2003 TOP 10 — Number 5
IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)
Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music — a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable?
Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are … why are you still reading?
So … why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.
I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film’s world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former’s there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one.
There is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety — what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals — basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite — and completely pitiless — purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them.
The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen — any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him — and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”
In one of George Will’s greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p–sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography’s effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography.
Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.
Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point — which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good.
In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up — between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Rectum sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M club, Noe gives us a major achievement — a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.
So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party — a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But … he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long — about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.
But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder.
Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene — the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place — the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know¹ musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.
¹ They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.
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