Irréversible

Date of viewing: February 1, 2013

‘Irréversible’ is a movie that is designed to pummel its audience, but one soon finds out that there more beneath the surface. A velvet hand inside this iron glove? Perhaps. Whatever the case may be, whatever one thinks, this is a motion picture that most certainly shouldn’t be watched on a superficial level. There’s more to it than mere shock and provocation.

Without them, ‘Irréversible’ might have come off lopsided, unconvincing. However, between Noé’s careful construction and our trio’s pitch-perfect performances, this motion picture is able to make its case, is able to rise above its exploitative roots. Whereas another film would tell the same tale for the sake of titillation, Noé’s monster has a mind and a soul to subdue its jet-black heart.

  • A touch of humanity is brought to the fore by Albert Dupontel, who plays the best friend of his ex’s new lover. He still loves his ex dearly and wants to protect her – even from her new beau. This is why Dupontel is watching out for him – so that she can’t be hurt inadvertently. He is devoted, caring, protective. (On a side note, one can barely imagine that she would ever be with him, homely as he is).
  • Then there is the blistering turn by Vincent Cassel, who is shown on a rampage from the get-go: fuelled with rage and sorrow, out for blood, everyone and everything is merely a hurdle – he is committed to his course of action. For the second half, he transforms into a goofy, irresponsible party animal, dancing and cruising around, carefree – like a horny Tigger. It’s quite the metamorphosis.
  • For starters, there is the stunning performance by Monica Belucci, who couldn’t possibly have done better. Could anyone, really? While she is very good in most of the film, the central scene is where she proves herself as an actress. You can feel her terror, understand how vulnerable she feels, sense her every tremor. It’s a powerhouse performance, and it’s a wonder why she wasn’t acclaimed for it.

It helps that he was backed by a phenomenal cast, of course:

If that’s not cinema at it’s most powerful, then nothing is.

And that’s why I believe that, responsible or not, Noé’s film is masterful. He managed to create a work that proves its own argument perfectly, and which, in the process, tells us much about ourselves, about our ability to survive. In ninety minutes, he has shown us some of the most horrific and most beautiful moments in life, and shown us their impermanence. Made us experience it.

This can be taken positively and negatively, of course. One can easily say that good things never last, things fade away. But the same can be said for horrible things: with time, they lose their power over us – they, too, fade away. Certainly, this is a slap in the face after the gorgeous final scene we’ve seen, but it is also the film’s coda: with the passage of time, the effect of the film’s initial violence lost its hold on us.

Then Noé closes/begins the film with a warning: “Le temps détruit tout”. Or, time destroys all things.

At that point, we are calmed by the stillness, by the bodies wrapped in one another, by the quiet exchanges between lovers, at the beauty of the moment. And, before long, Noé takes us even further into beauty, with Monica Belucci outside in a park, reading by herself, surrounded by young families, children at play, by life. It’s the antithesis of the darkness we have been privy to.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie takes us further away from the traumatic experiences of the first half of the film. We follow our leads from a bedroom to a subway to a noisy house party all in reverse-chronological order. By the time that we get to the bedroom, at the end of the film, alone with the couple as they are intimate, we are effectively removed from the violence.

This is a film far too polarizing to ever find unanimity. It is provocative to the extreme, and as such will stir strong emotions – emotions that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to soothe.

Since seeing this film I can’t help but wonder if ‘Irréversible’ is a responsible film. Does it have artistic merit? Does it have some redeeming values? Or am I being an apologist to hide my guilt, my sense of shame, my disgust? One could easily argue both sides of the equation, but it’s clear that it would be impossible to ever get unanimous consent on this issue.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

If redeeming value there is.

This scene challenges its audiences to look deep inside themselves and as ask themselves these questions. Traumatizing as its, it is also its greatest strength, and its key redeeming value.

The victim of such an act is being traumatized to the ultimate degree: body, mind, soulnone are left unstained by that experience and it can take half a lifetime to forget, if ever at all. How dare any of us look away from another’s pain? How dare any of us choose to minimize the deep destruction of another being? We shouldn’t, and Noé doesn’t allow us to.

Further to this, by making it a static shot, with no cuts or movements, Noé refused to stylize this outrage – unlike Hollywood, who would try to make it visually exciting and censor the violence, in effect sanitizing it and making it digestible. Noé purposely made it indigestible. An act such as this should be: reducing it to a highlight would be dishonest and disrespectful.

It’s a film that forces its audience to make a moral choice. It incites participation.

For one, this forces the viewer to choose between: continuing to watch, turn off the television or walk away. If one chooses to watch, one can’t help but feel one’s powerlessness and consider what one would do in real life, if one were actually there. If one chooses to stop watching, one is turning a blind eye on a despicable act and, thus, become complicit in it.

It’s a clever approach.

  • Finally, there is the fact that Noé set the camera down in one place and refused to move it the entire time, imprisoning the audience alone with the aggressor and his victim, refusing to give them any respite from the agony. It forces the audience to be a bystander, incapable of doing anything to stop the violence, the injustice.
  • Thirdly, there’s the fact that this act of destruction is aimed at a woman so sublime – beauty forever tainted is always heart-wrenching. (I’m not saying that the act would be less vile with a different victim. Never. It’s an unacceptable act, no matter what, no matter who. I’m saying that, from an esthetic perspective, it’s even more difficult to watch.)
  • Secondly, there’s the contrasting weakness of the aggressor’s victim and her pleas for pity.
  • Firstly, there’s the act itself, which is extreme and impossible to digest.

It is devastating on multiple fronts:

It’s a rape. But a rape of such unflinching brutality that it can’t possibly leave anyone feeling unshaken.

The central piece (literally and figuratively) of ‘Irréversible’ is one of the most jarring motion picture experiences that I’ve ever witnessed, and it’s not for the faint of heart. In fact it’s utterly revolting and leaves a imprint on the memory.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

But it’s only about to get worse. Much, much worse.

The next half hour or so consists of flashbacks, of our protagonist finding his way to the Rectum, following the leads that are connected for him by a few unsavoury characters. As we get further and further from the opening, the film becomes less and less frenetic, eventually taking a more casual approach. We are seeing the film’s build-up backwards.

Through the visual chaos, we are further destabilized by the soundtrack: the repetitive music (created by no less than Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter) and the constant shouts by our protagonist – who is accompanied by his friend, who is trying to calm him down. It won’t take long before this sensory madness reaches a crescendo of violence, a brutal end to the scene that is our link to the film’s beginning.

What follows is a scene of aggression and debauchery rarely seen on the screen. An underground club (literally and figuratively), the Rectum is a gay club with an s&m bend to it. The place is cramped, filthy-looking, infused with a orange-red colour scheme, and it’s filled to the brim with men in all sorts, in all stages of undress, practicing all manners of “depravity”.

Our guide: a man on a rampage, looking for someone in the depths of this urban grotto.

Soon, after a brief exchange between two men to situate us slightly, we come straight down in a bird’s eye view shot and see the aftermath of what will soon take place. Or did. There are police officers, an ambulance, and people being taken out of a club with the shudder-inducing name of “Rectum”. We are then taken inside the darkness of this aptly-named venue.

What we are seeing is a world turned on its head. Still turning on its head, in fact. There is darkness, there are breaches of light, but it’s all spinning round and round. We seem to be up high above the ground, but the ambient sounds seeping through the droning music (if you can call it that) doesn’t give us a sense of place; there are sirens and noise, noise, noise.

…dragging us into a nausea-inducing combination of a rotating camera and droning electronic music blasting through the speakers. What we are experiencing is the mental state of affairs by the end of the tale… which, evidently, we are privy to first and foremost, with no foreknowledge of what should typically be taking us there.

Whereas most films would build up to a crescendo, ‘Irréversible’ begins with a crescendo and gradually works its way down from the halfway point. To that end, Gaspar Noé decided to run it in reverse-chronological order, starting with the end credits – which, appropriately enough, scroll from the bottom up. And then start to skew sideways…

This will have to be my last time. Beyond the guilt and embarrassment, it was clear that I am growing immune to some of it (thankfully, not all of it). It’s a movie I will be able to talk about, but not something that I should see again, for fear that I could become tolerant of the unacceptable psychological and physical violence on display.

Needless to say, the moment that the film began, I started to get flashes of many parts I had forgotten. I was immediately flushed with regret; I was no longer sure of how this would play. And as the film precipitated to its gruesome centrepiece, a part of me felt like asking if we should stop it and watch something else. But we carried forward.

Well… it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Flash forward ten years, and a friend of mine had a Saturday night off and suggested that we watch something we couldn’t otherwise watch unconstrained. Since he started some film studies classes and has been exploring classic and more challenging cinema in that context, I suggested ‘Irréversible’; it’s certainly discussion-worthy on many levels.

We discussed it, of course, and my buddy was of the opinion that it certainly was a exceptionally well-made film, that it wasn’t trash passing itself off as cinema. But it remained that, he too, found the experience grueling. That’s when I knew that I would put the film to rest and likely not see it again for a very, very, long time. As long as possible.

I was right: devoid of the element of surprise, with my ability to mentally prepare for the onslaught, it had a very reduced impact the second time around. I didn’t like that I should already be slightly detached from the experience – it’s absolutely not something one should be immune to. I had expected a second viewing to be relatively potent.

But I had to get one of my best buds’ impression of it. Given his analytical skills, I felt that he could be removed just enough that he would be able to process ‘Irréversible’ from a more objective standpoint and view its strengths and weaknesses in a way that many others wouldn’t. So I braced myself, and watched it with him a second time.

I suspected, after seeing it, that it was a movie that you should only watched once, that it was meant to traumatize its audience, and, thus, isn’t intended for repeat viewing; as with any experience, we humans can adapt relatively quickly, become desensitized to stimuli. I felt that this was a motion picture that one shouldn’t become numb to.

I was floored by it. It was as though someone had punched me in the gut. Then kicked me in the groin. Thankfully, director Gaspar Noé constructed the film in such a way that the viewer is pulled through and out of the more contentious bits with increasing layers of cinematic salve, but it doesn’t change the fact that the first part was utterly shocking.

So I watched it.

Not long after, a friend got a copy of ‘Irréversible’ on DVD. I had heard plenty about its controversial nature by then, but I wanted to judge it for myself. The fact that Belucci was in it obviously helped some, but mostly I understood that it wasn’t without merit, that it wasn’t apparently exploitative or done in a sensationalistic fashion.

What I seem to remember of that outing was that it wasn’t at all what some of them were expecting. Some of the women, in particular, were shaken by what they saw. Even one of my friends, who was a huge Cassel fan at the time, didn’t come back with mixed feelings about the picture. It was clearly more than most could handle. And should.

In ‘2002’ some friends from work went out to see ‘Irréversible’ at the local arthouse cinema. Some were spurred by the presence of Vincent Cassel, some by the presence of Monica Belucci, both in their prime. I didn’t go, partly because I knew nothing of the film, partly because I was working late. I really didn’t think anything of it.

“Le temps détruit tout.”

eyesores: the nightmarish brutality of the first half.
eyelights: the technical proficiency. the carefully thought-out narrative. the performances.

Irréversible 9.0

***********************************************************************

Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are a couple whose story is told over the course of a fateful day. The odyssey begins with a brutal killing then unspools in reverse to reveal the horrifying events that lead to the gut-wrenching, violent climax of the opening scene. Irreversible’s disturbing look at fate and destiny pushes the envIrréversibleelope of human emotions and takes filmmaking to another level.

Synopsis: One Of The Most Controversial Films Of The Year!

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