Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #12: Irreversible (2002)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.


If you need to get a headache really fast, you should start watching Irreversible.  Before you do, however, there are several things you need to know.  Watching Irreversible could be a decision you come to regret in that "you can't unsee it" sort of way.  I'm here to keep you informed so you can either A. avoid it for the rest of your life, or B. watch it either on a relentless quest for jaded cinematic knowledge or against your better judgement.  Maybe both.  The first thing you need to know (and one of the only things you'll learn if you do a quick skim Google search) is rape.  Actually, all caps, achtung: RAPE.  9-solid minutes of the defiling of poor Monica Bellucci in Parisian underpass.  You will see her down on the ground, pinned against her will, bleating the most horrible screams through her attacker's palm.  Gross.  Unless you've seen I Spit on Your Grave, this is probably the worst cinematic rape scene you'll ever see.  Yet, that's not all there is.  The second thing you need to know (if that wasn't enough), is that the movie progresses backwards.  The third thing you need to know: in playing avant garde games while progressing backwards, Irreversible features some of the most nauseating camerawork I have ever encountered.  The fourth point of business?  Though I've been anguishing about what to write on Irreversible, believe me when I tell you you could write a dissertation on its sexual politics.  What follows will be a largely non-analytical discussion of the film at face value. 

Long before the notorious rape scene, Irreversible succeeded in making want to puke.  Pressing play on Irreversible is like drunkenly stumbling onto an amusement park ride that's all G-force.  North of Chicago, at Six Flags Great America, they used to have this ride called the Cajun Cliffhanger.  On the Cliffhanger, you would step into what was essentially a tin can stuck into the ground.  You would stand against the wall, completely unsecured, and the circular room would spin so violently that when the floor dropped out from beneath you, you would be pinned against the wall.  I loved this ride mostly because it was a merit badge.  I could ride it happily while the roller coaster thrill seekers sad faced their way through it.   The point is that the Cliffhanger wasn't really that fun.  Stepping into it blind was a bad idea that could easily end with  you being one of the embarrassed riders whose gravity defying vomit hit someone physically nowhere near you.  Irreversible is like riding the Cajun Cliffhanger.  Repeatedly.  Unawares.  With 4 shots of tequila in your blood stream.
In Irreversible, we're challenged to parse through excessive violence and decrepit action to travel to the depths of human (non) potential.  Gaspar Noe's film is a revenge tale, in essence, though we are given the act of (wrongful) revenge in the opening scenes and work through the threads of plot backwards to a happy beginning.  It has its merits.  Irreversible is a strong film, an unconventional film, and ultimately a fairly moral one (though its morals are buried deep in suffering).  In spite of this, I'll be frank: that first half hour or so was like a never ending bad trip into the sex dungeons of doom.  I've never wanted to shut off a film that badly purely for aesthetic reasons.  For what feels like forever, the camera spins.  It does somersaults simulating the complete frenzy of Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel's characters as they desperately scour a hellish looking gay sex club called Rectum for "The Tenia", a pimp they believe was responsible for the rape of Bellucci's girlfriend Alex earlier that same evening.  Post-party pumped full of adrenaline, illegal substances, unadulterated fury, hurt, and hate; the trauma of these men is inflicted (effectively) on the viewer before you can even get a grip on the story.  We bear witness to extended mutilated scenes, catching snippets of flesh and naked bodies as we hear (or read: it's French) bound men beg to be fisted or allude to all sorts sexual acts.   The visuals are scored by an industrial buzzing tone that throbs so heavily and repeatedly that it is actually painful.  I had to press mute a couple times because the sound was drilling into my brain.  As you watch, it feels impossible to get a grip on your surroundings.  I never want to go anywhere that comes at all close to this location.  The scene continues as Cassel and Dupontel, believing they're exacting revenge, take part in the bludgeoning of a man with a fire extinguisher to the face.  Over and over and over and over and over with bits of cheek flying here and there.  All with the red tones like a horrible earthy womb and the electric pulsing buzz and the spinning.  Blerg. Wretch.
I watched Irreversible (as is typical with me and disturbing cinema) late at night and on my own.  This is a thing that I do.  I get ahold of nasty culty movies and eagerly await the midnight showing that I will attend solo the first chance I get.  The reason I do this is because friends don't ask friends to watch Irreversible with them, and friends really don't want to hear anyone else's opinion as they're watching it anyhow.  I was exhausted, true, but I suspect that this opening scene, the scene that serves as primer for the rape to come, is terrible and sickening no matter when you watch it.  Filmed straight, it would be uncomfortable, but not as brutal.  Filmed like this, it's really almost unwatchable.  Noe hit on a combination of elements that works like a celluloid stomach flu.  Noise + movement + violence + scatological dialogue = sensory overload.  Nobody ever talks about this opening sequence and I have no idea why.  It informs everything yet to come so completely it's as brilliant as it is loathsome.  Though I can admit to a certain understanding, I hated it.  I hated it so much that the rape scene itself was comparatively easy to watch.  The camera stayed stationary.  Things slowed down. 

While I would agree with common criticism that the depiction of this rape veers towards excessive; in the context of the film the act is only minimally indulgent.  The rape is, like it or not, the cold little driving force of the film's flimsy narrative.  Irreversible is a film rooted in and essentially about the highs and lows of human emotion.  Noe is playing with the primal, working to shoot his characters in their darkest hours. In this case (and as Shakespeare proved many times over)  there may not be any more 'unspeakable' and upsetting catalyst than rape.  The act is criminally taboo, the ultimate violation.  When it effects the characters personally, it triggers something in them that would otherwise be unthinkable.  They become rash, brutal, violent animals.  The rape scene makes the sickness of the extended "aftermath" feel suddenly necessary and justifiable.  It also taints the entire second half with a terrible, empathetic pathos.  Believe me, I hated that rape scene too,  but it puts in some serious work here.  Did the violation have to be 9 minutes?  No.  5 minutes would likely have sufficed.  Maybe 4.  The longer it persists, however, the more real it becomes.  The more it drags.  I would not agree with critics who argue that Gaspar Noe's decision was one operating strictly for shock value.  I wouldn't even agree that it's a particularly offensive or a scarring depiction that upsets any sort of feminist value.  There is a sense, yes, of female as victim, but the sexual/gender politics are so screwy in the film that the crime feels less against womankind and more against humanity as a whole.  Noe doesn't make the scene sexy.  There's nothing leading into the rape that feels purposefully titillating here.  The scene is, for the most part, painful, spartan and stationary.  What we see for the majority of the 9 minutes in the tunnel is a skewed shot of a man astride a woman from a distant perspective.  The angle assumed is one that gives us a glimpse mostly of the tops of their heads and truncated (clothed) torsos.  What we hear is perhaps more jarring than the visual itself.  Ultimately, it's the length of the scene that cements the impact of the moment.  How wrong it is.  How long it persists.  How you are trapped, unable to help and made to experience something you don't want to experience just as she is.  There's something very powerful about this moment that is more than the breaking of simple taboo.  It's scary. 
Irreversible's crimes are perhaps most frightening because they do not feel doctored or edited to some perverse Hollywood standard of women in tattered clothing and mud-smeared thighs.  We don't get the exploitation close-up on the lacivious rapist licking his lips or the too-short hem of a miniskirt.  There is no motivation here, just circumstance.   It's an error in judgment, and how easily the situation could have been avoided makes for something chilling. As viewer, you know she never should have entered that underpass in the first place.  Yet, you've done it before.  It could happen.  This is that one time that it does.  The depiction is unflinching.  There's no safety net offered within the film itself.  The viewer isn't given the assurance that 'it will all be over in a minute'.  It's not, it never is.   Even the before picture can't offer peace of mind.  As we pass the hurtle that is the rape scene and shown Alex's life before this event; we are given the tremendous difference between the loving, romantic sex she has with her boyfriend and forced to shade it with the events of the underpass.  Noe works with a visual language we understand inherently, changing the colors and shades of his scenes to reflect the sort of Heaven/Hell duality of the film's beginning and end points. It's the easy way, sure, but the film's almost literary tropes create something that feels more like Greek tragedy than modern film narrative.  This is a cautionary tale, the story of mere mortals taking a trip into the underworld.   In the light of day, we have the happy ending, but know instead that it is false.  There are no happy endings that aren't tainted and unfair.  There is no justice served to these characters.  There are events that forever alter their lives; and this woman who is happy, peaceful, and free, is preyed upon by this society.  It's sickening, but it works.  There's nothing new to Irreversible as a film other than the guts it must have taken to meddle successfully with such dangerous, uncomfortable material...that I really want to stop writing about.  Alright. That's it. We're done.  

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    Nice post
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    larry

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