Saturday, September 15, 2012

#140: Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)

Here I am with the difficult task of writing about a film before I've managed to organize my thoughts into any kind of coherent position. I don't know how I feel about this movie, and I don't know if I ever will know how I feel about it. I don't share the intense dislike of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, two of my favorite film writers, but I'm not one of its hesitant admirers (Roger Ebert) or ecstatic enthusiasts (Bilge Ebiri). This is an extremely accomplished, horrifying film that may also be stupid and exploitative. Surface-level shock cinema? Over-the-top pummelfest and narrative gimmick? Or something deeper about human behavior, time, and narrative chronology and achronology? I haven't made up my mind.
A warning: As a lover of form, structure, movement, light, shadow, performance, and directors' personal styles and how they arrange the frame and as a guy who is completely indifferent to plot (though I do also love storytelling and the ways stories are told), I don't particularly care about spoilers. Some of you, however, do care a lot about plot and don't want any big reveals, and I don't want to shit all over your sources of pleasure. I can't write about this movie without writing about what happens, so you may want to avoid this post if you haven't seen the movie yet and plan to see it in the future.
Irreversible tells a fairly horrific but movie-standard story of brutal rape and brutal revenge in non-movie-standard reverse chronological order in a series of 10-minute virtuosic single takes with a camera that (with one notable exception) never stops moving. The film opens with the closing credits scrolling backwards, followed by an extremely disorienting corkscrew view of flashing light that is eventually revealed as an apartment complex, where a nude old man sits on a bed with a clothed younger man, talking about time as a destroyer. The camera corkscrews down to the street below, where numerous police cars and ambulances swarm a gay S&M club called Rectum. In the following scene, two men (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) frantically storm through the hellish inferno of Rectum (I can't tell whether it's only the characters who have a deep-seated fear of homosexuality or whether it's Noe's hangup) as the disorienting sideways camera work rarely lands on a fixed image. The soundtrack continuously plays a menacing, minimal techno beat while low-level frequencies below the music cause actual nausea in the viewer. (I'm a fan of sound as a tool of audience assault, so I admired this portion of the film even as it made me feel a bit ill.) The two men, particularly Marcus (Cassel), are demanding the whereabouts of a pimp named La Tenia, sought for some unnamed transgression. The men are directed to a crowd of leather daddies and menacing muscled thugs, where La Tenia is confronted. Marcus is grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground, where his arm is broken with a sickening snap and a rape is threatened. Pierre (Dupontel) grabs a fire extinguisher and bashes La Tenia's face to pulp in an extremely graphic scene. What the men never learn is that La Tenia was standing next to them, grinning in pleasure at the murder taking place in front of him. They killed the wrong guy, but we don't find this out until the film's other tough-to-watch scene.
The rest of the film shows us in 10-minute increments the day's events leading to the murder:
A taxi is stolen and driven to Rectum when the driver refuses to take them. He is beaten and taunted with racial slurs by Marcus, while Pierre unsuccessfully attempts to reason with his friend.
Marcus, now joined by two other men, violently coerces La Tenia's identity and location out of a transsexual prostitute while Pierre, again, unsuccessfully pleads with his friend to stop.
The two men leave a party and see Marcus's girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) on a stretcher, badly beaten. Marcus is overcome with grief, and then rage. Two men come up to him and tell him they can find out who committed the assault.
Alex leaves the same party and takes a subway tunnel home where she sees a pimp beating one of his prostitutes. He notices her, the prostitute runs away, and he rapes and beats Alex in an unbroken nine-minute scene, the only scene in the film with a stationary camera.
A wild drink-, dance-, and drug-fueled party rages. Alex and Marcus have an argument and she decides to head home alone.
Alex, Marcus, and Pierre ride the subway to the party and have a long conversation about sex.
Alex and Marcus lie on a bed, naked, after sex. They tease each other, talk. They're at ease with each other. Pierre, Alex's ex and good friend to Marcus, is coming by in 30 minutes to go to the party with them.
Alex finds out she's pregnant.
Alex lies peacefully on a blanket at a park. The camera pans up into an overhead shot of Alex on the blanket and continues to move upward until we're in space. The screen fades to black and then toggles from black to white in an epileptic-fit-inducing strobe effect.
And that's it.
Noe's film, if it had proceeded in a conventional narrative arc, would have been a skillfully told but thuddingly linear piece of adolescent shock exploitation. But is taking that same structure and simply flipping it backwards a gimmick posing as complexity, or is something else going on here? I just can't decide. To Noe's credit, I haven't stopped thinking about the film since seeing it last night.
Maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. Maybe it's not an either/or proposition and the film is both complex and adolescent. I did get a sick energetic jolt from the murder scene. I find movie violence an expressive visual tool and a cathartic outlet for my own stress, but maybe some other creep is getting the same jolt from the rape scene. I don't get any catharsis or pleasure out of sexual violence, but I'm sure some audience members love seeing the stunningly beautiful, voluptuous, famous, and wealthy Bellucci getting hers, albeit in simulated form, though the scene, whether you find it offensive or necessary, is clearly orchestrated to put the viewer in Bellucci's character's place. The film also seems to condemn revenge, a concept too many people, particularly Americans, disturbingly value.
I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts about what the film is saying about narrative and time, but in the simple gesture of reversing the events, complexity (whether intentional or accidental) ensues. The film provides a happy ending (at least until the strobe effect), but it's a happy ending packed with the sadness of what will happen to these people later that day. It's also there in the title, which contradicts the film's very structure. I think there's a lot about how we watch movies and the fantasies we generate in our own lives from those movies in this structure. Could a film have addressed these same issues without graphic rape, face-smushing, and sickness-inducing camera movements and sound frequencies? Sure, but Noe's style is to bash the ever-loving tar out of his viewers, and we always need a few filmmakers to do that.

1 comment:

Tom said...

I always said that this is a fantastic film...that I'll never watch again.