Dir.: Gaspar Noé
NR, 95 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt
Last fall, at the Toronto film festival, I had to walk past director Gaspar Noé after leaving his movie Irréversible, and my first thought was that I should hit him back. Two hours before, Noé, a bald, big-eyed provocateur, had warned the audience that trouble lay ahead. But if everyone made it through the first half, he added with an unreadable smile, the second was “like a cool shower.”
A shower of acid, maybe. The Argentine-born, France-based Noé was right about one thing: The first 50 minutes of Irréversible constitute an all-but-unprecedented cinematic pummelinga stomach-turning sensory assault of seasick camerawork and literally gut-wrenching sound design, bookended by lengthy passages of agonizing cruelty. Yet it’s a measure of his scalding nihilism that the 45 minutes that followan increasingly idyllic portrait of untroubled intimacyare the most torturous of all.
To explain means giving away details about the movie, some of which may be common knowledge by now. The title is grimly ironic: Irréversible tells its story backward. The first thing on screen is red-on-black “closing credits,” which scroll backward before tipping, tilting and then filling the screen in a concussive barrage. The controlled sensation is of watching something speed out of control. It’s also a vertiginous effect, like the rickety climb up a roller-coaster peak; it intensifies once the credits “end” and the camera wheels through space in dizzying arcs.
Those disorienting circular movements mirror the movie’s structure. A woman, Alex (Monica Bellucci), leaves a party alone and is brutally attacked, and her two companionsher lover Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and her ex Pierre (Albert Dupontel)venture into a hellish underworld to kill her rapist. Laid out in chronological order, the plot sounds like a Death Wish rip-off, and that’s how the movie’s most pissed-off critics describe itas a yahoo apocalypse that indulges macho fantasies of conquest and retribution.
The truth is more complex. I find Irréversible brilliant and loathsome: It has stayed with me since last fall, and I wish it would go away. But dismissing it as a Charles Bronson button-pusher strikes me as vengeance on the part of criticsor perhaps a description of its visceral impact rather than its actual content. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, one of Noé’s inspirations, got similar reviews: It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to reduce it in some way, to deny how deeply it gets under your skin. Sometimes a work of art can be so corrosive and seemingly devoid of redeeming value that it has a strangely affirmative effect, like living through a car wreck. As hateful as Irréversible is, it has a fully (and forcefully) articulated vision and sensibility.
Hope is a doomed man’s mirage in Irréversible’s savagely pessimistic universe, which offers up impermanence and futility as the twin poles of human existence. Where others see life as a cycle of renewal, Noé depicts a never-ending tape loop returning again and again to the void, interrupted only by brief flickers. “Time destroys all things,” goes the quote that starts and ends (or ends and starts) the movie.
By telling the story backward, Noé thwarts whatever cathartic satisfaction or restoration of order is supposed to come from the payback. It isn’t even clear at first that Marcus and Pierre are the heroes: Before we even know why, they’re churning through the bowels of a gay SM dungeon called The Rectum, refusing blunt come-ons and demanding to see someone known as the Tenia, or “tapeworm.” They look as much like gay bashers as avengers, and the queasily lurching camera and the unnerving electronic soundtrack create a miasma of unfocused doom. When the scene finally explodes in appalling bloodshed, there’s not even any relief it’s over. Noé withholds the standard comfort that justice has been done: We’re only aware, with dawning horror, that the movie is sucking us backward toward whatever drove them there.
It’s been sickening to hear Alex’s rape scene almost become part of Irréversible’s promotion. The movie’s die-hard defenders say it’s high time someone showed the full horror of the crime and punished the audience for watching. But the scene goes on for so longan inhuman nine minutesthat it becomes a staring contest between the director and the viewer: Will you look away? Noé has the rapist (Jo Prestia) deliver vile taunts meant as much for us as for Alex.
Even crueler, though, is the “happy ending” that Noé’s backward structure provides. Suddenly Alex, introduced as bloody meat on a gurney, banters amiably with her two men, laughing and basking in the glow of light sex talk, shared histories and the guys’ mild rivalry. She has spent the afternoon reading a book about premonitions: “The future is already written,” she says. And yet, just as Marcus fails to follow Alex when she leaves the party, taking their permanence for granted, she somehow misses the significance of a fateful dream. The better Alex feels, the worse we feel for her: It’s typical that Noé “ends” the film at the moment her future should seem brightest.
It may be that Noé sees happy endings as a ridiculous delusion, like the happiness that distracts people from the way of all flesh. For Irréversible’s grand finale, he invokes the most optimistic of all endings, the Starchild who concludes 2001 with the promise of new beginnings, and sends his camera spinning upward into a blinding strobe of heavenly light. Then the darkness slams down like a coffin lid. Gaspar Noé’s nightmare is set to replay, ad infinitum.
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