Tender Maps

by Mersiha Bruncevic

La Carte du Tendre was a popular game in 17th-century Parisian salons. It was played on so-called tenderness maps, which looked a lot like boardgames. The maps were meant to be allegorical representations of the heart. They depicted a landscape, where different roads lead to different types of love. Through certain manoeuvres (love letters, gallantry, seduction, gifts), the player could progress along the routes to various possible destinations. There were pleasant towns where love might be found. But there were also dark forests where the players got lost, or stormy seas and deep lakes where they drowned — ending up there meant game over.

The first time I watched Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, I thought about these painted heart landscapes. The film is a trippy reincarnation story set in Tokyo. It follows the soul of a young man after death, as he tries to find a way back to his beloved sister. Most of the action is viewed from above and from that perspective, the city gives the impression of a colourful map. Watching the film feels like falling into an arcade-game, virtual-reality version of those tenderness maps, but there is a glitch in the system and the roads are scrambled.

This sort of existential vertigo is a typical Noé trick. He returns to it in his movie Love, an opium-induced, haunted love story, and Climax, which is about a party that descends into LSD madness and bloodshed. In his films, regular places like a city, lovers’ beds or dance floors become disorienting labyrinths, voyeuristically observed from above.

Recently, I discovered the writer Anna Kavan. Like Noé, she turned out to be an artistic ‘love at first sight’. Reading her work didn’t even feel like reading. It felt like absorbing something vital.

Anna Kavan was a pale, frail Englishwoman whose greatest pleasure in life was race car driving along the French Riviera while high on heroin. She famously referred to her syringes as bazookas. After a failed marriage in Burma and a name-change, she took up with a group of race car drivers in the south of France in the 1930s. They treated the sport more like Russian roulette than a competitive sport. It was around this time that she picked up her lifelong drug habit. When Kavan was found dead at her house in Notting Hill, the police said that they found enough heroin there to ‘kill the whole street’.

Something about reading Kavan’s work made me want to revisit Noé’s films, even though it had been a while since I had last watched them. Her hallucinatory love story, ‘Obsessional’, reminded me of Love, somehow. And the macabre party in ‘Clarita’ made me think of Climax. ‘Julia and the Bazooka’ echoed Enter the Void, in both stories the death of an addict leads to a curious soul-journey.

So I decided to binge my way through Noé’s movies, one after the other. I’ll admit, it was an emotional and psychological rollercoaster. But, true enough, something about the films really did feel distinctly Kavanian. Not in a direct sense of course, not like they were somehow inspired by her work. The resemblance was on a deeper, almost artistically molecular level.

Kavan and Noé’s stories are trippy tragedies and intensely dreamlike, always feeding off some original sin that has already occurred: an accident has happened, a lover is lost, life is over, the punch has been spiked. This is followed by a disorienting, mad pursuit through similar settings: parties, hospitals, asylums and bedrooms.

Much of Kavan’s work is about speeding down roads and race tracks or getting lost while driving in sketchy conditions — like bad weather or a bad trip. In her stories all roads lead everywhere and nowhere, then loop back to something that looks like the start, but that’s not actually where the story began. It’s just another rabbit hole simulating previous events.

Noé is no stranger to this. His films tend to begin at the hellish end of some tragedy. The narrative then chaotically circles back to an idealised version of life before the disaster, only for everything to come crashing down again.

I wonder if that’s why they both often tell their stories as if observing from above, to create a sense of disorientation and of falling. Noé’s perspective is voyeuristic, constantly hovering right above the action, before swirling into the deepest depths of a character. Kavan starts from more detached points of view such as stars (‘World of Heroes’), mountain tops (‘High in the Mountains’), even umpires in a tennis match (‘Out and Away’), then she dives into the inner worlds of her characters.

Agnès Varda said: ‘If we opened people up, we would find landscapes.’ This is what I particularly like about Kavan and Noé — they take a person, crack them open and show the world inside. Their focus is always on bodies and what’s going on under the skin. They are constantly trying to penetrate the human body: by depicting drug ingestion and sex, dreams and hallucinations, even by latching onto the soul as it tries to make its way to the afterlife. They won’t stop until they have gone as deep inside a person as possible.

All of these explorations of the body and through the body feel like attempts at finding an actual way that could lead to the heart. Their work often depicts drugs in the bloodstream, different sexual penetrations, or a child in the womb. It is as if getting physically closer to the heart would somehow mean grasping the love contained therein.

That the stories told by Noé and Kavan are set in Paris, Tokyo or London is immaterial. It’s never about these places for them. As Kavan writes: ‘since the universe only exists in my mind, I must have created this place.’ The vulnerable, exposed, life-battered body of the characters is the only place where any of it ever plays out. All exteriors are merely reflections of a loopy inner landscape and its beat-up map, the body.