Irréversible: Hollow Exercise in Provocation and Exploitation or Ingenious Deconstruction of Genre Cinema?
Raising the bar of shock is a parlour game for overwrought minds. It’s a pity the talented Noé is stuck in such a juvenile pursuit. (Nick James speaking after Cannes 2002, p20 Sight & Sound, Feb 2003)
A formalist exercise in narrative construction, a machine for producing shock, oiled on hype and exemplary cinematic technique. (Leslie Felperin, p48 Sight & Sound, Mar 2003)
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to propose Irréversible (2002) as one of the most controversial films of the 21st Century thus far. The film’s narrative itself is not unduly remarkable; a study of three people (a couple, Alex and Marcus, plus Alex’s ex-lover, Pierre) as their day descends into tragedy when Alex is brutally raped after a party, and Marcus and Pierre subsequently search through the streets of Paris for the culprit. What is remarkable, and generated so many column inches in the wake of the film’s premiere at Cannes in 2002, is the presentation of that narrative. Not only has directed Gaspar Noé told the story in reverse, beginning with the calamitous revenge mission and ending with Alex’s blissful morning in a park, but the graphic and raw depiction of those events provokes an undeniable and intentional visceral effect on all who see the film (no doubt enraging a fair percentage of those viewers).
The first scene of prime controversy involves the bludgeoning of the supposed rapist in the club “Le Rectum” at the end of the night when Pierre smashes the man’s head into a pulp with the blunt end of a fire extinguisher. The second, and arguably murkier and more controversial, sequence is the rape of Alex midway through the film that acts as catalyst for the later scene of violence. In this rape sequence, Alex is accosted in a demonically-lit underpass, before being brutally raped and heinously beaten into a coma – all this in front a static, unflinching camera for an excruciating ten-minute period.
The debate over the film’s relative merits is beautifully encapsulated in the polar reactions to those two scenes. The negative reading of Noé’s film has been to suggest grotesque exploitation of his subject matter (rape, sex, violence – common crime movie fodder) for the purposes of sensationalisation. Why does an audience need to see a man’s head pummelled almost to the point of disintegration when a violent act can depicted as shocking but in a less provocative, subtler manner – think Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 (1999) where Paul Bettany’s character brutally murders a cohort, but the camera takes the viewpoint of the victim so although we see the horrific manner in which his life is taken, we are left to imagine the carnage that was actually inflicted on his face and body.
The film’s supporters read Noé’s motives in a totally opposite way. They cite the common anti-censorship argument claiming Noé’s graphic depiction of rape and violence to be only a realistic portrayal of what actually happens to victims of crime, and that too many movies have anaesthetised the viewer to the real outcome of sex crimes and murders. Noé’s Irréversible, his champions would claim, is actually a deconstruction of a classic revenge movie, and the reverse chronology narrative and unsettling scenes of rape and murder are not cynical exploitations of the genre’s raw materials but a lens through which once can truly comprehend the consequences of violent actions, and where Noé can take his philosophising to another level in which his nihilistic principles are laid out in the film’s opening and closing mantra: “Time Destroys All Things”.
Irrespective of one’s stand on the ethics of Irréversible, it’s impossible to deny the technical expertise and directorial brilliance that Noé lends the film. Even Nick James, whose scathing opinion of Irréversible’s politic opens this essay, confesses that Noé has undoubted weight as a filmmaker. Therefore, to contend that Irréversible is a trite exercise in audience-bating would be to gravely underestimate the ingenious, intention merging of form to content in Noé’s modus operandi. Equally though, one would be remiss to neglect that expert directors have often used their proficiency of craft to glaze over the potentially questionable ethics of their pieces (Jean-Pierre Jeunet anyone?) Noe constructs his film in twelve continuous takes that move from the end of the story to the beginning – and the effect these single takes have is to transport the viewer into the verité of the characters’ situations and to make one more complicit in and comprehending of their actions. The drama seems to be happening ‘live’ around the cameras as opposed to choreographed camerawork and the use of cuts overly framing our understanding of the characters and their stories. Noé uses other pure cinematic tools to push along the story; from the freneticism of the handheld cinematography as Marcus and Pierre search feverishly for ‘Le Rectum’ on the streets of Paris, to the frayed sound editing and strobe lighting which disorientates the viewer when Marcus actually rampages into the club looking for the rapist. There’s even a hint of Hitchcock in the slightly old-fashioned Bernard Herrmann-esque score that occurs at the beginning of the film to aestheticise the horror which is to come.
Even in the rape sequence, Noé employs exemplary cinematic technique to guard against the likely criticism that the scene is needlessly explicit in its depiction of Alex’s degradation. From the moment the rapist apprehends Alex and drags her to the ground with a knife at her throat, the camera sits dispassionately and statically as Alex’s traumatic experience unfolds in front of it. The viewer may find this scene upsetting, but then Noé would claim that to be raped is upsetting, and only the neutral observation of Alex’s treatment can represent rape as an unequivocal act of violation, completely decontextualised from ‘sex’ – something detractors have claimed is ambiguous in the scene due to the uncommon beauty of actress Monica Bellucci and the provocative dress she wears.
The last ten years have seen a huge rise in the number of films that toy with chronology. From Memento (2000) where the reverse-chronology timeframe sits perfectly with the tale of vigilante with short-term memory loss trying to piece together the clues to a murder, to Pulp Fiction (1994) where the technique is employed more in the name of postmodern fun as characters come ‘back to life’ (John Travolta’s Vincent Vega dies halfway through the film, but then plays a major part in the dramatic denouement) and earlier scenes gain embellishment (Bruce Willis’ boxer is seen in an early sequence having a conversation with Ving Rhames’ gang leader, but it’s only later in the film that we’re able to understand the significance of that sighting).
Irréversible uses the reverse chronology ‘tactic’ in a similar way to Memento, though arguably to even greater effect. In Memento the main function of the dynamic is to place in the audience in the same confused state as the amnesiac protagonist, where as Irréversible has a grander philosophical purpose. First, we see the act of vengeance before we even know who the guilty party is, who the exactors of the vengeance are, and what event caused this violent retribution to take place. As Mark Kermode notes in his piece for February 2003’s “Sight and Sound”, ‘ we are faced with the spectacle of violence in the abstract, uncontextualised by narrative’. The irony is of course, as the film’s narrative unspools, Pierre kills the wrong person, and the actual rapist gets away scot-free, even taking visible pleasure in the gruesome end Pierre exacts upon the would-be rapist. A further defence of Noé’s frayed chronology can be explained through the debate over Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñarritú’s 21 Grams (2003) which was released less than a year after Irréversible. In it, Gonzalez-Iñarritú uses a fractured timeframe to depict three characters whose lives have been inexorably altered by a fatal car crash. Critics of the film have claimed the hashing together of non-sequential scenes is just a fancy way of jazzing up what is essentially a soap opera. That may be the case, but therein lies the art, to find the thoughtworthy or transcendent in the prosaic. Certainly this is what Noé has done in Irréversible; by reversing the narrative, he has denied his audience the usual satisfaction of a conventional revenge movie conclusion, forcing them to confront the complexities of crime in the modern world rather than subscribing to simple, prejudiced solutions (as Marcus does).
In a sense this is what Irréversible really is; a deconstruction of revenge movies (and perhaps all mainstream police/crime thrillers) where screenplays set up obligatory whodunnit stories with a simplified element of social justice and where the criminal always ends up being apprehended by the hero. Noé telegraphs the almost academic nature of this deconstruction by having the two revenge-extractors, Pierre and Marcus, as complete opposites. Pierre is the liberal, the academic, the pacifist who lost Alex to Marcus because he couldn’t pleasure her in bed. Marcus is more youthful, impulsive and prejudiced, and one of the central tragedies of Irréversible is in seeing Pierre sucked into the fevered chase for Alex’s rapist. Pierre in essence acts as the voice of Noé when he implores Marcus to cut this “fucking B-movie revenge crap”, yet he’s brought inexorably to the moment of truth at the movie’s beginning (the story’s end) when he capitulates to the fervour and urban hell around him by driving the fire extinguisher manically into the head of Marcus’ assailant.
To further distance Noé from accusations of exploitation or transparent self-promotion one need only analyse the underlying themes of Irréversible for further proof. Noé clearly wants to portray a world of inherent decay, where even good deeds become corrupted by the bad – Pierre sets out to stop Marcus before becoming the violent one anyway – and there’s the sense of forboding at the seemingly happy end to the film (the story’s start) when Alex reveals to Marcus she’s pregnant – we, the audience, know this will ultimately end in tragedy. As Mark Kermode in his article remarks, ‘a rape revenge movie can only have a genuinely happy ending if you play it backwards’. Then, as the film fades out at the beginning of the day with Alex laying idly in a sun-drenched park, Noé brings the story full circle with a frenetic strobe-lighting mesh before emblazening the film’s motif all over the screen: TIME DESTROYS ALL THINGS (June 2004)
Layer Cake (2004)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Actors: Daniel Craig, Kenneth Cranham, Michael Gambon
Synopsis: A successful drug dealer (Daniel Craig) who has successfully stayed under the radar of the authorities and more ‘unpalatable’ criminals so far, is dragged into a more compromised position when a drug sting by some of his loony associates in Holland brings unwanted attention from dangerous Serbian gangsters, and when his boss calls him in on a job to track down the missing daughter of a volatile, fellow kingpin….
Review: This is a rote, cinematographically shallow exposition of sub-Guy Ritchie cinema by his partner-in-crime, Matthew Vaughn. Where at least Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch had some wit and lightness of touch, Layer Cake points the way to Ritchie’s broader, grandiose folly, Revolver. It’s all mediocre, inane superficial technique – coupled with a grossly saturated soundtrack – all for no discernible dramatic effect. (March 2015)
OK, so I’m bending the rules a little with my inclusion of seven films – but there is a fair degree of cogency in joining the three French films together for the contrasting ways they dramatise the corruption of the family unit….
Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz)
If cinema is the most multi-sensory of mediums, then Lav Diaz is one of its purest exponents. Norte was perhaps the most polished and impressive exposition of filmmaking I saw this year. Diaz is able to infuse his ‘domestic’ Philippine saga with a universal, almost apocalyptic, air.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
One word: wow! If Norte: The End of History was the best example of sound and image-making I saw this year, then Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin unquestionably provided my most immersive and memorable viewing experience. It’s a quite staggering film that almost belies any rational analysis, particularly as Glazer seems to have envisioned it as a work – like that of David Lynch – to engage our unconscious and sense of the uncanny.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
My favourite Scorsese picture for many a year. He seems to have rediscovered the sheer zest, energy and storytelling chutzpah that I felt had (quite understandably) been fading from his work as he entered his professional ‘dotage’ and since he had begun making films from an increasingly snug industrial position. It’s a relentlessly intuitive satire on the sheer grotesquery of high-end Capitalism, and is apotheosis of the Scorsese-DiCaprio axis (something to stand alongside the Scorsese-De Niro masterpieces of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy).
Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Quite simply an ingenious filmmaking concept – a narrative filmed at various junctures over twelve years, using the same cast for that entire period – but it’s one thing coming up with the idea, and quite another to execute it as brilliantly as Linklater does. Tapping into the best sentiments of his Before triptych, Boyhood works not through an overly-determined narrative, but because it quietly taps into a certain temporal and poignant ‘truth’ about life.
Full review: https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/boyhood/
Bastards (Claire Denis), Jeune et Jolie (François Ozon), The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Here are three seemingly different films, by tonally-disparate auteurs, but they all provided supremely assured and striking deconstructions of the French family unit.
Bastards, even though relatively speaking a Claire Denis work in minor key, was still a superior exercise in genre filmmaking, which atmospherically outed an air of vile moral repugnancy at the heart of its family-in-crisis.
Full review: https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/bastards/
While Lars von Trier’s Nymphomania garnered all the attention, I actually preferred François Ozon’s take on an unusual female sexual odyssey, Jeune et Jolie, which was released to little fanfare at the turn of the year. Unfairly dismissed as an exploitative work merely as a result of its beautiful female lead, I thought this was a deceptively graceful and psychoanalytically complex portrayal of female sexual agency.
The Past was a masterful cine-theatrical work, with Farhadi showing a dramatist’s knack (and no little cinematographic flair) in gradually revealing how a woman’s bad relationship choices have a devastating, coruscating effect on an alarmingly large number of people in her orb.
Full review: https://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/thepast/
The Invisible Woman (2013)
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Actors: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas
Synopsis: In Victorian England, a relationship develops between celebrated novelist, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), and young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).
Review: I’ve grown accustomed to approaching films directed by celebrated actors with a touch of scepticism. Especially when those actors have a theatrical pedigree, their films can be more than a touch plodding and literary – as if their inherent actor-centrism dictates a sole conception of the cinematic medium as a vehicle for filming narratives and sticking a camera in-front of actors, locations and sets.
Considering Ralph Fiennes has the aforementioned theatrical pedigree, and that his first two films have been a Shakespeare adaptation and a romantic drama centred on the personal life of one of Britain’s greatest novelists, Charles Dickens, you’d be forgiven for assuming Fiennes falls into this literary-director category. Surprisingly, while not exactly making the case that Fiennes is in any way a radical filmmaker, his two films actually reveal a healthy respect and interest in the special properties of the medium, and where his Coriolanus was a well-envisioned contemporary, 24 hour news ‘exposé’ of the Shakespeare play, so The Invisible Woman is a subtle, superior version of the hugely familiar period genre film.
Fiennes understands that The Invisible Woman is a work of ‘pitch’ and the gentle underscoring of the Victorian social tension which cloaks and ultimately undermines the central romantic relationship between Dickens and actress, Nelly Turnen. Fiennes makes good use of overlapping sound editing to suggest how a fragment of the present (a walk on the beach, opening up an old manuscript) can echo into a past remembrance, and he succeeds in imagining how viscerally oppressive the Victorian fetish for dark and airless interiors was versus a liberating dash of verdant green in a country graveyard or the pastel blue of a beautiful patch of English coastline.
Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes play the central relationship with a great deal of pathos, the only marginal misstep being how quickly Fiennes (as director) siphons on the story from Nellie initially scoffing at the prospect of becoming Dickens’ de facto kept ‘secret’ to falling ardently in love with him in the subsequent sequence. That minor quibble aside, Fiennes has crafted one of the more original heritage movies of recent years, and it’s ironic the movie it uncannily resembled to me in nailing that genre so intuitively is Onegin, directed by Fiennes’ own sister Martha Fiennes. (December 2014)
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2014)
Director: James Erskine
Synopsis: The life and career of cycling legend, Marco Pantani.
Review: It’s hard to go too far wrong with a documentary on Italian cycling sensation, Marco Pantani, when the sheer raw materials are so compelling. First, it’s a documentary about cycling (that most popular and booming of sports), it covers in a fair amount of detail the Tour de France – undoubtedly the most picturesque, iconic and gruelling of sporting events, and Marco Pantani himself is a man with an incredible story – he had that iconic, balding, buccaneering ‘Pirate’ persona, he was the last man to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France ‘Double’, he was sensationally kicked out of the 1999 Giro for having an uncommonly high red-blood cell count (invariably a sign of EPO doping), and he tragically passed away only a few years later in 2004 as a result of a cocaine overdose.
It’s hard to make an argument for the documentary really elevating the subject matter beyond its said raw materials, as it limits itself to only a few pro-Pantani talking heads (thus making it a very lenient piece that seems to offer close to a one-dimensional ‘victim’ thesis on the tragic end-game of his cycling career and life). There are also rather naff, hackneyed attempts to recreate the lustre of Pantani’s cycling style – which we already see quite readily from the archive footage from the actual stages – by showing dreamy POV downhill cycling montages. At least director James Erskine had the good sense to underscore the action with sage commentary from two great journalists in Matt Rendell and Richard Williams, and unquestionably, the film succeeds in giving the viewer a greater context to the rich story and complex character of Pantani. (December 2014)
The Human Stain (2003)
Director: Robert Benton
Actors: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Wentworth Miller
Synopsis: Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), an eminent Classics Professor at a top US college, resigns his post after being accused of using a racial epithet against two absent students. While planning to document his disgust at the decision by writing a book with local author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), Silk embarks on an affair with lower-class farm hand, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), while remembering how he was able to hide the fact that he grew up as a young black man…
Review: The Human Stain bears all the scars and stretch-marks of a work that has tried to condense the necessarily literary elements of an esteemed novel (characters, plotting and backstory galore) into a feature film format. The plus-side is that one can clearly detect the presence of a probing intellect in the interesting interplay of themes (racial and class prejudice being the two main areas of discourse), and the central construct of slowly revealing through reminiscence that Coleman actually grew up as a (light-skinned) black man is unquestionably as fascinating and fertile a development as presumably it must have appeared in written form. In fact, director Robert Benton actually does a fine job of interlinking Coleman’s present day dilemmas as echo of his youthful sacrifice/metamorphosis through the use of rhythmic and elegiac flashbacks.
Where the adaptation fares less well is in the ‘present-day’ plotting and genre ingredients it throws into its already rich mix of a literary pudding. Giving Coleman’s younger girlfriend, Faunia, her own traumatic subplot of deceased children and an abusive ex-husband, must have been a much more organic development on page, but on screen, against the larger context of Coleman’s story and racial secret, it has the effect of (if you’ll excuse the cooking metaphor a touch longer) over-egging the pudding. Also, presumably there are commercial and industrial reasons for casting Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris as the white-trash girlfriend and ex-husband respectively, but their presence and earnest Method willingness to over-demonstrate their characters’ blue-collar world-weariness further disavows the contemporary section of the Coleman story. (December 2014)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Actors: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tim Hiddleston
Synopsis: Performance artists-cum-architects, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), are a live-in couple, and set in process the sale of their minimalist, three-storey apartment in London. The estrangement in their relationship mirrors the forlorn last throes of life in the apartment.
Review: I’ve always sensed Joanna Hogg is much more of a conceptual artist and sociologist than a fully-fledged dramatic filmmaker, and this is confirmed by Exhibition – a rigorously-realised filmed thesis on the relationship between architecture and social interaction, but a work that’s tedious to the point of abstraction, and follows a through-line of rhetorical obviousness you can trace to her previous films, Archipelago and in particular, Unrelated.
The problem with Hogg’s conception of the cinematic medium is that it’s almost entirely one-dimensional and (in the literal sense of the word) ‘conceited’. Every frame of Exhibition smacks of the term, “get it?”, meaning that Hogg – akin to the mindset of a conceptual artist – is attempting through the interplay of abstract means to communicate a linear context or truth. Thus, Exhibition is awash with static tableaux and distinctive (but rather obvious) visual or aural conceits – such as the continual sound of building work outside (symbolising transition and disruption), and the late closing shot of the dishevelled cake which was made in the same image as the apartment itself (hint, hint)!
Maybe I don’t speak for every cinephile, but I want films that move, immerse and transport me, and that try and tap into some of the uncanny, experiential ephemera of life, rather than films like Hogg’s which seek to reduce, explain and flatter people’s intelligence. All I can say in defence of Hogg, is that at least she’s not compromising her conception of cinema for commercial reasons, and she does unquestionably have an innate understanding of framing and mise en scène. It would just be nice to see her relinquish some of her control tendencies next time around…(November 2014)