Published Mar 01, 2003Told in reverse order, Gaspar Noé's new film Irreversible is about narrative. And it's about memory. And the sick joke at the heart of this film is that Noé goes out of his way to show the audience two horrifying scenes of violence (one of them a protracted rape scene) and then uses the narrative to point out that it's impossible to erase something from your mind after you've witnessed it. I think this is a worthy film (Noé calls it his latest "provocation" easy there, Gaspar), but you won't find many essentialist feminists lining up to defend it. The story uses rape and the subsequent revenge in a profoundly amoral manner. This isn't a film about misogyny, or the psychological after-effects of sexual assault, and it's not about our culture of violence. Rather, it uses these visceral elements to question the relationship between audience and filmmaker, and to question the ways we like movies to lie to us.
When the film begins, the end credits start to roll, but they start to teeter and threaten to fall off the screen, as if the film stock knows there's something really wrong with this. You'll have that feeling of dissonance and dislocation throughout the film. The camera prowls through the back alleys of the Paris streets as if it was attached to a jet pack or something, and when it finds one of our protagonists (Vincent Cassel), he's being wheeled out on a stretcher. The story proceeds from this aftermath (Cassel and friend have just taken vicious revenge on a rapist) and scene-by-scene works its way backwards to the actual rape (it occurs in the middle of the film) and it's a horrifying inevitability.
Noé gives the audience no excuses for not leaving the theatre (in his previous film, I Stand Alone, he flashes a warning on the screen, telling people they have one minute left to walk out on the film). There is no lulled complacency here; the viewers are complicit in a strange way. During the prolonged assault, the scene is staged so that Monica Bellucci's hand is outstretched towards the screen, as if she's begging for help. It is hell to sit through, and I squirmed in my seat, checking my Indiglo as it unfolded (10:57am), and then about an hour later (10:58am) proof that movies can slow down time as well as reverse it.
This is the kind of film that will probably inspire extreme reactions, but it deserves a middling review. The narrative is basic to the point of being primal, and the dialogue scenes limp along (Noé has no feel for "the everyday," he's only really interested in extreme states) but it's also a fiendishly effective exercise in audience "re-wiring." We like "happy endings," so we're given a deliriously happy ending (the narrative works its way back to a moment of pure joy an affirmation of the life force itself), but you have to hate yourself for surrendering to it.
I'd almost compare Irreversible to Godard's Weekend (although Noé isn't nearly as clever as Godard), as it seems to represent some kind of cinematic apocalypse. But where Godard ended his film with, "End of Film. End of Cinema," Noé is more of a sub-verbal provocateur. The screen lights up like a supernova until we can't look at it anymore (and I mean that literally). This is a stunt that will really only work in a movie theatre. If you're brave enough, or masochistic enough to see the movie, you'll see why.