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Irréversible: Shallow Exercise in Provocation and Exploitation, or Ingenious Deconstruction of Genre Cinema?

January 31, 2015

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)

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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 has 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 director 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 narrative events is set to provoke an intentionally visceral effect on the film’s audience (no doubt purposefully 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, intentional 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)? Noé 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 a 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)

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