The New Cult Canon: Irréversible

The New Cult Canon: Irréversible

Let's be clear about this from the start: Gaspar Noé's Irréversible isn't for everyone, to put it mildly. Of the 24 entries in our Inventory "Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice," it's to my mind the most extreme and difficult to sit through, a rape-revenge thriller that's deliberately calculated to attack the nervous system and keep viewers in a near-constant state of queasy disorientation. It has as its centerpiece a nine-minute, single-take rape scene that's as horrifying to witness as anything I can recall seeing in a theater; and since it unfolds in reverse chronology, the "happy ending" feels nearly as sadistic, because we know what happens in the future. Noé has been called a "punk nihilist," and like any good punk, his work deconstructs and alienates; it's safe to imagine him agreeing with John Waters' famed sentiment that someone puking during one of his movies is like a standing ovation. (Waters himself called Irréversible "the most shocking movie I ever saw in my life" and, amusingly, "the worst date movie in the history of cinema.")

Before I finally caught up with Irréversible at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, it existed as an urban legend as much as a movie. Earlier in the year, the film premièred to uproar at Cannes, where more than half the black-tied legions stuffed into the massive Lumière theater reportedly walked out in disgust. So when I sat down at the late, lamented Uptown 1 Theater—at the time, the festival's non-Gala equivalent to the Lumière in terms of seating and screen size—there was a palpable feeling of dread among many in the audience. (At least among those who had read up on it. Others just peeling off another coupon from their ticket package were woefully unprepared.) And as jaded as untold thousands of movies have made me, and as firmly as I braced myself for it, watching Irréversible remains one of the rare cases where the experience itself was worse than anything my imagination could conjure.

The first impulse after seeing Irréversible is to take a shower, literally and metaphorically, but it isn't a movie that's so easily washed away. While I would never begrudge anyone for simply not having the stomach for it, I think the mass revulsion that greeted it from many quarters was too hasty and ill-considered. Too many critics found it enough to simply write off Noé as a sadist and a homophobe who tries to couch a reprehensible vision in facile, pretentious philosophizing. Though I would describe my own opinion of the film as strongly ambivalent, I bristle at the then-prevailing wisdom that it was worthless and beneath discussion merely because it isn't pleasant to experience. There's actually a lot going on in Noé's bold provocation, so let's drop an Alka-Seltzer and dig in.

(At this point, those who haven't seen Irréversible—and aren't scared off by the prospect—are advised to take leave. I wouldn't want to spoil the beginning for you.)

Divided into 12 scenes, Irréversible unfolds from the end to the beginning, opening with an aged Philippe Nahon, as "The Butcher" from Noé's nasty debut feature I Stand Alone, voicing regret for the life he's lived. "Time destroys everything," he says. From there, Noé's film sets out to put that thesis into action. Primed to maximum disorientation, the first 15 minutes are a near-literal descent into hell, with swirling camera movements and oppressive, bass-heavy sound effects that turn the stomach before the images even have a chance to shock. Hell, in this case, is a fetishistic gay nightclub called "The Rectum," where Vincent Cassel searches frantically for the man who raped and pummeled his girlfriend Monica Bellucci earlier in the evening. Though his friend Albert Dupontel—who, importantly, turns out to be Bellucci's ex—pleads for Cassel to come to his senses, the search ends with an act of unbelievable violence, which retroactively becomes the first of many cruel ironies to come.

It isn't until later—or in this case, earlier—that we find out the context for Cassel' deranged quest for revenge. Until that point, he simply seems out of his mind, spewing epithets and shaking down people for information with a fists-first approach that would shame Mike Hammer. Seeing him behave like this before we know why is an effective strategy for Noé, who wants to show the breakdown of order and the deterioration of the rational mind. When we finally learn what happened to Bellucci, it explains Cassel's actions without necessarily justifying them, which is an important distinction to make, and one I'll get into in a bit. Our first encounter with Bellucci is maybe the saddest moment in the film: As Cassel and Dupontel leave a party, they come upon her laid out unconscious on a gurney, her face bloodied and lacerated nearly beyond recognition. And then just one quick cut into the past, she's Monica Bellucci, one of the world's most beautiful women, looking stunning in a silky, skin-tight party dress.

By the time the infamous rape scene happens, the movie has gone through a reel or so, and it's worth pointing out that the majority of the walkouts—at least at my screening, and I suspect at others, too—have already occurred. For 20 minutes, Noé has ground the audience down with his vertigo-inducing 720° camera movements and low-frequency soundtrack, courtesy of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter. Now he follows Bellucci into a symbolically loaded red tunnel beneath the city, where she crosses paths with a vicious pimp (Jo Prestia) who pins her down at knifepoint, sexually assaults her, then smashes her face in for good measure. In contrast to the visual and aural pyrotechnics that preceded it, Noé bolts the camera to the floor for the seemingly endless duration of this horrific act, and with the help of special effects—not to mention the fearless contributions of Bellucci and Prestia—he gets the whole incident in one take.

There's only one proper reaction to the rape scene in Irréversible, and that's revulsion. Opinions vary widely over whether it's necessary or gratuitous, and I can sympathize with those who resent Noé for including a scene this potent in a movie that can't support it. A few have speculated that Noé is somehow appealing to extreme misogynists who might take pleasure in seeing a woman abused, but that's nearly impossible for me to take seriously; there's nothing to take away from what happens to Bellucci other than abject horror, pure and simple. What we witness is needless destruction, and it's a stretch for people to speculate that Noé is appealing to the sickos just because they personally find his film empty and his motivations suspect.

The other, more legitimate concern is over the film's alleged homophobia, which I have trouble defending. Bellucci's assailant tells her that he doesn't normally go for women, and indeed, he frequents The Rectum, where keen-eyed viewers will notice, likely on second viewing, that he manages to sidestep Cassel' revenge plot. In one important sense, Noé needs to make it clear that the assailant's actions have nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with man's power to destroy, and having Prestia be a heterosexual might make that distinction impossible. And yet I have trouble denying the film's depiction of gay men as the height of filth and depravity, based on the rape scene and the long descent into the nightclub. Contrast that with a blissful bedroom scene later in the film, with Bellucci and Cassel frolicking in a hetero paradise, and that impression is confirmed. Some of the film's most ardent defenders have talked of The Rectum as a place of ambiguous sexuality, but I just can't see it.

There are other things about Irréversible that bother me, too, like the too-neat ironies and foreshadowing (or "postshadowing," as my colleague Noel Murray called it) that its reverse structure allows. Having Bellucci's assailant on the sidelines while Cassel and Dupontel go after the wrong man in The Rectum effectively underlines the futility of revenge, but having the man's face pummeled in much the same manner as Bellucci's is a little pat. So too is a scene later (earlier) in the bedroom when Cassel floats the idea of anal sex to Bellucci, and she scoffs it away, when we know she'll be submitting to it involuntarily. And then there are the sick what-might-have-been scenarios at the party: Would Bellucci have been raped had a drunk, coked-up Cassel not driven her away with his loutish behavior? What if she had listened to Dupontel on the way out, when he warned her it was too dangerous to leave alone? When a story is told backward, hindsight is definitely 20/20.

In spite of these serious reservations, though, Irréversible is extraordinarily ambitious and accomplished in other ways. For one, the backward timeline makes the strongest imaginable argument against vigilantism. As the title suggests, there's no going back in this life: Revenge doesn't change what's happened. What is tarnished and ripped apart cannot be made whole again.

It's little like the "remote control" moment in Funny Games stretched out to feature length, only it's Noé holding the clicker; he presses the rewind button and offers the fantasy of acts being undone, but we as viewers are acutely aware that time doesn't move in that direction. Cassel' quest for blood doesn't change anything but himself and Dupontel, who's goaded into an act of violence that eradicates his hyper-rational nature.

By going in reverse, Irréversible also gives a deeper sense of what's lost, underlined by the crushing revelation in the final scene. In Noé's mind, time is a journey from purity and innocence to degradation and corruption, and there's nothing a person can do to turn back the clock. However, there's another, more radical way of looking at it that's improbably bittersweet: Since Noé's timeline goes from hell to heaven, darkness to light, rape to un-rape, he's really offering a dream that things could be different, our humanity could be restored, and paradise could be attainable. (As my friend, Cyprus Mail critic Theo Panayides, eloquently put it, the film is "reaching for a tranquil Eden forever lost.") Those final images of Bellucci, looking radiant on the impossibly green park grass with children playing and Beethoven's Seventh swelling on the soundtrack, can make viewers forget, just for a moment, that transcendence is possible. Such is the power of the movies.

Coming Up:
Oct. 23: Office Space
Oct. 30: Rounders
In November: Horror Month, starring Near Dark, Audition, Pulse, and The Devil's Rejects.