Sorry this entry is so late, guys; I’ve been sick off and on all week. On the plus side, I’ve discovered two YouTube channels that might be of interest to readers of this blog. Channel Criswell features analyses of important filmmakers and their techniques. The Nerdwriter offers video essays on art, philosophy, and current events. Both have been sources of inspiration for me. Perhaps you’ll find them interesting, too. -E.F.
From nostalgia for a rural childhood to an urban nightmare that cannot be escaped. Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is by far the least comfortable cinematic experience I have ever had. With its explicit tour through a gay S&M club, a grisly murder [via fire extinguisher to the face], and its brutal rape scene, it’s not a movie I’d suggest to the casual viewer. Yet its complex camerawork and reversed story-line make it a worthy example of the possibilities of cinema. But again, it is not for general audiences. This beast has some serious teeth.
More Than Emotions: The Assaultive Cinematography of Irréversible
It’s a truism that’s been repeated ad nauseam: movies should make us feel. Normally, the filmmaker’s goal is to elicit an emotional reaction from her audience. Make us laugh, cry, gape in awe, hide our faces in terror. There is, however, an understanding between artist and audience: it’s only a movie. We watch, we feel, but what we feel is not the same as what we would feel were we really seeing these things unfold in front of us. Noé, however, bulldozes that distinction, offering something more primal. Irréversible forces us to feel on a visceral level.
From its very first shot, Irréversible disorients us. We float before a nondescript brick building. The camera swings and rolls for several minutes; we cannot tell which way is up. We enter an upper floor apartment, where the camera weaves back and forth around two men discussing whether our actions can be good or bad.
Their discourse is interrupted by shouts and sirens from the street, centered around the underground gay club called The Rectum. We launch back over the street, where three men are brought out from the club: one in a body bag, one on a stretcher, one in handcuffs. The nauseating cinematography continues as we float along the highway with the vehicles, passing ghost-like through the side of the ambulance, back into traffic, into a police van, back outside. At one point the camera ricochets off a passing car. I don’t get carsick very often, but after about ten minutes, my stomach was queasy.
As the story progresses backward, the camera’s lurching lessens. The remainder of the first act follows Marcus [ambulance man] and Pierre [handcuffs] as they descend through the levels of The Rectum, searching for “Le Tenia” [“The Tapeworm”], a man we later learn has brutally raped and assaulted Marcus’s girlfriend, Alex.. The camera rolls and whip-pans past the clientele, bathed in hellish red light, engaging in various sadomasochistic sexual acts. Pierre trails behind Marcus, begging him to come back. At the bottom level, Marcus attacks a man he mistakes for Le Tenia. The man breaks Marcus’s arm and prepares to rape him; Pierre appears and bludgeons the man to death with a fire extinguisher. The camera looks on, bouncing with each blow to the man’s face.
All of this is accompanied by a headache-inducing low-frequency siren loop. This, combined with the lurching camera, makes me wonder how many of the people who allegedly puked during the premiere did so before anything gruesome happened. I know I came close.
The overall effect of these first twenty-plus minutes is like being trapped on some nightmare carnival ride that won’t stop. In part, Noé seems to be replicating Marcus’s distraught, substance-addled state of mind. Simultaneously, the thoughts racing through our minds under this assault — Please stop! I want this to be over! — mimic the experience of a rape victim. We want out; we can’t get out. We’re stuck for the duration.
Which leads me to the actual rape scene, which occurs halfway through the film. Those of you who remember Syd Field’s three-act paradigm will recognize this scene as the mid-point, the crucial scene which bisects the film into its two halves [and what different halves they are!] After a fight with Marcus, Alex leaves a party, opting to walk home through a pedestrian tunnel rather than contend with traffic. She catches Le Tenia beating a prostitute and intervenes. He turns on her; for the next nine minutes, the camera stares as he forces her to the ground and anally rapes her. Afterward, he slams her face repeatedly into the ground. “Now I’m finished with you,” he says, and spits on her unconscious body before walking away.
On the basis of this scene, many reviewers labeled the entire film as crass exploitation, Gaspar Noé going for shock value. Indeed, many lump Irréversible together with 1970s “rape and revenge” exploitation films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) or Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973). Others compared it to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). On the other hand, Roger Ebert wrote that Irréversible, “does not exploit. It does not pander. [It] is not pornography.” We’ll get into his reasons in a minute. First, I want to touch on something he does not mention: the cinematography of the scene.
What most negative reviews of the film seem to have missed is that, unlike the other films mentioned above or dozens of others, Irréversible does not eroticize its rape scene. As this commentator argues, there is little difference between the way most movies film rape scenes and the way they film scenes of consensual sex. Even when the sexual assaults are intended to shock, the basic editing is the same: a mix of wider shots, close-ups of the victim’s face, and either point of view [POV] or over-the-shoulder shots [OSS].
These last two are used throughout cinema to encourage identification between the audience and a character. In a POV shot, we see what the character sees:
In an OSS, we see a slightly different view than the character, but we are still “on their side,” so to speak:
OSSs used in rape scenes are, of necessity, over the shoulder of the character not being pinned into a restrictive space — that is, over the shoulder of the rapist. This encourages the viewer to identify, however briefly, with the assailant. Similarly, close-ups of the victim’s face seem to operate much like POV shots. The viewer becomes present, a voyeuristic participant in a glamorized fantasy of rape.
Irréversible plays none of these editing tricks. The entire rape scene unfolds in a single, unbroken long shot. Noé locks down his camera for the first and only time in the film. We are no longer disoriented, but fully present, much to our horror. There are no treats for the voyeur, no flashes of identification with either character: only nine minutes of Alex struggling against Le Tenia’s grip, trying to scream through the hand clamped over her mouth. Never mind the fantasy of rape. The reality has been thrown in our faces, and it is not fucking around.
With its assaultive, at times nauseating camerawork, Irréversible attempts to bring something different to the table. Instead of allowing us to maintain them, Gaspar Noé takes a wrecking ball to our normal film-going defenses — it’s only a movie, I’m here to be entertained. Some dismiss his approach as mere shock value, but there’s more going on. By placing Alex’s rape at the story’s midpoint, the director asks us to consider the ways in which sexual assault derails lives, an idea brought even further home by the film’s reverse chronology.
Time Destroys All Things
Roger Ebert points to the film’s structure as an argument against labeling Irréversible as an exploitation flick. Were it one, the rape and fire extinguisher murder would both occur near the end, a sort of “payoff” toward which the entire film builds. Instead, we see the fallout from the assault first. Then we piece together who these three friends were, in lives now shattered forever.
By themselves, or even told first, the scenes which precede the rape chronologically would be amusing, even sweet. Presented in the second half, however, they turn cruelly ironic. A drugged-up Marcus quarrels with Alex at a party while Pierre [Alex’s ex, and still clearly infatuated] tries to corral him. The three friends take a subway to the party, bantering about Pierre’s shortcomings as a lover [Pierre is described as “too cerebral,” and too focused on pleasing his partner; he describes Marcus as an “animal” — something we’ve heard him do in darker contexts*]. Earlier still, Alex and Marcus make love and tease each other; they discuss the possibility that Alex might be pregnant, which pleases them both. But their love-play foreshadows the things to come: Marcus pins Alex to the bed, promising to make her “pay” for having to spend the evening with Pierre. Some of his lines parallel uncomfortably with Le Tenia’s mocking commentary during the rape, too, turning a tender scene between lovers into something darker. When Marcus leaves to buy alcohol, Alex takes a test and confirms that she is, in fact, pregnant. She laughs, overjoyed. Yet as the film’s closing card states [echoing the film’s first line], “Time destroys all things.”.
Some commentators have dismissed this credo as trite. I suspect many of them do not grasp Noé’s meaning; others are probably clinging to the idea of Irréversible as crass exploitation. Yet this end title precisely describes the process of memory: we remember our past, not as it was, but through the veil of subsequent experience. So the romantic moment between lovers becomes reflective of the dark times that follow it. What should be the happiest moment of Alex’s life becomes the worst. Similarly, Pierre’s conviction that he is a cerebral, reasonable man [unlike Marcus the animal] is destroyed by that fire extinguisher in The Rectum. All that was is gone, annihilated in only a few hours. We’re left to wonder, what can be left to any of them now?
It’s hard to imagine a viewing experience more uncomfortable than Irréversible. In telling his story backward, Gaspar Noé asks us to contemplate the past’s relation to the present and future, and the insanity of violent retaliation against violence. Meanwhile, his distinctive cinematography tears down the agreed-upon boundaries between film and audience, dragging us kicking and screaming into a real, physical experience. Irréversible suggests an entirely different range of possibilities for the world of cinema. We need not entertain; we can provoke. We need not settle for emotional responses when we can create physical ones.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take a very, very long shower…
On deck: from the dawn of man to the future and beyond…
*Alex’s comments here [“You have to let loose and think only of yourself”] prove painfully ironic in light of what later happens to her, as does a moment in a later scene, in which she tells Marcus that he didn’t steal her from Pierre. “It’s always the woman who chooses,” she says.