

In 2006, the critic David Edelstein confirmed his cinematic cowardice by asking this of the infamous nine-minute anal rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, “Noé means to rub your nose in the violence and make you loathe it, but my nose had been pretty well rubbed after the first two minutes. For a while I stared at the EXIT sign, then closed my eyes, plugged my ears, and chanted an old mantra. I didn’t understand why I had to be tortured, too. I didn’t want to identify with the victim or the victimizer.”

I don’t believe that the torture porn issue should especially concern itself with the filmgoer’s rights. In the case of Irreversible, Noé draws our attention to the horrible reality of rape through his unique structure — ten-minute installments arranged backwards, with the “later” events happening first — and by demonstrating how these “later” actions reveal primal motivations that occurred “earlier.” Much as Almodovar had the courage to play a twelve-minute rape scene in Kika for laughs, Noé is interested in suggesting to the filmgoer that our quotidian gestures may very well be laced with savagery. And if the filmgoer feels uncomfortable with this ethical question, he has the option to walk out of a theater if he cannot handle what’s presented before him.

If cinema is to endure as an art form, then it must permit opportunities for the filmgoer to enter into uncomfortable territory. Perhaps Edelstein would have been better off writing about the latest audience-pandering “art-house film” that refused to take chances. His viewing concerns fail to consider the film on its own terms. It is, instead, all about Edelstein, and such attitudes are damaging to films that play fast and loose with comfortable sensibilities.

The torture porn question hinges less on the content and more on whether a film can offer a convincing portrayal of dirty human realities. Let us consider Eli Roth’s oeuvre. This horror auteur displayed some primitive satirical promise with Cabin Fever and Hostel, only to betray this talent in Hostel: Part II with one of the most misogynistic scenes seen in a horror film in years.

In Hostel: Part II, Heather Matarazzo is punished for being eager, geeky, and curious about the Slovakian village which contains the factory in which affluents pay to torture and kill victims. Roth has children spit in Matarazzo’s face when she offers a mint. Her friends lie about the alcoholic content of the cider she drinks. (Matarazzo’s character does not drink.) Whereas even the asthmatic in the first film got some action, in the second film, Matarazzo isn’t even given a chance to get laid — even when she goes on a boat ride with a schlumpy guy. She’s abducted to the torture factory, and doesn’t even get so much as a kiss. The kiss comes later, when she is dangling upside down — naked, chained, humiliated for the camera, essentially raped by the schlumpy guy. Indeed, the schlumpy guy fires up a cigarette just before the torture factory staff bags her head. His breath, polluted by the phallic cigarettes, won’t even partake in an embrace.

And that’s just the beginning. Roth doesn’t even give Matarazzo a moment in which she can upbraid her two companions or display any strengths. She’s a character who exists to be mocked and tortured. She dangles from the ceiling, her breasts bobbing at the top edge of the frame like some cheap chandelier, and another woman — the client who has requested her — proceeds to scrape her skin with a blade, with the camera lingering on Matarazzo’s flesh in full closeup. Torture soon follows, with Matarazzo cut open, screaming, and the blood dripping down onto the nude client’s body. There is nothing remotely ethical or particularly probing about this scene, even if one accepts that it’s “just a movie.” It is cheap, exploitative, incurious about the human condition, and not particularly interested in exploring the relationship between the tortured and the torturer. Matarazzo’s body is presented, but it’s all in the interest of misogyny. And while Roth has another woman cut a client’s dick off near the end of the film, as if to suggest that emasculation represents a kind of female empowerment, the brutal cheekiness (a dog chows down on the cock just after it is thrown across the room) adds nothing particularly substantial to the revolutionary possibilities of the horror genre, much less the talent that Roth displays in other scenes (such as the DePalma-like torture bidding, split-screen montage seen early in Hostel: Part 2).

* * *

Which brings us to Oliver Blackburn’s film, Donkey Punch, part of the Magnet “Six Shooter” series, which has clearly taken Eli Roth’s two Hostel films as its inspiration. Here again is a film presenting spoiled young people going on vacation, taking everything without giving back, and getting lost in gruesome violence. “Check it out,” says one character of the boat in which the action takes place, “It’s, like, the TARDIS.” Like the Matarazzo dilemma in Hostel: Part 2, geekdom resides just under the surface, but it is actively discouraged. Dare to be thoughtful, curious, intelligent, or abstain from drugs, and you will be punished. For it is the vacationer’s duty to be dumb and irresponsible in these films.

Here again is a film that replaces even the crudest concern about the human condition with boorishness and misogyny. Three young women join four young men on board a boat. And what is the allure exactly? This film is too idiotic to pin it on anything more complicated than a vacationer’s crude pursuits of debauchery. These Bacchanalian impulses don’t stop Blackburn from giving his women the Matarazzo treatment. The three women wander about the boat and note that it “smells of boy.” The titular “donkey punch” is a sexual position that involves punching the woman on the back of the head during orgasm. It’s brought up by the marble-mouthed thug Bluey — the stupidest and cruelest character in the movie, and the big “experienced” man who the other three look to for guidance. “What’s in it for the girl?” asks one of the women. The reply? “I don’t understand the question,” followed by selfish laughter.

The donkey punch is carried out. A woman dies. The action is caught on a video camera: a vacation snapshot that transforms into a lucrative Internet possibility (just like Elite Hunting in the Hostel films, which offered a business card with merely an email address). And, of course, the man who caused the death can’t take responsibility. Nor do these characters make any attempt to calm each other down. “Why don’t you fix us a meal?” orders one of the young men later in the film. The object is to evade the police and to carry on with the partying, and to make sure that these “bitches” stay down. After all, they had it coming.

More forgiving critics are likely to defend Donkey Punch as “a cautionary tale.” But this too easily exculpates both the filmmaker and the filmgoer from the failure to find a purpose, or a common territory, for the violence. This is most certainly an exploitation film, but it lacks the chops to get us interested in these characters on a rudimentary level. The film’s setting suicidally, and rather stupidly, begs comparisons to Knife on the Water and Dead Calm, which are both considerably better.

Neither Donkey Punch nor Hostel: Part 2 offers anything half as interesting as Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer (which is available online for free; the film is in the public domain). Ferrara’s feature debut is a structural mess, and he hasn’t quite found his voice. (That would come later with his first masterpiece, Ms. 45.) But he does depict madness and violence in a way that draws us into the madman’s psychology. The film’s later scenes of the madman drilling people around New York works both as exploitation, and as a very unusual examination of class and art vs. consumerism. We can observe the violence as horrifying, fun, pleasant, and unpleasant. And that is because Ferrara is genuinely curious and passionate about his warped madman (so much so that he played the part). The violence caused the film to be labeled a “video nasty” when it hit the UK.

Now the new label is “torture porn.” But filmmakers such as Blackburn and Roth aren’t really interested in tinkering with the stigma. Instead of using their freedom and their notoriety to advance cinematic form and mess with heads — as Noé and Takashi Miike’s films often do — they prefer to wallow in misogyny for misogyny’s sake. Their “daring” choices become childish and predictable, and it becomes evident that a flapping penis (and there are many in Donkey Punch) is less about flaunting conventions and more about crass commercialism. This kind of filmmaking stance isn’t courageous. It’s riddled with cowardice and contempt. It performs a great injustice to the horror genre, which, in the best of hands, can be fun, thoughtful, and dangerous.

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20 Comments

  1. Ed, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all. Gaspar Noe raped his audience as a supposed comment on rape (while being, in the process, *so* controversy-courtingly violent that his career arc bulged… a win-win move). Irreversible improved *not one jot* on films such as La Strada or Raging Bull or Nothing But A Man or even Lord of the Effing Flies as meditations on the atavism of modern man.

    I walked out of Irreversible before Bellucci’s big scene, but any kid on Limewire, that year, knows that that very excerpt was one of the hottest downloads of the season. That’s the highest compliment for a film of that nature, isn’t it? A few million adolescents wallpapering their libidos with Noe’s “statement”.

    And any “adult” audience that *needs* a blood-sopping, 9 minute rape, or to see a CGI skull bashed in with a fire extinguisher, in order to “get” the message (what was the message again? that ultra-violence puts asses on cinema seats?) is surely beyond redemption. Why not an anti-child-abuse flick with name actors and topshelf cinematography/FX featuring (as its 9 minute viral setpiece) a newborn boiled alive?

    It’s a question of calibration; of scale: in a film with no crushed brainpans or unzippered guts or geysers of plasma on display, great acting and mercilessly on-target *dialogue* is all the violence a *sensitive, intelligent* audience needs in order to be shocked, still, or haunted, an hour after leaving the theater. Dogville was fairly upsetting; it made a fairly strong point, as I recall; would the film have been “harder hitting” if Kidman’s character had been stomped to a quivering mess during the rape?

    Ed: connect the dots: Irreversible and 29 Palms (and the other slick yuppie “Art House” splatter films of the era whose titles I forget) aren’t a prophylaxis against future Abu Ghraibs, they help to lay the foundation for them.

    Gaspar Noe, is, in my sincere opinion, a careerist hypocrite with a lot to answer for. Noe and Tarrantino both.

    Seriously: go see Nothing But a Man (again). It shows up crap like Irreversible for the soul-leatherizing porn with CGItis that it really is. And “Donkey Punch”… sigh.

  2. “Irreversible and 29 Palms (and the other slick yuppie “Art House” splatter films of the era whose titles I forget) aren’t a prophylaxis against future Abu Ghraibs, they help to lay the foundation for them.”

    I didn’t know movies were supposed to act as a cure-all for what ails man. That’s news to me.

  3. JR, read the comment carefully and take the time to absorb the argument (a dictionary might help; look up “prophylaxis”, which you seem to think shares a definiton with “panacea”) before breaking out the sarcasm, please.

    I’d appreciate a response to my actual point (ie, the hypocrisy of making a nauseatingly violent film as a supposed response to the problem of violence, which was Noe’s stated purpose).

    I put it you that Noe doesn’t take the possible *effect of the violence in his own movie* as seriously as I (and a few others) do. Here are a few questions and answers from an interview Noe did about the movie:

    Q: There was a moment after the rape and before the beating when Monica’s character could have run away.

    A: No, I don’t think so. I think he would have run after her.

    Q: Of course, the rapist is Jo Prestia, the professional boxer from France.

    A: He used to be the world champion Thai kickboxer. He’s very, very famous in France. Some people would come to the set and would be more impressed with his presence than the actors.

    Q: What did he do to prepare for the rape scene?

    A: None of us rehearsed anything aside from the kicking of [Monica’s] head in [the rape] scene, and the [revenge] scene [with the] fire extinguisher. And we didn’t rehearse the whole scenes, just those parts. We had to do tests before to make sure the actors would not be really hit. For the rest, we just went on the set and shot them six times over three days.

    Q: How did you simulate the rape scene?

    A: One aspect of the digital editing makes it seem realistic — his penis is added after the shoot. His fly was actually zipped in the scene. It makes the whole thing much more realistic. With his penis visible, Monica loved it. But you don’t expect that, and that particular detail makes the thing more dramatic.

    Q: Do you really believe, as the first line says, that “time destroys all things?”

    A: It’s very dramatic and it sounds good. There are two translations, and the original sentence in French is “time devours all things.” It’s a well-known Latin sentence, and I almost used that sentence, but it might have been too intellectual. I do believe it. Everything that happens is born inside time — so you can also put it the other way around.

    Q: But the counterpoint to that is the really nonjudgmental comment that follows: “There are no bad deeds, just deeds.” Can you comment?

    A: The guy talking is a good friend of mine, very bright. He changed his language for each take. That statement was his personal opinion, although I happen to agree.

    Q: How do you expect gay groups in America will respond?

    A: In France they love the movie. Gay people thought Vincent Cassel was so gorgeous and so sexy. There will always be people saying it’s homophobic. But the reaction of the gay community was better than the straight community. People most offended are really heterosexual men. Male dominants have problems identifying with a woman who’s raped.

    Q: Men can get raped, too.

    A: The fear disappears with men when you are 18 or 20. I wanted this movie to bring back men’s old fear to show them how it is to be raped. Remember, Vincent’s character almost gets raped, too.

    Q: Would the concepts work as well if the characters weren’t so young, beautiful and charmed?

    A: Monica and Vincent — playing the happy couple — are the perfect couple for most people. When you see them naked on the bed you think they’re so perfect together. It creates a fascination to see their intimacy, but also a jealousy; you know they will pay for being so young, so pretty and so rich. You cannot hate them, because you know their happiness will not last.

    Q: On a lighter note, who came up with the idea of a dress that makes Monica B look like her nipples are constantly erect?

    A: We were looking for the sexiest dress we could find for her. The best, most beautiful party dress we could find that would be something you could really wear in Paris. She had her own green silk dress, and then this guy from Yves Saint Laurent came in and redesigned the whole thing (replicated). We needed 10 copies of that dress, because during the rape scene, after each take, it would be destroyed by blood, etc. It was designed right on her breast. It fits her perfectly.

    Q: When you watch your own movie, can you understand why people walk out?

    A: When I see [the two violent] scenes, I see only special effects. But the ending gets me — I cannot see the kids [on the grass in the park]. I walk out one minute before the end because I feel like I’m going to cry. And it’s not because of the [scene], but because of the music, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.”

  4. You’re assuming, Steven, that filmmakers are trying to solve violence with these films. That there is an underlying “message” to be had behind the results, rather than an exploration. I reject that notion, for we then enter into the regrettable territory of dogma (but not necessarily post-Dogme). I think Noe was, in the above interview, trying to get a rise out of anyone reading it by suggesting that “Monica loved it.” He tends to talk a lot of shit. I don’t know if Roth would make a similar claim to defend the Matarazzo rape scene. Both, of course, wish to present themselves as provocateurs.

    But it is the films that matter most. IRREVERSIBLE’s violence is defensible, because we are presented with the happy couple at “the beginning.” We at least get a sense, psychologically speaking, of what the characters are capable of and how the violence may be there within the “happy couple” makeup. But with Roth, we don’t get that chance at all with Matarazzo’s character. Aside from a mild dis to her two friends, she’s presented as a cartoon and is never given a chance to be real or present another side to this cartoonish template. She’s mocked for being geeky, for being earnest and inquisitive, for feeling, for having emotional moments in her diary. And she is punished with this despicable and defenseless scene, which does nothing to further our understanding of violence and torture in the way that Noe does.

    Violence and rape, unpleasant as they are, are realities. There are many ways to go about including them in film. And exploitation films have the potential to pursue these realities — as Ferrara does extremely well — in a way that causes us to frame explicit and uncomfortable scenes within the darker side of the human repertoire. But it needs to be presented WITH the repertoire in order to be justifiable. This can make for an unpleasant moviegoing experience, but then I happen to think that investigating the unpleasant is vital for any art form.

    Lay the foundation? You can’t be serious.

  5. “Lay the foundation? You can’t be serious.”

    I’m extremely serious, Ed. But before I get to that, I’d like to get to this:

    “…And she is punished with this despicable and defenseless scene, which does nothing to further our understanding of violence and torture in the way that Noe does.”

    Ed, exactly how does Noe’s graphic, 9-minute rape scene “further” your understanding of violence and torture? Are you claiming that you were sitting on the fence on these subjects before Noe opened your eyes? Are you claiming that you didn’t really know that a woman could be raped and beaten into an irreversible coma before seeing the process, in explicit detail, as presented in a film?

  6. JR:

    Resort to all the logical fallacies you like (influence A postdates behaviour X, is therefore irrelevant to behaviour B?); they won’t quite stand in lieu of a pertinent response.

    To save you the trouble of actually reading my first comment: I’m calling Gaspar Noe a hypocrite for claiming to address the matters of violence and rape in his film Irreversible. Any response specific to that… ?

  7. While I tend to agree with the general attitude of SA with regards to this, if I may throw a bit into the discussion:

    First, I may be the only person in the world who feels this way, but the longer the scene went on (only saw the film once, in theater), the LESS disturbing I found it (still disturbing though; I’m not a sicko). In other words, for one viewer, extended exposure to the graphic attack had the result of desensitizing that viewer to the brutality onscreen. Regardless of Noe’s perhaps various intended effects, I’m guessing this was not one of them. (On the other hand, I found the fire extinguisher scene to be infinitely more disturbing, and I don’t think identification or a lack of it had anything to do with this difference.)

    Secondly, and I mean this in all earnestness, no snarkiness, how exactly does an extended graphic rape by one character inform/relate to the idea that “…Noé is interested in suggesting to the filmgoer that our quotidian gestures may very well be laced with savagery.”? I mean, if I’m writing a treatise on violence, then have scene where some random person commits an act of violence, while both my treatise and the scene are “about” violence, it doesn’t necessarily make them related or one relevant to the other.

    Despite my general misgivings about “Irreversible,” I’m willing to give you (or anyone) the benefit of the doubt regarding its worth, but I’m not seeing it. And, if SA suggested above, Noe is attempting to have it both ways so to speak, in my mind he’s failed at the one way so as to leave us with the other. He’s attempted a trick with a extremely high degree of difficulty, and in flubbing it, ended with a horrible crash.

  8. Yeah. He’s a hypocrite. So what? He’s also an incredible filmmaker. I can watch a movie and appreciate the techniques used to create a response. It’s one of the joys of great filmmaking. Apparently you have a hard time with this. Maybe you should stick to feel good movies and then you won’t feel bad. Hotel for Dogs came out this weekend.

    And I did look up prophylaxis in the dictionary. And in my dictionary, one of the alternate definitions was “self-righteous asshat.”

  9. Great, JR! Are you, um, done now?

    To Joe:

    “In other words, for one viewer, extended exposure to the graphic attack had the result of desensitizing that viewer to the brutality onscreen.”

    Well, exactly. Question being: do humans pay a price for adjustments like these (which are near-constant, now)? Don’t laugh if I use the word “innocence” here, but is Noe robbing the viewer, nauseated by *his* violence, of a particle of innocence… only to replace it with what? “Understanding”? I don’t think so.

    I’m not presenting a case for censorship, mind you. I’m merely exercising my prerogative to call “bullshit” when I see it.

  10. Until a beautiful Italian woman gets graphically raped by a swan on film, I’ll save my money for literature, where the real action is.

    Hostel. Pish posh pshaw. Sounds like the plot of a Roald Dahl story that he wrote and then tossed in the fire out of boredom with himself.

  11. I should add, for Stephen or anyone else, that I’m not making the “violence desensitizes ergo bad” argument, and that I agree with Ed’s ideas regarding “exploring” difficult ideas. Some of my favorite films/filmmakers are notoriously violent (not that the violence is why I like them; I’m thinking Kubrick and Peckinpah). I’d contrast Noe’s film with “Salo,” a film I found extremely disturbing and yet, after recovering, consider a masterpiece, certainly technically, albeit a difficult one.

    I’ll also add that I look forward to seeing Noe’s previous (to “Irreversible”) film, the name of which escapes me, apparently very violent as well. Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader, found the previous to be truly a masterpiece; he subsequently found “Irreversible” to be reprehensible. I recall finding one or the other review (or both) very interesting, and despite my bad experience, I’m still willing to watch Noe.

  12. “I should add, for Stephen or anyone else, that I’m not making the ‘violence desensitizes ergo bad’ argument, and that I agree with Ed’s ideas regarding ‘exploring’ difficult ideas.”

    Sure, Joe, but, again: it’s a question of scale: I want to know if Ed thinks that Noe’s strategy of ramping the level of graphic violence to *that* level accomplishes more in an “exploration” of violence than “Raging Bull” does.

    On a purely formal level, I’d ask what this “exploration” entails; frankly, I think that’s a convenient, apologist trope we’ve been given by filmmakers (and their distributors) who want to have their cake (go as far as possible and sell as many tickets as possible) and eat it too (justify the results as edifying). I also think we’re handling lots of other unexamined concepts here, not the least of which being the concept of the “Auteur” as applied to hundreds of directors.

    Now, I’ve watched Irreversible at home (skipping the rape scene), and besides the borrowed (from Memento) trick of reverse-chronology, the only truly stand-out things about the film are the violent setpieces, which are stand-out for *technological* reasons. As a drama, Irreversible is mediocre; the acting is solid-if-unremarkable; script largely improvised; Bellucci’s beauty is a big part of the movie’s lure. What’s left, minus Bellucci’s beauty, Memento’s structure and the shocking CGI? I can see the craft there (the sum total of scores of professionals at work); where’s the Art?

    Are we confusing the seductive power of ultra-slick surfaces with Art?

    And the “de-sensitizing” effect can concern us on an Aesthetic level (if it’s too unhip to worry about it on a social level), if we can no longer respond, for example, to the grief/betrayal/animal-will-to-live on Giulietta Masina’s face at the end of The Nights of Cabiria simply because we’re used to the knobs being turned to ELEVEN and she isn’t being decapitated.

    I’m arguing that ART is a matter of finely calibrated values and materials and the creepy CGI bombast of Noe’s torture porn in Irreversible has a nuance-obliterating effect. Plus a hook we’d rather not name: a lot of people *enjoy* watching depictions of torture.

  13. Also at Joe:

    “I’d contrast Noe’s film with ‘Salo,’ a film I found extremely disturbing and yet, after recovering, consider a masterpiece, certainly technically, albeit a difficult one.”

    A contrast we can and should make point by point, I think. I have to get to bed (it’s 2 am here), but I’d like to discuss Salo tomorrow, if Ed is game…

  14. Hey Steven, since you aren’t brave enough to turn on the comments section of your blog, I thought I would come here and tell you that you’re a much better film critic than you are a writer of fiction, but I suspect you already know that. Figures. Now your patronizing tone and supercilious attitude makes perfect sense.

  15. JR:

    It took you *three whole days* to come up with *that*? Laugh.

    My comments are off because of angry (and only technically literate) little creatures like you, darling. Don’t be disappointed if your opinion doesn’t mean much to me. Ditto for your equals (for they are legion).

    Love,

    SA

  16. Actually, JR: you’ve given me a pretty good idea. Anyone who wants to send HATE MAIL to the address provided on my ABOUT page will see it published, *unedited* and *without comment* (no matter how ugly/cruel/accurate or profanity-rank), on a new page I’ll link to (prominently) from my main fiction page.

    So, no more excuses if you feel the hate and you really, really want to express it!

    Isn’t that egalitarian?

    I’ll bet you feel better already.

  17. You got a big mouth, faggot. Talk like this to me while I’m standing face to face with you and I would smack you across your face. Why don’t you tell me where you live so I can come and show you what a little pussy you are. Watch what you say to people you prick. One of these days you’re going to confuse yourself and forget that you’re not hidden behind your computer screen and someone is going to shove their fucking fist down your throat.

  18. Alright. I’m closing this thread. This is not a place for people to threaten each other. It’s a place to carry on a civil discussion.

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