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Blog Posted in avatar   Mark E. DeSnow's Blog

Defending 'Irréversible'

By Mark E. DeSnow
Posted Nov 19, 2009 in
Raw. Brutal. Disturbing. Almost unwatchable. 'Irréversible' does however, make you feel (and think) - exactly what Art is supposed to do.
Gaspar Noé's 'Irréversible' is one of those films that I'll probably never watch again. Saying it's an ordeal to get through is an understatement! As a whole, though, I found the film to be a brilliant trip into the underbelly of life. Aesthetically, Noé is no more sadistic than that current darling of film critics (for reasons I will never understand.) QuentinTarantino. But unlike the highly overrated (and truly sick) Tarantino, the little known Noé is a master of character development (among other things totally alien to SIr Quentin.) While 'Irréversible' 's vision of humanity appears unrelentingly sadistic and sexist, the film does have an emotional center which Tarantino's childish bloodfests never have.
'Irréversible' is probably the most unsettling film you will ever see. It is a tremendously disturbing film. It tests the viewer in many ways. To add to its sense of unease and tension, Noe utilizes a hand held camera accompanied by strobe lights in some scenes. The technique will literally leave you nauseous. Forget the popcorn and soda; you don't want to have anything on your stomach for this one! And don't even think of taking someone along with you. This is definitely not a date movie!
The film is told backwards, ala 'Memento'. We begin with the horror of the ending and end with beauty at the beginning. The final scenes of the film show a woman who probably has never been happier. The fact that we already know what is in store for her, makes the experience that much more powerful. Noé clearly wanted the tragic overtone to resonate throughout. Two other films have famously used this reverse chronology technique: the film of Harold Pinter's play 'Betrayal' (1983 - the story of a love affair that ends (begins) in treachery), and Christopher Nolan's 'Memento' (2000 - which begins with the solution to a murder and tracks backward to its origin).
Now consider "Irreversible." If it were told in chronological order, we would meet a couple very much in love: Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel). In a movie that is frank and free about nudity and sex, we see them relaxed and playful in bed, having sex and sharing time. (Bellucci and Cassel were in fact married in real life at the time the film was made.) Then we would see them at a party, Alex wearing a dress that makes little mystery of her perfect breasts and body. We would see a man hitting on her. We would hear it asked how a man could let his lover go out in public dressed like that: does he like to watch as men grow interested? We would meet Marcus' best friend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who himself was once a lover of Alex. Then we would follow Alex as she leaves the party and walks alone into a subway tunnel - even though she has been warned not to take that route. This bad choice on her part turns tragic when she is accosted by a pimp named Le Tenia (Jo Prestia), who brutally and mercilessly rapes and beats her for what seems like an eternity. (This scene uses a stationary-camera that never cuts away for a moment.) We would then follow Marcus and Pierre in their search for La Tenia, to avenge Alex. The camera shifts and turns, passing by people at a rapid pace. The magnificent cinematography by Noé and Benoît Debie adds to the manic, desperate mood. Their search would ultimately lead to an S&M club (aptly named 'the Rectum'), where a man mistaken for La Tenia is brutally beaten (apparently to death) in another sequence that seems to go on forever. As I said, for most people, the film is unwatchable (in any order.)
Now consider what happens if you reverse the chronology, so that the film begins with shots of the body being removed from the night club and tracks back through time to the warm and playful romance of the bedroom scenes. Desperation is the key element of the film and this is why the backward storytelling is effective. (Maybe it's too effective. One can easily imagine the reaction from a victim of a sexual trauma, such as rape. There is a very real possibility that it could trigger suppressed memories.) This is the danger of realistic filmmaking: it gets too close to the viewer's personal experiences. It CAN resurrect bad memories. (This has been a problem with cinema from day one.) We can't stop filmmakers from striving to one up one another in their attempts to achieve new levels of realism - but realism always runs the risk of taking the audience too close to its personal experiences. Noé is one of those filmmakers who deliberately breaches (more like demolishes) the wall of separation between cinematic fantasy and actual experience. This is risky for a filmmaker. The audience will either accept it or it won't.
At Cannes, where the film premiered, many critics and audience members did indeed reject it. And I too, I'll admit, was one of those who cringed. I didn't bolt for the door like those at Cannes (I was watching it on DVD) but I did consider ejecting the disc. The violence is unforgiving. Gaspar Noé apparently likes to make his audience suffer. He does this by allowing the camera to just sit there, focused on the violence. The point of view doesn't change one bit. For example (Spoiler alert), during the opening sequence, we watch in horror as the victim's face is reduced to mush by one of Alex's avengers. (He uses a fire extinguisher for this purpose.) And during the film's other notorious scene, the audience (half of which will have left already) is required watch a graphic anal rape sequence, which goes on for at least 9 minutes! (It is the longest, most agonizing 9 minutes of cinema this reviewer has ever endured.) Again the camera never moves an inch. It's an old technique, going back as far as 'The Blue Angel' (1930) at least, but it still works.
It would be easy to dismiss the film as just another product of a sick mind (ala Tarantino) and to dismiss Noé as just another obscure provocateur who shocks in order to get attention. But the makers of 'Irréversible' are too skillful, too cinematic-ally adroit. They have succeeded in forcing us out of our comfort zone - by subverting well established horror film conventions - into the unsettling world of stark, brutal reality. Modern audiences seem to have forgotten that film has this capacity. It is still a medium of enormous aesthetic power. Noé recognizes that the meaningful agility of film is often hijacked by subtle social agendas, turning very real experience into mere propaganda (or entertainment).
I will probably never watch 'Irreversible' again. But I cannot in all conscience tell you to avoid seeing it. As I've already said, it is so violent, so cruel, so ugly that it is a test most movie fans will not want to endure. In its defense, however, it IS unflinchingly honest in its depiction of the brutal crime of rape. To its credit it does not exploit. It does not pander. 'Irreversible' is not sado-pornography. Unlike the hack directors of all those stupid teen slasher movies of the Eighties, Noé does not allow us to laugh and keep our distance. We are involved it the horrific events simply by our watching it the director seems to say. We are horrified by what we see, but still we watch! And it is this aspect of the film that is truly disconcerting. Only a master filmmaker can manipulate an audience like this. Simply put, Noé possesses the talent to exploit the visceral possibilities of film more powerfully than any other contemporary director. Including Spielberg. we will be hearing more from him in the future.
'Irreversible' is like a bad traffic accident, or combat in war. One can survive these traumas, perhaps even become a better person as a result of having experienced them (after much therapy of course). But one certainly doesn't want to repeat the experience.
Mark E. DeSnow