One fire extinguisher in one scene, one rapist in another: that’s everything Gaspar Noé needed to make one of the most visceral and gruesome, and divisively so, films of the twentieth century. It’s aggressively stylish, and it excels at that in a way that few films can. As a consequence, the film may be either a violent form of modern classic or a despicable piece of overestimated exploitation – hardly something in between. The film’s polarizing nature comes from the way it handles violence: raw, unsettling, “realistic”; it takes violence for what it is. That could be the end of it, since many movies get rave reviews for its realistic and highly contextual depiction of violence, but Noé’s film is so extreme in its violence that to decide whether it’s fair or exploitative becomes an obligatory quest for the viewer. Films like Irreversible make me wonder: is this the most intelligent choice a filmmaker can make for the sake of art?
The film, one of many wild entries of the French Extremity movement, is something of a technical tour de force, a bad boy’s version of sex, drugs and electronic music that blows its narrative arc to bits and flips our frame of reference whenever we feel safe and comfortable in our seats. Told in thirteen episodes presented in reverse chronological order, the film ends at the beginning and begins at the ending, both unnerving, destructive sucker punches that prepare you to enter the film with an adapted stomach and leave it euqally disoriented. The beginning is a series of twists, turns and blinks, an explosive introduction to a film that is even rougher; as far as I can tell, it’s brilliant, and it has no fair adversary at what it does. The middle, the film itself, is the collection of episodes, semi-improvisational and digitally built as unbroken scenes, each creating the necessary context for the next. Each of these episodes is a layer of the vengeful quest of Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who aimlessly look to find the man who raped the former’s girlfriend, Alex (Monica Belucci). The ending draws back to a conflict-free past of tranquility and innocence, a painful contrast to the blood and sweat so pervasive in the rest of the film.
If the film is radical on its narrative style, the camera follows it with uncompromising explosiveness. The only moment of true stability comes in the film’s middle, the traumatizing rape scene that divides the first six-and-a-half brutal episodes from the pre-game that encapsulates the last six. This scene, terrifying to look at the more you think of it and the more aware you are of its brutality, is almost entirely shot from a static shot of pure voyeurism: in every other scene, the camera wildly explores the film’s corridors and endless rooms without ever really giving us a break. While there’s less agitation in Irreversible’s second half, the first half is pure adrenaline and rage. Noé, who was also the camera operator, completely brushes aside any sense of equilibrium that we may have: horizontal becomes vertical, up becomes down, inertia becomes movements and vice-versa. What feels like a gimmick in so many action blockbusters, with their shaky cameras and their pointless cuts, is a triumphant advantage for Irreversible, because the action remains both disorienting and legible. It’s a devilish, unnerving anti-adventure; to put it simply as a crossover of Birdman and Memento would be putting it mildly.
The visual brilliance is further supported by a vibrant use of color and sound to enhance the sense of disquietude that the film so passionately provides. The soundtrack by Thomas Bangalter, half of the Daft Punk duo (which has more than once ventured into film soundtracks), gives the film pulses and beat that trap its subjects in a mixture of psychedelic effusiveness and visceral confusion. From the closing credits to the film’s extended party scene, the film has a remarkable resonance. This resonance is something inherently connected to the social scene which Marcus, Alex and Pierre are part of, and it’s the very reason why raves and parties in general are so entrancing and so lively. The colors, which range from deep red to light greens to blue and yellow party lights, are just as pulsating. It’s only when the calm follows the storm that we get a chance to return to some sort of visual safety, a soothing glimpse of real life.
But with all that visual splendor, one might ask if it’s not a dirty gimmick, one of the many attempts at throwing every trick in the book of non-linear flairs that has given us so much trash in recent years. It’s not, and Roger Ebert makes a solid case for Noé’s reverse narrative: revenge, and the violence it creates, is not the payoff, but the set-up. By starting the consequence of Marcus and Pierre’s quest, the film reveals its stupidity directly, and gradually reveals the stupidity of their solution (which I do find exaggeratedly violent, and I sense some pride in the scene from Gaspar Noé); we’re introduced first to the revenge in ts raw form, separated from its causes, and later we see everything they put at stake and everything they got to lose.
The problem of the film, and the obvious reason why it’s attracted so much criticism, is the fact that the elimination of catharsis is much blurrier when it comes to Alex’s violation. Since there’s no real set-up for the revenge per se, it becomes exactly what it is: a mindless, pointless discharge of anger and hatred that brings no benefits to the avengers involved. But there is a set-up for the rape scene; in fact, it consumes half of the film. By avoiding to introduce Alex anytime before her major appearance, the film leaves us anticipating her defeat, and when it comes, it’s as horrible as we’d imagine it, or even worse. It’s as if we were only waiting for it to happen; the rape scene is horrendous, to say the least. Whether all this helps us feel for her that she only enters the story after her rape or backfires against the film’s intentions by implying that she’s slightly more than a meat bag is up to interpretation, but the divisiveness and the ambiguity of the film is so exaggerate it becomes unwanted.
Another complication of Irreversible is that the film deliberately dumbs down its story by refraining from giving its characters the substance that they so deservedly need to compensate for their animalesque traits. For a filmmaker that clearly knows what he’s doing, Noé is doing us a disservice here; the Kubrick and Nietzsche references are spot on, but the way they’re reference makes them sound like the beginner’s philosophy of a Matrix installment. Out of the three main characters, only Pierre has an interesting character development from the beginning to the end of the story: he oscillates from cold rationality to sexual curiosity to explosive rage, and he has an interesting background that puts him under a new perspective in each and every scene. The rest of the film is the kind of drunk, pointless dialogue that predominates at parties and other social encounters, when the boozed and the tipsy randomly discuss sex and relationships as if they had an instructions manual memorized. But the film could use a more sober script, since that alone only makes for an above-average experience: there’s no exuberance or deep rationality, only sexual desire and nerves. After all, if there’s no brain in the story, isn’t it exactly what its detractors claim it to be – violence and sex?
There’s no denial, however, that Noé is aiming for a vicious critique of the troublesome attitude that defines so many mainstream, that soften male and female rape and treat it with kids gloves. It seems that many directors, even the most talented, are not minding the trauma that it inflicts on these people: think of Back to the Future or Saturday Night Fever, films adored by countless fans in the whole world but extremely offensive in the way they gloss over their rape scenes. Nothing should be clear by the end of the film but that the rape it’s depicting, just as much as Marcus’ revenge, is irreversible, destructive to the core. Its preceding aftermath couldn’t be more painful, and it’s even too sentimental for its own sake – it keeps trying to draw anti-parallels between Marcus and the rapist, most of them for shock value alone.
Irreversible, I believe, means well. I didn’t find it homophobic, as it many critics did; instead, I believe it simply shows another facet of aggressive sexuality among many. I also didn’t find it purposefully exploitative, as much as there’s ground for this argument. But my inevitable conclusion is that the film also doesn’t do much to avoid this label. It could’ve been much more than what it actually is, and that is an unforgivable letdown.
Director: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Monica Belucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or (nominated)